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From Botswana to the Bering Sea
My Thirty Years with National Geographic
By Thomas Y. Canby
ISLAND PRESSCopyright © 1998 Island Press
All rights reserved.
INSIDE THE YELLOW BORDER
My hip pocket bulges with traveler's checks—five thousand dollars' worth, a wad so thick my rump has lost its symmetry. Freshly stamped visas splash my passport, ink still damp on those cajoled from third-world countries suspicious about why I'm visiting them. On my desk rests a fat packet from our Travel Office, emblazoned with the gold-bordered logo of the National Geographic and chock full of first-class airline tickets. In one frenzied month in this winter of 1976 they will take me to a dozen countries around the world and return my spent husk to the airy architecture of Dulles International.
There's still a day before breakout, however, and here in the nation's capital Gil Grosvenor is an unhappy editor. That's nothing new; editors are born unhappy. Their authority and finances seldom match their grand schemes and expectations. And in the back of their minds they often fear the repercussions of what they soon will publish.
The latter explains Gil's sour mood. He's never really approved of my assignment, even though officially he acquiesced to it a month ago at the urging of his editorial lieutenants. He's not totally persuaded that a family magazine needs what I am setting off at great cost to bring him—an in-depth article on rats, on rats around the world, the rats that each year cause famine by destroying a fifth of our crops, spread plague and a host of other diseases, destroy a billion dollars' worth of property in just the United States. They are also among our foremost benefactors in the form of the amiable white rats of the research laboratory. In the United States alone nearly 20 million a year are used in medical and psychological studies that save and serve innumerable human lives.
Some 120 species of rats inhabit our planet, but I will be focusing on four that have intimately linked their destinies with humans'. These commensal rats (meaning literally that they share our table) need us as much as we hate them. They are the Norway rat, a burly burrower widely regarded as the most destructive mammal on Earth; the roof rat, bearer of the terror-inspiring bubonic plague, which still lurks in the world; the dainty Polynesian rat, most at home eating coconuts high in Pacific island trees; and the shaggy bandicoot, scourge of southern Asia's grain fields and granaries, often feasting where famine stalks.
Ample material and reasons for an article—ample to everyone except Gil. That's why he has just summoned me to his office, floating nine stories up in the glass and white-marble temple designed by Edward Durrell Stone and dedicated in 1964 by President Lyndon Johnson on his first official public appearance after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
The ninth floor is no area for horseplay. Next to Gil's office sprawls that of the editor-in-chief and board chairman. He is Gil's father, Melville Bell Grosvenor. That's Bell as in Alexander, inventor of the telephone and Gil's great-grandfather; and Grosvenor as in Gilbert H., the editorial genius behind the success of the National Geographic Society and founder of the Grosvenor dynasty, who died in 1966 at age ninety-one and still is much revered.
Gil's power-secretary bestows an ambiguous smile and gestures to me to enter the lair. This involves a short hike. First I pass through a comfortable conference area furnished with beige couch and chairs and hung with Society maps and Gil's own photography, for he once worked in the field as a staff writer/photographer during his steady ascent up the editorial ladder. Next I traverse a room-size open space, paved with oriental carpets. Two functional chairs perch like penitents before the large polished desk. Facing me sits Gil, elbows planted so the fists support the chin, tight lips drawn disapprovingly across the round, spectacled face—a face not unlike mine, since we are within a year of each other in age.
The tight lips part, and the jaw drops slightly, a little like a marionette's. "Canby, your subject is disgusting. I don't know why the hell we're doing a story about rats." I fear for my plane tickets, my precious visas and traveler's checks, my carefully orchestrated itinerary. The unhappy face relents a smidgeon. "I'm letting you do this coverage, but I'm putting total faith in you to be discreet. We can't have 35 million readers all over the world vomiting from some global epidemic we've inflicted on them. I've given the same warning to Jim Stanfield about the pictures. For Christ's sake, be discreet."
Fair enough. I am the soul of discretion, an enthusiastic journalist totally infatuated with our magnificent magazine and the members who love it. Jim Stanfield's deportment matches mine. Discretion is a hallmark of Geographic corporate behavior, inculcated by example by genteel upper-echelon editors and business executives. Luckily, in one more day I'll be off and running.
I descend to the seventh floor, where most of my sixteen fellow writers and I occupy comfortable offices positioned around the perimeter. The size of our offices corresponds to our ranking on the magazine masthead; the higher the rank, the more space and more windows. As a junior editor/writer at the time, I rate a relatively small room with a single window. Two windows signify an assistant editor or lesser senior assistant editor. Four-window offices, at each corner of the floor, mark senior assistant editors with administrative responsibilities such as handling manuscripts from the rest of us and from nonstaff explorers and scientists. At any given time, a third of the offices are empty, their normal occupants covering distant assignments. Sometimes these quarters are temporarily occupied by a scientist or explorer whose manuscript is being worked over by one of the editors in a two- or four-window office.
