Biography

1903  February 20, birth of Ella Maillart in Geneva. Her father, a broad-minded and knowledgeable man, is a fur trader. Her mother, an independent Danish woman fond of sports, takes her each Sunday to the mountains to ski, which at that time was looked on as an eccentricity of the English. Even as a child, Ella adores reading maps and adventure books.

1913  Her parents move to the lakeside village of Creux-de-Genthod, some 7 kms from Geneva. Ella discovers the lake and meets Hermine (“Miette”) de Saussure, the daughter of a French naval officer. Skiing in winter, the lake in summer, and books all year round soon turn them into inseparable friends. “Miette always wore a sailor's blouse and a pleated skirt of striped twill. Bobbed chestnut hair with a fairer lock in front, clear grey eyes, and a frank and delicate smile – there was a light in her face. Later, reading Homer, I felt that Pallas Athene must have looked like her.” Ella's nickname is “Kini”. She decides to improve her delicate health by practising sports.

1916 - 1921  She becomes an enthusiastic skier. On Lake Geneva, known for its difficult winds, Ella and Miette learn to sail increasingly larger boats. At 13, they win their first races. At sixteen, Ella becomes the founder of the first women's field hockey club in French-speaking Switzerland, the Champel Hockey Club. Miette and Kini detest the war which had devastated a Europe they consider “selfish and decadent”. They devour a book a day and dream of travelling and going far away.

1922 - 1923  Miette buys a 21-foot sloop, Perlette, from the well-known aeroplane manufacturer, Louis Breguet and at last they are able to leave. Alone and without the help of an auxiliary engine, they sail to Corsica. Hardly twenty, they receive a hero's welcome on their return to Cannes. They become friends with Alain Gerbault who is putting the finishing touches to his Firecrest before embarking on his famous first single-handed crossing of the Atlantic.

As a team of four – four girls – they sail on an old 14-ton yawl, the Bonita, to Corsica, Sardinia and Sicily, and then, following the tracks of Ulysses, to the Ionian Islands and Ithaca. Later, on the Atalante, a solid pilot-boat modified as a yawl, they attempt to repeat the epic journey of Alain Gerbault. But within a week, still close to the coast of Brittany, they have to return: Miette, who is the boat's owner as well as its captain, has fallen seriously ill and must abandon the adventure. She marries the French archaeologist, Henri Seyrig. One of their children is the future actress, Delphine Seyrig.

1924  Ella works for some time “under contract” as a cabin boy and deck-hand on English yachts sailing the Atlantic, among them the Volunteer, a flat-bottomed Thames barge converted into a yacht. She represents Switzerland in the single-handed sailing competition at the Olympic Games of 1924. The only woman among competitors from 17 nations, she places ninth. But the departure of Miette puts an end to her dream of spending her life at sea. Later she will write about these years as a “nomad under sail” in her book Gypsy Afloat – Vagabond of the Sea.

1925 - 1934  Not knowing what to do, she tries different professions: Typist, commercial traveller, model for the sculptor Raymond Delamare in Paris, acting at the Dramatic Arts Studio in Geneva. She writes: “Except when I was sailing or skiing I felt lost, only half alive. Everything I saw or read was depressing. The 'war to end war' was bringing in its train compromise, artificial ideals, and palavers that failed to establish a real peace. Growing uneasiness and lack of security seemed to confirm what Spengler had called the ‘decline of the West'. ”

Ella also works as a French teacher in Wales, as a stunt-woman in mountain films produced by UFA in Berlin, and as an actress in a ski film produced in Mürren in 1929. In 1931 and 1932 she is also captain of Switzerland's Women's Field Hockey Team. And, as a member of the Swiss national skiing team, she defends the colours of her country at the World Championship races at Mürren (1931), at Cortina d'Ampezzo (1932), at Innsbruck (1933) as well as St. Moritz (1934). In her autobiographical book, Cruises and Caravans she will later write: “Sometimes I believe that skiing is responsible for having made me a rolling stone. As soon as winter arrived visions of skis swishing through new snow filled me with such feverish longings that wherever I was – in Berlin or Paris, or even on board Perlette – I interrupted what I was doing, or stopped worrying about what I was not doing, and went to the hills. Every Sunday in Geneva I would get up at four in the morning to catch the special train to the mountains. How could one not escape from the plains, knowing that above the sticky fog a radiant sun waited for us, his worshippers?”

During a stay in Berlin in 1929, an encounter with Russian émigrés gives her the idea to write newspaper articles about youth in Russia and on the Russian cinema. The widow of Jack London helps her financially to leave for Moscow. This decides her fate.

1930  In Moscow, she finds lodgings with the Countess Tolstoy. She meets Pudovkin, the filmmaker, and dreams of scenes from Storm in Asia, which give her a foretaste of the East that will soon become her life. She travels to the Caucasus with a group of students and discovers the hidden valley of Svanetia. She returns to Europe via the Black Sea and Crimea. In Paris, the publisher Charles Fasquelle commissions her to write a book about her journey: Parmi la jeunesse russe (1932) will cause a scandal in Geneva but enables her to earn her first check, six thousand francs, as well as to know the anguish of being a writer. Writing will never come easily to her: “You know too well that you fail to express the most important things, which are for ever elusive.” But it is the only way in which she can be free and travel.

