The friendly way to have hair-raising adventures at home

Ian Sclanders November 18 1961

The friendly way to have hair-raising adventures at home

Ian Sclanders November 18 1961

The friendly way to have hair-raising adventures at home

Ian Sclanders

Without budging from the soft comfort of their easy chairs, except to put a sandwich together or uncap a cold bottle, the 2,700,000 members of the National Geographic Society — the biggest scientific organization in the world 1 have soared into the stratosphere in a giant balloon, 2 plummeted eighteen-and-a-half miles by parachute, 3 planted a flag on the North Pole, 4 hunted rare birds from an elephant’s howdah, 5 excavated prehistoric cities, 6 planted a flag on the South Pole. They have dashed across Antarctica with Sir Vivian Fuchs, scaled Himalayan peaks with Sir Edmund Hillary, examined the floor of the ocean with William Beebe, cruised on Chinese junks, and Arab dhows, ridden a dzo (a mixture of yak and zebu), and found the oak ribs of H.M.S. Bounty, the ship of the notorious Captain Bligh which was sunk

by mutineers in 1790. At the moment, in their own relaxed way, they are helping Dr. Louis Leakey and his wife Mary unearth the fossils of humans who lived 1,750,000 years ago in a Tanganyikan gorge; sharing the Brazilian adventures of Harald Schultz, who is probing the secrets of the fierce and mysterious Canociro Indians; collecting 250,000 specimens of embioptera, a peculiar order of silk-spinning insects, with Dr. Edward Ross in southeast Asia; surveying the continental shelves with Captain Jacques-Yves Cousteau in his curious diving saucer; and salvaging ancient Byzantine and Hellenic shipwrecks off the coast of Turkey with George Bass and Herbert Greer.

They are also digging up the bones of a mammoth killed by hunters in a Wyoming swamp a thousand centuries before the birth of Christ: renovating America's first high-rise

apartments—the caves of the Pueblo Indians of Colorado's Wetherill Mesa; trying to save the grizzly bears of the U. S. from extinction; investigating the possibility of life on Venus with a telescope powerful enough to discern the flicker of a candle at 10.000 miles: and compiling an Atlas that will show the forty new independent states that have sprouted in the postwar period and the impact of the so-called population explosion.

The details of such diverse, far-flung and

sometimes incredible activities are worked out in the dignified old-fashioned atmosphere of paneled and carpeted offices in a block-long stone building with graceful Ionic pillars in downtown Washington. The largest office in this building is occupied by a tall, soft-spoken former naval officer named Melville Bell Grosvenor. His nose and eyes bear a striking resemblance to the nose and eyes in a life-sized oil painting of Alexander Graham Bell, which hangs above the mantel in the National Geographic Society's board room.

Since the inventor of the telephone was Grosvenor's grandfather, the likeness is hardly surprising. Nor is it surprising that Bell's por-

trait should have the place of honor in the board room, for it was Bell with his restless imagination, and his eagerness to open new frontiers of enlightenment, who decided that geography, a terribly dull subject as taught then, should really be lively and fascinating. While the ordinary individual lacked the leisure and money to journey to the remote corners of the earth. Bell was convinced that the strange, exciting, romantic wonders of those corners could be carried into the average home in the words and pictures of a magazine. In the 1890s this was a revolutionary idea.

The National Geographic Society, in those

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HAIR-RAISING ADVENTURES AT HOME continued from page 21

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The price of safari horses: champagne for a sultan, costume jewelry for his five favorite wives

select group of Washington scientists, army and navy officers and business tycoons. Its president — and the president of the Bell Telephone Company—w'as Bell's father-inlaw, Gardiner Greene Hubbard. For several years, at irregular intervals. NGS had been bringing out a dry-as-dust journal that printed articles with titles like Geographic Methods of Geologic Investigation and The Classification of Geographic Forms by Genesis. Bell felt this drab technic-al journal should be turned into a popular magazine.