My phone rings. The call is from the reception desk, down in Explorers Hall, the Society's fascinating first-floor museum. Among its displays are the sled that accompanied Robert E. Peary to the North Pole and a stuffed dog that didn't, a replica of a twenty-ton stone Olmec head from ancient Mexico, the world's biggest frog (from Cameroon, and pickled) and biggest egg (from Madagascar), the world's largest free-moving globe, and a reflecting pool whose waters have more than once been invaded by us writers during an afterwork bacchanal.
"Mr. Canby," says the receptionist, "your luncheon guest, Dr. Hamman, has arrived." Philip Hamman is the head of the National Pest Control Association. He's the last of a stream of consultants I have invited to the Society to brief me, Jim Stanfield, the picture editor, and the researchers about the complex subject—rats—that will consume nearly a year of our lives and perhaps a million dollars of Society money before it appears as thirty pages of photos and text. Today these colleagues are tied up—Jim already is out shooting our cherished rodents—so I will interview Hamman alone.
I escort the stout Ph.D. and his fat briefcase to the tenth-floor Masthead Cafeteria. This is a great place. Aromas riding the moist air announce the menu: gourmet fish, fowl, and beef concoctions piled on stainless-steel steam trays; more steamers brimful of veggies; sandwiches and burgers available on order; glass shelves laden with desserts and artful salads; ample attendants to serve this bounty; and, at the end, a cash register that removes little from the wallet. It's a company rule that staffers who bring a business guest to lunch also eat on the company tab: A toast to Dr. Hamman!
We load our trays and proceed to the gracious dining room. Floor-to-ceiling windows present views of the rooftops of lesser buildings receding far into northwest Washington. On a distant hill rises the majestic National Cathedral, nearing completion after nearly a century of toil. Underfoot is rich red carpeting; on the eight tables of various sizes, spotless white tablecloths form pristine pools around arrangements of fresh flowers.
I see Gil at a large table, bantering with a bunch of business types. I steer Hamman to a four-person table next to Gil's that bears my "reserved" sign. We unload our trays, and Hamman leans his bulging briefcase against a table leg. Sitting across from him, I feel a sense of misgiving, as if something could go wrong. I've asked him to bring interesting pictures from his files; maybe they will give ideas to the photographer. I've also warned him of Gil's skittishness—to be discreet about our subject.
A waiter removes our emptied trays. Hamman eats and speaks with equal fluency. He's obviously well informed about pest-control people and programs across the country. I struggle to snatch a bite and take notes about them all: New York City's heroic but doomed rat campaign; a company in Omaha, Presto-X, that contends with the hordes of rats infesting midwestern stockyards; the Big State Pest Control people in Houston, challenging rats at grain railyards and port facilities; the rodent-control effort right here in D.C., also doomed. Hamman is helpful, and I encourage him.
"You mentioned photos," he says. "Got some good ones for you." He wears a satisfied look; maybe these pictures are really winners. He reaches down to the briefcase and produces a thick sheaf of eight-by-ten black-and-white prints. Gag! Babies in cribs with their fingers chewed by rats, their ears notched—their eyeballs eaten! I glance sideways toward Gil. He is finished, rising from the table.
"Let's continue this in the office," I blurt to Hamman, and lean forward to scoop up the prints. Too late! Gil is already at the table—and walking safely past.
Toward sunset that evening I carry my two bags to the parking lot behind the Society building. As is customary, a staff chauffeur smoothly navigates the forty-five-minute drive to Dulles. There I board my flight, cocoon myself in the first-class compartment, and allow the magic chemistry of the first glass of champagne to soothe stomach and mind.
I am convinced that in the everyday, work a day world, no sensation is more exhilarating than taking to the air on assignment for National Geographic. There are other ways to go off on assignment, of course—by train or car or foot. But the lift of the powerful jet works in concert with the buoying thrill of impending adventure to send one's spirit soaring. Not only is a Geographic writer or photographer made welcome wherever he or she lands. More important for a writer, one knows one is headed for experiences—their nature yet undetermined—that will be uniquely one's own, inaccessible and even unimaginable to the wealthiest tourist—experiences that will not only strengthen one's article but also enrich one's life forever.
Wait, one might say: There are other magazines; couldn't working for them be just as exhilarating? No. Often I crossed paths with journalists attached to other glamour publications, such as Life and Time. Over drinks we would talk shop. Invariably they confided their envy of those of us lucky enough to be reporting for the magazine with the yellow border. At no other publication did reporters enjoy the freedom and cooperation accorded Geographic writers and photographers.
I ENTERED the magical realm of National Geographic 's yellow border on January 2, 1961. My hiring was part of a benign upheaval. The once-staid Society was growing explosively in all directions—an editorial Big Bang. The impetus came from a Grosvenor of uncommon energy, enthusiasm, and imagination: Gil's father, Melville.
Until a few years earlier, the institution had been stagnant. Melville's father, Gilbert Hovey Grosvenor, the tweedy Amherst genius who had married the daughter of Alexander Graham Bell, become the first full-time managing editor in 1900, made the camera as essential an editorial tool as the typewriter, introduced topless native women into fashionable parlors, and increased the membership a thousandfold to over 2 million—this dynamic innovator had held on to his post until 1954, long after his creative juices had evaporated. His successor was John Oliver LaGorce, GHG's sidekick for half a century, a canny promoter and builder of membership, prejudiced against Jews, blacks, and women, a portly shadow of his mentor who brought to this final task an ineffectualness that suggested senility. When LaGorce tottered from power in 1957, the Society and its magazine were as enfeebled as its recent leaders.
