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

New memoir tells the inside 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. He said, “I’ve done mine.” “It’s time for others to have their turn.”

Despite 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.”

But the understated persona belies the contributions of a man and family who helped make National Geographic the iconic, multimedia empire it is today. The organization founded in 1888 “for the increase and diffusion of geographical knowledge” would, during Grosvenor’s tenure, expand into television, film, books, children’s publications, and digital media. Grosvenor was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his efforts to expand its reach to foreign-language readers. He also restored geography education in American classrooms.

In his new memoir, A Man of the World, Grosvenor, now 91, explains what it was like to grow up in the family business that was National Geographic, and why the Society’s mission is more important than ever. Grosvenor spoke via telephone from his Nova Scotia lakeside cabin. The interview has been edited and condensed to make it more concise.

You grew up in a home where everyone from polar explorer Robert Peary to Amelia Earhart to Louis Leakey crossed the threshold. Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, was your great-grandfather. Your grandparents, Elsie Bell Grosvenor and Gilbert H. Bell Grosvenor, were called “Mr.

. Was being a Grosvenor a burden for you?

Yes. I was driven by fear of failure and could not bear the thought of not succeeding. When I was a photographer for the magazine in the early days of the career, I knew that everyone was watching me when I took a photo.

Let’s talk about your pre-Geographic life. Ironically, Yale offered a geography class.

It was awful. What was the Brazilian export of bananas last year? It was geography back then, so I dropped it.

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

Between my junior and senior year, I went to the Netherlands as part of a program to help repair the damage caused by an immense flood. My father asked me and a friend if we could write a story for the magazine. I was struck by the Dutch spirit and the extent of the damage. I realized that the only way the world would learn about this was through National Geographic. It was a life-changing experience. It changed my life.

You joined the “family firm” as a picture 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 hard look at apartheid and its legacy of poverty. It was criticized by the government as being biased.

When we sent an advance copy of the issue to South Africa’s 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 story that pulverized his country, Botha picked up the copy of our magazine, slammed it on his desk, and roared: “You don’t understand. People believe what 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 in an era of “fake news.”

Yes, that trust is invested in the Geographic staff, and especially in the magazine’s researchers [fact-checkers].

The South Africa article also ignited a firestorm among some board members who disapproved. The magazine was under the threat of being relegated to an editorial oversight committee.

I was determined not to lose editorial control. I covered them [the board] with paper. I had a cart with stacks upon stacks of documentation that showed the endless fact-checking we did in order to ensure accuracy. Final verdict: editorial integrity won.

Let’s talk about women who had an important role in the Society, starting with your grandmother, Elsie Bell Grosvenor.

She would stay up late at night with Gramp while he worked to transform the magazine. She was the one who designed the National Geographic flag. She was a suffragette and made him march down Pennsylvania Avenue with her in the Women’s Suffrage Parade in 1913. There was also Eliza Scidmore. She encouraged my grandfather to publish color photographs in the magazine. She was also responsible for planting the Japanese cherry trees around the Tidal Basin. There were women photographers in the early days, too, like Scidmore and Harriet Chalmers Adams–not to mention contemporary explorers and scientists like Jane Goodall, Sylvia Earle, Eugenie Clark, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikas.

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

They kept the magazine vibrant. When Luis Marden–who became head of the Foreign Editorial Staff– came for his job interview in the 1930s, he flew a fabric covered plane down from Boston. Luis discovered the bones of H.M.S. Bounty, pioneered underwater color photography, discovered a new species of orchid that was named after him, and retraced Columbus’s voyage using the original fleet’s log. He had learned Egyptian hieroglyphics as a teenager. My best friend Tom Abercrombie was a pioneer in modern photography in the magazine. He is credited with being first journalist to visit the South Pole. He also retraced the 1,600-mile frankincense trail across the Arabian Peninsula and was fluent in Arabic. Franc Shor, a senior editor, claimed to have met every royal family in the world. He also spoke Mandarin, Persian, Turkish and Persian. He was also corporeally larger than life and was prone to excess. He had his own wine cellar at Paris’ Ritz.

“It was proverbial that no one threw the magazine away,” you write. Many homes still have yellow magazines on their shelves, even in digital age. President Ronald Regan alluded to that when he dedicated a new building on the National Geographic campus in 1984.

President Reagan came to our auditorium, looked around the cavernous room, gestured to the building and said with impeccable timing. “I guess you have trouble storing your old National Geographics, too.” It brought down the house.

You’ve said: “If you don’t know where you are, you are nowhere,” so let’s consider geography. After all, the organization is the National Geographic Society and the magazine National Geographic. Why is geography so important?

Geography affects almost everything. Let’s take Ukraine as an example. It’s an important buffer between eastern European countries such as Poland, Moldova, Slovakia, and the rest. This is why it’s so important. It’s one of the world’s largest exporters of wheat and supplies 40 percent of the world’s sunflower oil. I am looking out the window of my cabin and observing the tides and currents. Is it possible that a bottle of water released off the coast Florida ends up in Ireland? This is the Gulf Stream at work. What about the dramatic shift in flora & fauna to the north? Global warming is the cause. Understanding geography is essential to understand the world and its issues. This includes political issues, climate change, desertifications, acidifying oceans, and patterns of migration. If we want to be better stewards and to improve our quality of life, or even our survival, then geography is essential.

Despite the challenges–which are many–you end on an optimistic note.

I believe we can be resilient and adaptive. We can and do save vast tracts of forest and harvest only the necessary timber. We can harness cleaner energy. We can save vast areas of coral reefs and other marine biodiversity hotspots.

What advice do you have for your successors?

Do what we do best. Do what you love.

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

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