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Science And Nature

New memoir tells the within story of National Geographic’s founding family

Published September 13, 2022

13 min read

When Gilbert M. Grosvenor retired as chairman of the National Geographic Society in 2010, ending five successive generations and 122 years of family stewardship, he was characteristically modest. Ive done my thing, he said. Its time for others to possess their turn.

Regardless of the privilege of an Ivy League education and a summer home on an estate in Nova Scotia that belonged to his great-grandfather Alexander Graham Bell, Grosvenor kept a low-key profile. He once took a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on a plane and wore, a journalist wrote, ostentatiously inexpensive suits.

However the understated persona belies the contributions of a guy and family who helped make National Geographic the iconic, multimedia empire it really is today. The business founded in 1888 for the increase and diffusion of geographical knowledge would, during Grosvenors tenure, expand into television, film, books, childrens publications, and digital media. It could also extend its reach to foreign-language readers and restore geography education to American classroomsan achievement that Grosvenor was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

In his new memoir, A GUY of the planet,Grosvenor, now 91, explains what it had been like to mature in the household business that has been National Geographic, and just why the Societys mission is more important than ever before. Grosvenor spoke by telephone from his lakeside cabin in Nova Scotia. The interview is edited and condensed for clarity.

You was raised in a house where everyone from polar explorer Robert Peary to Amelia Earhart to Louis Leakey crossed the threshold. Your great-grandfather, Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of calling, was a Society founder. The press called your grandparents [Gilbert H. and Elsie Bell Grosvenor] Mr. and Mrs. Geography. Had been a Grosvenor an encumbrance?

Yes. I was driven by way of a concern with failure and couldnt tolerate the idea of not succeeding. In the first days of my career, when I was a photographer for the magazine, I knew each time I was going for a picture, individuals were watching.

Lets discuss your pre-Geographic life. Ironically, you took a geography course at Yale.

It had been awful. Just how many bananas did Brazil export this past year? That has been geography then, therefore i dropped it.

Your original career path was medicine, however your life took a turn.

Between my junior and senior year, I visited the Netherlands within a program to greatly help repair the damage due to an immense flood. A pal and I volunteered and my dad asked if we’re able to execute a story for the magazine. I was impressed by the damage, and the spirit of the Dutch. I realized that the only method the planet would find out about this is through National Geographic. It changed my entire life. I was addicted to the energy of storytelling and discovered the energy of journalism.

You joined the household firm as an image editor for the magazine, became editor at 39, and published a package on pollution signaling that the rose-colored glasses the magazine was derided for were off. Perhaps most controversial was the June 1977 story on South Africa that took a difficult look at apartheid and its own legacy of poverty. Its government disparaged it as biased.

Whenever we sent an advance copy of the problem to South Africas ambassador Pik Botha, he summoned me to his office. He was furious. When I challenged him and pointed to a copy of Time that had a tale that pulverized his country, Botha found the copy of our magazine, slammed it on his desk, and roared: You dont understand. People believe everything you write!

Botha had inadvertently put his finger on the pulse that made us tick, you write in your book. Certainly, trust is more relevant than ever before within an era of fake news.

Yes, that trust is committed to the Geographic staff, and especially in the magazines researchers [fact-checkers].

The South Africa article also ignited a firestorm among some board members who disapproved. The risk of an editorial oversight committee hovered on the magazine.

I was determined never to lose editorial control. I drowned them [the board] in paper. I had a cart wheeled in with stacks of documentation showing the endless fact-checking we did to make sure accuracy, proving every word have been double and triple checked before publication. Ultimately, editorial integrity won.

Lets discuss women who had a significant role in the Society, you start with your grandmother, Elsie Bell Grosvenor.

She’d stay up late during the night with Gramp while he worked to transform the magazine. She designed the National Geographic flag. She was a suffragette and made him march down Pennsylvania Avenue with her in the Womens Suffrage Parade in 1913. There is also Eliza Scidmore. She urged my grandfather to perform color photographs in the magazine and was in charge of japan cherry trees planted round the Tidal Basin. There have been women photographers in the first days, too, like Scidmore and Harriet Chalmers Adamsnot forgetting contemporary explorers and scientists like Jane Goodall, Sylvia Earle, Eugenie Clark, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikas.

The magazine staff was notable for a few larger-than-life characters.

They kept the magazine vibrant. When Luis Mardenwho became head of the Foreign Editorial Staff came for his appointment in the 1930s, he flew a fabric covered plane down from Boston. Luis found the bones of the H.M.S. Bounty, pioneered underwater color photography, discovered a fresh species of orchid that has been named after him, and retraced Columbuss voyage utilizing the original fleets log. As an adolescent hed learned Egyptian hieroglyphics. Then there is my companion Tom Abercrombie, a pioneer of modern photography in the magazine, credited with being the initial journalist to create foot on the South Pole. He also retraced the 1,600-mile frankincense trail over the Arabian Peninsula and was fluent in Arabic. And Franc Shor, a senior editor who claimed to learn every royal family on earth and spoke Turkish, Persian, and Mandarin. He was corporeally bigger than life too, susceptible to excess. He kept their own wine cellar at the Ritz in Paris.

It had been proverbial that nobody threw the magazine away, you write. Even yet in this digital age, many homes have sagging shelves of the yellow magazine. President Ronald Regan alluded compared to that when he dedicated a fresh building on the National Geographic campus in 1984.

President Reagan found our auditorium, looked round the cavernous room, gestured to the building and said with impeccable timing. I assume you have trouble storing your old National Geographics, too. It brought down the home.

Youve said: In the event that you dont know what your location is, you’re nowhere, so lets consider geography. In the end, the organization may be the National Geographic Society and the magazineNational Geographic. How come geography important?

Geography affects almost anything. Take Ukraine. To comprehend why its important you should know its a buffer between eastern Europe like Poland, Moldova, Slovakia and the others of Europe. Its among the worlds largest exporters of wheat and supplies 40 percent of the worlds sunflower oil. Im looking beyond your window of my cabin at the currents and tide. Exactly why is it a bottle released off the coast of Florida results in Ireland? Thats the Gulf Stream at the job. Think about the dramatic shift of nature to the north? Thats global warming. Knowing geography would be to understand the planet and its own problemsnot just political ones, but climate change, desertification, acidifying oceans, patterns of migration. We should learn geography if we have been to become better stewards of the planet we reside in, and if we have been to make sure our quality of lifeperhaps even our survival.

Regardless of the challengeswhich are manyyou end on a good note.

I really believe we are able to be resilient and adaptive. We are able to and do preserve vast tracts of forest and sustainably harvest only necessary timber. We are able to harness cleaner energy. We are able to reserve vast tracts of coral reef along with other marine biodiversity hotspots in the ocean.

What advice are you experiencing for the successors?

Do what we do best. Not what others do.

Cathy Newman is really a former editor most importantly at National Geographic whose work has appeared in The Economist, NPR.com and Science. Follow her on twitter @wordcat12.

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