UPDATE 4/19 - Letters from Baghdad, a terrific documentary on Bell that was executive produced by Tilda Swinton, who gives voice to Bell in the film, is now on Amazon Prime.
UPDATE 7/15 - The trailer for the Werner Herzog-directed film Queen of the Desert starring Nicole Kidman as Gertrude Bell with James Franco and Robert Pattinson looks fairly true to life. The film will be out this winter, and Kidman is on the cover of Vogue this month with a photo shoot inside inspired by her role.
A spirited and brilliant child whose grandfather was a railroad magnate, Gertrude Bell earned a college degree in history with honors in only two years and became a serious student of Arabic. She fell in love with a young officer who read her Hafiz, the Sufi poet, but her parents refused to allow them to marry.
She never married, but she did publish a translation of Hafiz. Coached by an uncle who was the British Minister in Tehran, Bell took many adventurous quests through Arabia, meeting sheiks who treated her like a visiting queen.
Pictured here with Winston Churchill on her right and T.E. Lawrence (a.k.a. "Lawrence of Arabia") on her left, Bell was a mountaineer and a self-styled diplomat, later a spy, who was instrumental in drawing the current borders of Iraq and establishing the Iraq Museum in Baghdad. The 1997 film The English Patient makes a reference to a Bell map (incorrectly identifying her as a man).
Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations by Georgina Howell says of Bell, "Her Arabic had become good enough for her to discuss desert politics with notables she met long the way. She began to take her turn with the narghileh that was passed around as they talked, the bubble-pipe in which tobacco, marijuana, or opium was smoked. She did not enjoy it at first, as she was at pains to tell her parents, but gradually acquired the habit."
|Muhammad al Dhailam smoking his narghileh|
in tent at his encampment (Saudi Arabia)
Photo by Gertrude Bell, February 1914.
Gertrude Bell Archive, Newcastle University
|Bell on horseback.|
Later in life, Bell wrote, "Some day I hope the East will be strong again and develop its own civilization, not imitate ours, and then perhaps it will teach us a few things we once learnt from it and have now forgotten, to our great loss." Facing old age with little income, and possibly cancer, Bell died of an overdose of diallylbarbituric acid (aka allobarbital or Dial) two days before her fifty-eighth birthday, writes of of Arab women "shotgunning" Jewesses on their sabbath, so that they might also enjoy themselves.
In 2013, it was announced that Angelia Jolie was slated to portray Bell in a biopic directed by Ridley Scott (but Nicole Kidman directed by Werner Herzog will do just fine).