And — which was more startling — he contended that NGS should not sell subscriptions to the publication but should enroll a vast number of members who would receive it free, the cost being covered by their membership dues. If there were profits, he said, these could be used to underwrite expeditions and projects that would provide good magazine copy, and the members, aware that they had con-

tributed to the expeditions and projects, would read of them avidly with a sense of personal participation.

Alexander Graham Bell was a dynamic and persuasive man and, eventually. NGS, which is not related to the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, agreed to test his theories about making georgraphy palatable. It has been testing them now' for more than sixty years, and, from its insignificant local beginning, has become an organization with members in almost every country — 126.000 of them in Canada alone. The National Geographic Magazine, which Bell conceived, is a publishing phenomenon. When Frank Luther Mott wrote A History of American Magazines, which won him a Pulitzer prize, he said of the Geographic that he had yet to find an issue that wasn't interesting and informative.

To keep it interesting and informative, stall writers and cameramen like Volkmar Wentzel covered more than a million miles last year. Wentzel. when I met him recently, had just returned from Germany. As he photographed the Berlin wall. Fast Berlin police grabbed him on the West Berlin side and hauled him over the border, but they released him after they had questioned him and destroyed his films. Wentzel

has been with the Geographic since 1937. He served in the U. S. forces during the war and. when he was demobilized, bought a battered ambulance in Calcutta. In two years he drove it 40.000 miles, all in India, taking pictures for his magazine. “I saw the end of the Kipling-like things," he says.

One assignment for the Geographic took

him 50.000 miles around the perimeter of the Atlantic. On another, in the Cameroons, a seven-foot tall sultan with five favorite wives agreed to let him have porters and horses for a safari only after he had presented champagne to the sultan and a pound or so of costume jewelry to the wives. Wentzel. a blond pleasant-looking man whose mother used to read him

travel chronicles instead of bedtime stories when he was a child, regrets that an item that appeared for years on the printed expense account forms of NGS has now been deleted. It read: "Gifts for natives . . .” Wentzel is typical of the wandering representatives who bring the far-away places to the National Geographic Society’s multitude of easy-chair adventurers and

to the waiting rooms of a horde of doctors and dentists. So is Luis Marden, whose office is piled high with diving gear and underwater cameras. It was Marden who located the bones of the Bounty off Pitcairn Island. After his discovery he reexamined the records of Bligh's career and concluded that Bligh had been unfairly maligned. The conclusion prompted a sentimental gesture: he obtained a sprout from one of the original breadfruit trees Bligh introduced to Jamaica from Tahiti in 1793 and, after having it nurtured in a Washington greenhouse, took it to Tahiti and planted it as a Bligh memorial.

Such sentimental gestures are in the best NGS tradition. Indeed, sentiment is threaded through its whole story. Gardiner Greene Hubbard, who had already helped found a school for the deaf, was foremost among the founders of NGS and its first president, not because he was a geographer—the law was his profession—but because, as a humanitarian, he believed mankind would benefit if NGS could “diffuse the results of geographic research over a wider area . . ." When Hubbard died in 1897, Alexander Graham Bell was up to his ears in experiments with kites, gliders, hydrofoil speedboats, solar stills to extract fresh water from the sea. and a primitive version of the iron lung. He accepted the NGS presidency because, as a dutiful and devoted son-in-law. he wanted to further the movement Hubbard had initiated.

When Bell resolved that the dismally academic NGS journal should be converted into an entertaining magazine for a mass audience, he searched for an editor more with his heart than his head. He was fond of Gilbert and Edwin Grosvenor, the identical twin sons of his old friend Dr. Edwin A. Grosvenor, professor of European history at Amherst College. The twins, who had been guests at the Bell summer home on Cape Breton, were just out of university and the inventor wrote to ask whether either would care to be

assistant secretary of the National Geographic Society and managing editor of the National Geographic Magazine. He mentioned that while the salary was only $100 a month, the position might be a stepping stone. He didn’t mention that he was paying the salary from his own pocket.

