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 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006) 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."
In 1914, Bell wrote a letter recounting this legend she heard during her travels in Arab lands: "There were three men, one drank arak [a distilled alcoholic drink], the other wine, and the third hashish. And when they rose to go out of the house they looked at the door. And the Father of arak said, 'It is great as the door of a khan, we can never open it.' The Father of wine said, 'It is open and the flood of a river is flowing through, we cannot pass.' But the Father of hashish said, 'Then we must climb the wall. And he climbed the wall and dropped into the street.'"
Elisabeth Finn, Lady Lucy Stanhope and Isabel Burton (wife of VIP Richard Francis Burton). Isabella Bird-Bishop and Harriet Martineau, "those two paragons of propriety, became quite addicted to the chibouque."
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.
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).