On February 20, Ella Maillart is born in Geneva. Her father, a broad-minded and knowledgeable man, was a fur trader. Her mother, an independent and sporty Dane, takes her every Sunday to the mountains to ski, which at that time is considered an eccentricity of the English. From childhood, Ella was fascinated by reading adventure books and maps.
Her parents move to the lakeside village of Le Creux-de-Genthod, 7 km from Geneva. Ella discovers the lake and meets Hermine de Saussure, "Miette", daughter of a French naval officer. Skiing in winter, the lake in summer, and reading books all year round would make them inseparable friends. “Miette was always dressed in a navy blouse and a pleated skirt in striped coutil. Short chestnut hair with a fairer lock in front, radiant gray eyes, and a frank and fine smile: there was a light on her face. Later, when I read Homer, I saw Pallas Athena with features similar to Miette's." Ella Maillart's nickname is “Kini”. Her health was delicate and she began to take care of herself by practicing sports.
1916 - 1921
She becomes an enthusiastic skier. With Miette, on this lake with difficult airs, they learn to steer increasingly larger sailboats. At 13, they win their first regattas. Ella was sixteen when she founded the first women's field hockey club in French-speaking Switzerland, the Champel Hockey Club. Miette and Kini hate the war that has ravaged a Europe they consider “selfish and decadent”. They devour a book a day and dream of going far away.
1922 - 1923
Miette bought the Perlette, a 21-foot sloop, from the aircraft manufacturer Louis Breguet, and off they went. They made the crossing to Corsica alone and without an engine. In Cannes, they were celebrated - they were barely 20 years old. They made 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 Atalante, a solid pilot boat they modified as a yawl, they try to repeat the feat of Alain Gerbault. But a week from the Breton coast, Miette, who is both the ship owner and the captain, falls ill and must abandon the adventure. She married the French archaeologist, Henri Seyrig. One of their children is the future actress, Delphine Seyrig.
On the Atlantic, Ella Maillart fulfilled a few more "contracts" as a sailor on English yachts, including the Volunteer, a flat-bottomed Thames River barge, converted into a yacht. She steered for Switzerland at the 1924 Olympic regattas. She was the only woman in the competition and ranked ninth out of 17 participants in the single-handed sailing category. But Miette's departure put an end to her dream of living at sea. Later, she would write about her time as a "sailing vagabond" in her book Gypsy Afloat (1942).
1925 - 1934
Not knowing what to do, Ella worked at various jobs: typist, commercial traveler, model for the sculptor Raymond Delamare in Paris, and actress at the Dramatic Art 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 all wars' was bringing in its train compromise, artificial ideals, and palavers that failed to establish a sense of real peace. Growing uneasiness and lack of security seemed to confirm what Spengler had called the ‘Decline of the West'. ” Ella was also a French teacher in Wales, a sports understudy in UFA mountain films in Berlin, and an actress in a ski film shot 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 ski team, she represented her country at the World Ski Championships for four years: in Mürren (1931), Cortina d'Ampezzo (1932), Innsbruck (1933) and St. Moritz (1934). She later wrote In her autobiographical account, Cruises and Caravans : “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?” In Berlin, in 1929, a meeting with Russian emigrants gives her the idea of writing newspaper articles about the Russian youth, and another on Soviet cinema. Jack London's widow helps her financially to leave for Moscow — the die is cast.
In Moscow, Countess Tolstoy puts her up in her apartment. She meets the film-maker Pudovkin and dreams about images seen in Storm in Asia, which give her a foretaste of the Orient that would soon become her life. With a group of students, she discovers the Caucasus and the lost valley of Svaneti. 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 earn her a first check, six thousand francs, at the same time as the agonies of the writer. She will always write a little by constraint: “You know too well that you fail to express the most important things, which are forever elusive.” But, it is the only way for her to conquer the freedom of travel.
With two couples she met in Moscow, she goes to Russian Turkestan, reaches the T'ien Shan range (Celestial Mountains ), discovers the Kirghiz, Kazaks, and Uzbeks. She climbs a 5,000 m mountain but, above all, she sees the yellow and powdery expanses of the Takla-Makan to the east. This desert is a blank on the map, in forbidden China, and she promises herself to come back one day. With her huge pack on her back, she returns alone to Europe through the southern republics still agitated by the aftermath of the Muslim uprisings that the Soviet army drowned in blood. She travels without a permit, avoiding dangerous crossing points. It is a performance, a real scoop, that everyone greets when she arrives in Paris, with her films and her notebooks. She publishes Des Monts célestes aux Sables rouges, immediately translated into English under the title Turkestan Solo.
1934 - 1935
The newspaper Le Petit Parisien, which specializes 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, whom she had met in London in 1934. In Peking, she meets Father Teilhard de Chardin. She intends to find out about forbidden Chinese Turkestan: nobody knows what has been happening in this region for the past four years. She decides to go and see, and from there to gain India by Sin-kiang and the Karakoram. The explorer Sven Hedin advises her to go through northern Tibet and the Tsaidam. The route is so difficult there that the Chinese government did not think of prohibiting it. This was the itinerary she would take with Peter Fleming.