Edwin didn't want the job but his brother Gilbert did—and here again sentiment was the prevailing influence. During his visit to Cape Breton, Gilbert had fallen in Jove with Bell’s daughter, Elsie May. Bell’s offer gave him an opportunity to leave New Jersey, where he was teaching at a bays’ school, and be near Elsie May in Washington.

NGS at this time—the year was 1899 —shared a single small room with the American Forestry Association. There, at the age of twenty-three, Gilbert Grosvenor, besides editing the National Geographic, addressed the copies to the members when they had been printed. After he’d addressed them, he lugged them to the post office himself. But he still had enough energy and enthusiasm, he recalls, to examine all the geographic journals published in the world, and to study the geographic books that people never tired of reading, like Darwin’s Voyage of The Beagle. Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast, and Joshua Slocum’s Sailing Alone Around the World. Why were these books great? This is the answer Grosvenor arrived at: “Each was an accurate, eyewitness, firsthand account. Each contained simple, straightforward writing—writing that sought to make pictures in the reader’s mind.”

Ciilbert Grosvenor looked for articles with the qualities of the enduring books, and in the first year of his editorship the circulation of the National Geographic and the membership of NGS-—the two being inseparable—more than doubled.

In 1900 he married Elsie May Bell. His bride, aware that he was uncertain about his own editorial judgment, encouraged him to write articles and submit them to

important periodicals, to ascertain whether other editors would buy his work. This a lot of them did, and gladly, for while he was short on experience he had an instinct for what would grip and hold the attention of the public. NGS had then, and still has, an annual lecture series at Washington, and Grosvenor sharpened his instinct by watching the reactions of lecture audiences to different types of material. The illustrated lectures appealed more than others, and Grosvenor increased his efforts to brighten the pages of the National Geographic with photographs.

With the support of his famous fatherin-law, who scorned prudery, he even ran pictures of Filipino women toiling barebreasted in the fields. It was the first time an American magazine had been so daring. This was in 1903—the year NGS moved from cramped rented quarters into a handsome structure of its own — Hubbard Memorial Hall, erected in memory of Gardiner Greene Hubbard by his children.

Everything from ants to elephants

"I came to the office one December morning in 1904 deeply discouraged,” Grosvenor reminisced in an article he wrote more than half a century later. "The printer was urgently demanding copy for eleven pages of the January issue. There is no tyranny so absolute as a printer’s deadline, but I simply did not have a good manuscript available.”

A bulky envelope lay on his desk. He opened it and out tumbled fifty magnificent photographs of Lhasa from a Russian explorer who admired the National Geographic and offered it publication rights, free of charge. They were the first photographs that had been taken of Tibet's mysterious capital. Grosvenor filled the eleven empty pages with them. It was probably the most massive pictorial display a U. S. magazine had had up until then and Grosvenor waited tensely for a downpour of complaints and criticism. Instead, he was drenched with compliments, and reacted, a couple of months later, by filling thirty-two pages with photographs of the Philippines, which the U. S. had captured from Spain a few years before, and in which Americans were then much interested. The Philippines issue was a triumph, and the membership of NGS, which had been 3.400 in January of 1905. exceeded 11,000 at the close of the year. Things were going so well that Grosvenor hired an assistant, John Oliver La Gorce, at $60 a month.

In 1906 NGS was affluent enough to make its first grant—$1,000 to aid Commander Robert E. Peary in his assault on the North Pole. It also awarded Peary, in recognition of his Arctic exploration, the first NGS Hubbard medal, which was presented to the explorer by the president of the U. S., Theodore Roosevelt. NGS grants and medals have since encouraged, assisted and rewarded scores of explorers and scientists.