1932  With two couples encountered in Moscow she travels to Russian Turkestan and the T'ien Shan range (the Celestial Mountains ). She discovers the Kirghiz, Kazaks and Uzbeks. She climbs a mountain of 5,000 meters, but most importantly she sees, shimmering to the East, the vast, powdery and yellow expanses of the Takla Makan. This desert in forbidden China is a blank on the map and she resolves to come back there one day. Carrying her huge backpack, she returns to Europe on her own, travelling through the southern Soviet republics, still restive in the aftermath of the Muslim uprisings which were bloodily put down by the Soviet army. She travels without permits and avoids dangerous checkpoints. This exploit, a veritable scoop, is widely acclaimed when she arrives in Paris with her films and notebooks. She writes Des Monts célestes aux Sables rouges, immediately translated into English under the title Turkestan Solo.

1934 - 1935  Le Petit Parisien, a paper specializing in reports from far-flung places, sends Ella to China to investigate Japanese-occupied Manchuria. There her path crosses that of Peter Fleming, a brilliant journalist for The Times, whose acquaintance she had made in London in 1934. In Peking, she meets Père Teilhard de Chardin. She intends to find out about forbidden Chinese Turkestan: Nobody knows exactly what has been happening in this region for the past four years. She decides to go and see, and to continue from there to India via Sinkiang and the Karakoram. Sven Hedin, the explorer, advises her to travel through the north of Tibet and the Tsaidam, as this itinerary was so difficult that the Chinese government had not thought of forbidding it.

This is the route she and Peter Fleming will take. They leave Peking for the interior of China in February 1935, equipped with a permit reaching as far as the Koko Nor region. From there, to avoid military controls and the authority of provincial governors, they will start out into the “immeasurable unknown”. After crossing the Tsaidam plateau, with a climate as extreme as its poverty, they arrive in Sinkiang and, following the Silk Road, reach the Pamirs. Seven months after leaving Peking they arrive at Srinagar in Kashmir, at the conclusion of a stupefying raid across one of the remotest parts of the world.

Seeing Ella again in Paris on her return, Paul Morand writes: “The woman I mean is dressed in lambskin boots and gloved in mittens, her skin burnt by mountain air and desert winds, exploring inaccessible regions of the earth in the company of Chinese, Tibetans, Russians and Englishmen whose socks she mends, whose wounds she heals, and with whom she sleeps in all innocence under the stars … This woman is Ella Maillart.”

1936  Forbidden Journey, the book she writes in Lebanon about this trek, is a great success. From now on she has the means to travel and to explore the secrets of this to her so fascinating continent. Peter Fleming publishes his own account of their journey in 1936: News from Tartary.

1937  Until 1939, Ella continues to travel for Le Petit Parisien : To Turkey and India, through Iran and Afghanistan, on trucks and buses, collecting on the way notes for articles on the progress these countries have made. She makes lecture tours in several European countries.

1939  The Cruel Way : An astonishing journey in a Ford, with the friend she calls Christina (real name Annemarie Schwarzenbach, journalist, novelist, a fragile, defiant young woman and morphine addict). A vain attempt to free her friend from drugs, in the countries she visited two years earlier. “A few things I learned about the moral torment Christina was going through made me understand that hunger or poverty can be less terrifying than mental suffering and anguish.”

1939 - 1945  Ella Maillart spends the years of the Second World War in India, living with difficulty from her royalties. She settles in Tiruvannamalai south of Madras, near the ashram of Ramana Maharishi, a teacher and wise man who is “liberated during his lifetime”, as one says in India. She also follows the teachings of Atmananda (Krishna Menon) in Kerala. These spiritual masters teach her “the unity of the world”. In her autobiographical book, Cruises and Caravans (1942) Ella writes: “I have started on a new journey which, I know, will take me further than before towards the perfect life I was instinctively seeking. I began this journey by exploring the unmapped territory of my own mind.” .… “This venture is as vast as life itself because it requires the analysis of our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual being.”

Her book ' Ti-Puss deals with this determining period of her life. It tells the story of her beloved cat 'Ti-Puss and at the same time of her spiritual quest in India.

But in Ella's view any sincere spiritual search is deserving of interest, and if it was the East which most appealed to her, she nevertheless frequently came back to the great traditions from other parts of the world : The Bible, the Koran and other perennial sacred texts, which contain the same wisdom for those who know how to read them.

1946  On her return to Europe at the end of the war, Ella settles down at Chandolin, in the Val d'Anniviers in the Swiss Alps, where she will henceforth spend six months a year, “from the last to the first snows”. In 1948, she builds her chalet, called Atchala in memory of Arunatchala, the sacred hill overlooking the ashram of Ramana Maharishi. “I spent the six summer months in the Valais, in a village at 2000 metres, inundated with sun and silence. It lies on top of a mountainside festooned with larch trees, and its vast and varied horizon is a source of ever-renewed joy.”

She was happy: For the first time, she could call a house her own. But soon, she said, the call of new adventures was too strong.

1951 - 1987  In 1951, she leaves for Nepal which has just opened its borders and writes The Land of the Sherpas. For the next thirty years (1957-87), she organizes cultural tours to various Asian countries, taking small groups of tourists to wherever, in her company, there was still something to be discovered. To her travel companions, she liked to say: “Ask yourself unceasingly ‘Who am I ?' And through this constant query you will come to know that you are the Light of Consciousness.”

1989 - 1997 The Elysée Museum in Lausanne, where Ella Maillart deposited her negatives, organises a first retrospective show of her photographs. The exhibition is shown in several European countries. A new publication, La Vie immédiate (1991) presents some 200 photographs which are often of unique documentary interest and represent, much as her travel books and her films, an important contribution to the knowledge of our time. During the last decades of her life Ella Maillart felt increasingly concerned about the environmental problems that face our planet, which she had so deeply admired. She died at Chandolin on 27 March 1997.