In February 1935, they leave Peking for the interior of China, with permits as far as the Koko Nor region. From there, in order to avoid military controls and the authority of provincial governors, they will set out into the "great unknown”. After crossing the Tsaidam highlands, of extreme poverty and a violent climate, they will enter Sin-kiang and join, by the Silk Road, the Pamir. Seven months after leaving Peking they arrive in Srinagar, Kashmir, at the end of an amazing raid through one of the most secret regions of the globe. Upon seeing her again on her return to Paris, Paul Morand wrote: “The one I mean is a woman in sheepskin boots, gloved with mittens, her complexion baked by the altitude and the desert wind, who explores inaccessible regions with Chinese, Tibetans, Russians, and Englishmen, whose socks she mends, whose wounds she dresses, and with whom she sleeps in complete innocence under the stars… And this woman is Ella Maillart.”
In Lebanon, she wrote Forbidden Journey, a book that retraced her journey and became a great success. She now had the means to travel to this continent that fascinated her and to explore all its secrets. Peter Fleming published his account of their journey in 1936: News from Tartary.
Ella continued to travel for the Petit Parisien until 1939: Turkey and India, through Iran and Afghanistan, by truck and bus, collecting, along the way, notes for articles on the progress made in these countries. She gave lectures in several European countries.
The Cruel Way : An astonishing journey, in a Ford, with the friend she calls Christina (real name Annemarie Schwarzenbach, journalist, novelist, a fragile and rebellious young woman, morphine addict). It is the vain attempt to free her from drugs, in the countries she had crossed 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 on her royalties. She settles in Tiruvannamalai south of Madras, near the ashram of Ramana Maharishi, a teacher and wise man “liberated during his lifetime”, as they say in India. She also follows the teachings of the sage Atmananda (Krishna Menon) in Kerala. These spiritual masters teach her “the unity of the world”. In her autobiographical story, 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 mind.”... “This venture is as vast as life itself because it requires the analysis of our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual being.”
She recounts this defining period of her life in her book 'Ti-Puss, which is both the story of her beloved cat, 'Ti-Puss, and of her spiritual quest in India. But in Ella's eyes any sincere spiritual search deserves interest, and if it is the East that speaks to her heart with the most force, she nevertheless returns frequently to the great traditions born in other regions of the world, to the sacred texts of all time: the Bible, the Koran, bearers, for those who know how to read them, of the same wisdom.
Returning to Europe at the end of the war, Ella Maillart settled in the Val d'Anniviers, in Chandolin, and from then on spent six months of the year there, “from the last snow to the first”. In 1948, she built her chalet, which she called Atchala, in memory of Arunatchala, the sacred hill overlooking the Maharishi's ashram. “I spent the six summer months in the Valais, in a village at 2000 meters, 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, a house was truly hers. But, she said, adventure is the strongest.
1951 - 1987
In 1951, she left for Nepal which had just opened its borders and wrote The Land of the Sherpas. For thirty years (1957-1987), she organized cultural trips, taking small groups of tourists to many Asian countries, wherever, with her, one could still make discoveries. To her travel companions, she liked to say: “Ask yourself unceasingly the question ‘Who am I ?' And, by this constant reminder, you will know that you are the light of perception.”
1989 - 1997
The Elysée Museum in Lausanne, to which Ella Maillart entrusted her negatives, organizes a first retrospective exhibition of her photographs. The exhibition will be shown in several European countries. A new book, La Vie immédiate (1991) brings together some 200 photographs, often bearing witness to a vanished world and of unparalleled documentary interest. Her radiant personality fascinates a wide audience. The last decades of her life were marked by her concern for the many ecological issues and the future of this planet that she so deeply admired. Ella Maillart died in Chandolin on March 27, 1997.
Honors and tributes
Schiller Foundation Reward, Switzerland (1953)
Sir Percy Sykes Memorial Medal of the Royal Society for Asian Affairs, London (1955)
Prix quadriennal de la Ville de Genève (1987)
Alexandra David Neel Literary Prize (1989)
Grand Prix du Livre maritime, Festival de Concarneau, France (1991)
Prix et médaille Léon Dewez de la Société de Géographie de Paris (1994)
Ella Maillart was named Honorary Citizen of Chandolin in 1984.
A permanent exhibition was inaugurated in her memory at Espace Ella Maillart, Chandolin, in 1998.
In Geneva, the École de culture générale Ella-Maillart was named after her in 2009.
A Crèche Ella Maillart was inaugurated in Geneva in 2015.
The International Conference Centre in Geneva (CICG) named one of its large assembly rooms (9800 sq.ft.) Espace Ella Maillart.
A wing of the Nyon Hospital (Vaud, Switzerland) has been named after EM in 2021.
In Geneva, the Chemin Ella Maillart carries her name since 2016.
In France, several municipalities have named streets after Ella Maillart: Toulouse; Massy near Paris; Vannes (Morbihan); Niort (Deux Sèvres); Roche-sur-Yon (Pays de la Loire).