Today in Explorers Hall, a museum in a spacious section of the block-long building of which Hubbard Memorial was the original unit, there are photographs and mementos of the medal-winners — among them Captain Roald Amundsen, who achieved the first northwest passage and pinpointed the magnetic north pole; Sir Ernest Shackleton, of Antarctic fame; Vilhjalmur Stefansson, the great trail blazer of the Canadian Arctic; Admiral Richard Byrd, who flew to the North Pole in 1926 and the South Pole in 1929; Charles Lindbergh, who flew solo from New York to Paris in 1927; Hugo Eckner. who flew the Graf Zeppelin around the world in 1929; Amelia Earhart, the first woman to fly the Atlantic alone; and Sir Edmund Hillary and other members of the success-

ful British Everest expedition. Lurking in the background of most of the photographs is a tall, thin man who wears pince-nez and a clipped mustache and looks as though he is shyly attempting to squirm out of range of the camera.

This is Gilbert Grosvenor and in the time-lapse between Amundsen and Hillary his hair receded a bit and his mustache became gray but he changed remarkably little, and if ever a man truly belonged in a gallery of adventurers and pioneers, he does. The New Yorker once said of him that he did “more than anybody else

in the country to put geography on a broad, popular and paying basis." In the fifty-five years he was chief executive of NGS and editor of the National Geographic. from 1899 to 1954. the membership of NGS and the circulation of the magazine rose from a skimpy 1.000 to more than 2.000.000.

This happened chiefly because he decided. arbitrarily, that geography meant "almost the entire range of nature, from the ant to the elephant, from the humming bird to the trumpeter swan, from tiny microscopic fish to the gigantic whale, from

the microscopic spores of mold to the mighty sequoia and eucalyptus trees."

It also happened because he constantly reached out for the novel, the new', the exciting—a panoramic photograph of the Canadian Rockies that showed twenty peaks, passes and canyons printed as a National Geographic insert on a strip eight feet long and seven inches wide; a portfolio of fifty full-color portraits of birds by Louis Agassiz Fuertes; magnified photographs of insects that made them look like hideous monsters; articles with colored illustrations on the deer of the world;

monkeys and apes: cats, wild and domestic: the first aerial photographs; the first flash photos of night birds and animals; the first colored photographs; the first published underwater photographs. In 1918 he devoted an entire fat issue to an article by his father titled "Races of Europe: the graphic epitome of a never-ceasing human drama—the aspirations, failures, achievements and conflicts of the polyglot people of the most densely populated continent.” It spelled out the background of the First World War.

Because it did this well it was remark-

able journalism, in spite of its unwieldy title. And after the armistice Grosvenor devoted an entire issue to dogs.

As membership, circulation and financial returns zoomed, NGS. a nonprofit, taxexempt organization, spent its earnings on what Gilbert Grosvenor felt would do most to “diffuse the results of geographic research.” At his roll-top desk, in which he had a jar of Ovaltine that he occasionally measured into a paper cup of cold water with a shoehorn and stirred with a penholder, he scribbled notes that sent expeditions off in every direction. One re-

sult was that the leaders of several expeditions named things after him: bryconamericus grosvenori is a blind fish from southern Peru; margantes grosvenori is a sea shell from Greenland; Gilbert Grosvenor Island, off Alaska, is an island discovered and christened by Stefansson. There is a Grosvenor glacier, in Peru: a Grosvenor trail and Gilbert Grosvenor mountain range, both in the Antarctic and named by Admiral Byrd, to whose Antarctic excursion NGS contributed $75,000; a Mount Grosvenor, in China: a Grosvenor Lake, in Alaska. Momordica grosvenori

Break up the friendly sentences

is a chínese plant, and cichlornis grosvenori is a new species of thicket warbler found in New Britain.

As an editor, Grosvenor didn’t neglect to remind his readers that the notable NGS expeditions were their expeditions: “The lonely forest ranger, the clerk at his desk, the plumber, the teacher, the eightyear-old boy or the octogenarian, cannot, like a Carnegie, Rockefeller. Ford or Guggenheim, send out his own expeditions, but as a member of the National Geographic Society he can have a part in supporting explorations conducted by his own society and reading the first-hand accounts in his own magazine.”