At age fifty-six Melville Bell Grosvenor moved into the editor's office bursting with projects planned but pent up for more than thirty years of working and waiting. He pressed them with an enthusiasm reminiscent of his grandfather Alexander Graham Bell, whose favorite he had been until the inventor's death in 1922, and whose exuberance Melville shared.
Melville plunged the Society into book publishing, creating a special division for the task. Long critical of the magazine's traditional cover, with its frame of oak leaves and acorns—"Every issue looks the same!"—he gradually uprooted the vegetation and introduced color cover photographs. Doubling the size of the Cartographic Division, he published insert maps that became the building blocks for an impressive series of world atlases, and produced a popular globe with plastic "thinking cap" for accurately measuring distances on a spherical surface. He launched the Society's awesomely popular television specials and created popular academic superstars such as paleontologist Louis Leakey and behaviorist Jane Goodall.
Melville was equally zealous about Society membership, the true foundation of the empire. The concept of membership in the Society, which went far beyond merely subscribing to the Society's magazine, was the brainchild of Alexander Bell. Membership conferred not only a subscription but also a handsome certificate, along with invitations to attend the Society's lectures and other functions. The youthful Gilbert H. Grosvenor quickly recognized the concept's advantages in inspiring loyalty and renewals of subscriptions, and enthusiastically pushed memberships. Important to future success, the Society's loyal members represented an immense reservoir of usually comfortably fixed consumers favorably disposed to buying books and other products offered at special low prices. In Melville's decade as editor, membership nearly tripled, to 5.5 million.
During these years Melville built two temples of marble, glass, and steel: the Society's handsome headquarters building in downtown D.C. and its massive Membership Center Building in suburban Maryland. Despite the hectic pace of those projects he also read everything to be published in the Society's magazine and books, scribbling accolades when pleased, dashing off criticisms when the writing dragged, hammering at favorite rules: Avoid the passive voice! Stop using the dull verb "to be"—those listless is's and was's.
Melville's avalanche of new products demanded increases in staff, especially in the new Book Division. Late in 1960 the Society advertised for two editor/writers. At the time I was newly married, editing a woefully understaffed weekly newspaper in suburban Maryland, and attending law school at night. The newspaper, after five years, was becoming a treadmill, and law school was failing to make a case for a career. Here was my chance to enter a lustrous new world that would combine writing and adventure. In the evenings after the law courses I struggled with the Society's writing competition, and in December I was interviewed, induced to take less pay than I'd expected, and charged to appear when the doors opened on the first working day of the new year.
I was thirty-one when I signed on to the Geographic, and I stayed there another thirty-one years. During those decades I changed from brown-haired book writer to gray-thatched science editor for the magazine. I also observed changes around me, both within and outside the Society.
The fiery meteor that was the Society during Melville's reign dimmed perceptibly during the tenure of son Gilbert, a well-intentioned but inconsistent leader unable to maintain the magazine's and Society's momentum. Even so, like his father and grandfather Gil left landmarks. Foremost among them was a visionary, nationwide movement to reintroduce geography into American school curriculums. In 1975 he transformed the stodgy School Bulletin for children into the vibrant kids' magazine WORLD, and a decade later he introduced a beautiful and buoyant new magazine, Traveler. In addition, as editor of National Geographic he cast off the magazine's rose-colored glasses and came to grips with real-life issues such as racism and politics. And when this departure caused alarm among a mossback minority of the Board of Trustees, Gil, backed by Melville and former editor Frederick G. Vosburgh, resolutely beat back an effort to impose a trustees' oversight committee to monitor editorial content.
But Gil's efforts after rising from editor to president in 1980 could not sustain the rate of expansion achieved by his father. Under Melville the Society had become a hydra whose many heads required constant feeding with new ideas and ever-larger markets. Gil added more heads to the hydra, but these costly innovations often did not pay their way; instead, they cannibalized the well-padded body of the Society itself. By the early 1990s, despite drastic downsizing, the bottom line for Geographic products had shifted from black to red. Quite possibly no one could have done better, in a time of ever-fiercer competition. However that may be, at Gil's departure in 1996, America's most-admired private institution, though still widely loved, had devolved internally from a supportive, loyal family to a diminished core of often-anxious employees heavily dependent on outside contractors. It was as if the Society were a rocket and the Grosvenor dynasty the three propulsive stages: Gilbert H. lifting off powerfully and on course as stage one; Melville as stage two, soaring sharply as if oblivious of gravity; and Gil as stage three, slowing in the climb and leveling off into orbit—with an orbit's tendency toward decay. I rode with stages two and three, the soaring climb and gradual leveling.
Excerpted from From Botswana to the Bering Sea by Thomas Y. Canby. Copyright © 1998 Island Press. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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