To heighten the sense of participation, he promoted the harmless fiction that NGS. like a private club, didn’t accept new members not recommended by old members. NGS still perpetuates this notion, although Gilbert Grosvenor, who is now in his middle eighties and retired to the green pastures of board chairmanship seven years ago, restricts his role pretty much to that of a rather pleased onlooker.

Actually, while he was succeeded in 1954 by John Oliver La Gorce, for half a century his friend and first lieutenant, and La Gorce was succeeded in 1957 by Gilbert Grosvenor’s son Melville Bell Grosvenor. the pattern he established has not been changed much. The National Geographic magazine, as it has from the first, views the places it takes its readers to with a kindly rather than a jaundiced eye and concentrates on the scenic beauties and the quaintness and charm of the inhabitants instead of on the insects, lumpy beds, bad food and lack of plumbing.

When I went to interview' Melville Grosvenor he turned the tables and interviewed me on my reactions, as a Canadian, to a “kindly” manuscript about Canada he had on his desk. He had already bluepenciled bits he thought might offend Canadians. None would have offended me.

The National Geographic still lik s short sentences and short paragraphs and remembers that in his days as editor Gilbert Grosvenor instructed an assistant to break up the paragraphs in an article written by his own cousin. William Howard Taft, who served the United States both as president and chief justice. When the assistant said he’d done this and there was only one sentence in each paragraph, Grosvenor said: “Break up the sentences." One of his theories was, and is, that the Bible is so widely read because its sentences and paragraphs arc short.

The National Geographic still likes to be friendly—even to the extent of liking the world “friendly.” Gilbert Grosvenor gave the explorer. Stefansson, the title for his book. The Friendly Arctic, and published articles with such titles as Guernsey, The Friendly Island, and Friendly Cows in Festive Panoply, and Friendly Journeys through Japan.

The National Geographic still likes articles about and pictures of birds, although there were critics who insisted that birds were Gilbert Grosvenor’s editorial Achilles’ heel. From 1913 to 1940 he published seventy-nine articles on birds, one called Birds May Bring You More Happiness Than the Wealth of the Indies, and another, written by himself, called Our Policemen of the Air.

Notwithstanding such mild and amiable eccentricities, the National Geographic has never lost sight of its main purpose, to “diffuse the results of geographic research over a wider area.” It has an educational department that provides geographic bulletins—at a fee that doesn’t begin to cover the cost—to 40.000 classrooms each week. It has a library, open to the public, which

contains 35.000 geographic reference books and has a staff that can answer outlandish questions fast. At what speed can an ostrich run? Fifty to sixty miles an hour. What is the maximum distance at which thunder can be heard? Eighteen miles. Do pigs kill snakes and. if bitten by a rattler, would a pig die? Pigs trample and eat any snake they see and a thick outer layer of fat protects them from snake poisoning.

Arnvid Nygaard, who knows twentyfive languages, translates the questions that come from foreign countries into English and translates the answers from English into the languages in which the questions were asked.

NGS has a news service, too. It sends bulletins, without charge, to 2,300 newspapers and radio and television stations. When Bizerte became a headline, the news service reported: “Bizerte, site of France’s base in Tunisia, has held a strategic place in world history for more than 2,M)0 years. Its position on the narrowest part of the Mediterranean Sea has earned Bizerte the title of the French Gibraltar . . .”

The New York Times has said of the NGS news service: “Inevitably, the newspapers have to lean on many sources to make intelligible the brief and sometimes cryptic dispatches, and chief among those sources is the old reliable National Geographic Society ... It is highly reassuring when such place names as Staryioskal and Zivotin crop up in the communiques to be able to ask somebody what and where they are. The National Geographic Society hasn’t failed us yet.”

And then, of course. NGS has its cartographic department, with the finest equipment and the most skilled map makers in the world—a department that has completed, with the co-operation of Palomar Observatory and the California Institute of Technology, an atlas of heavenly bodies up to six sextillion miles from the earth. This will be a guide to new worlds in space for perhaps a century. And. having done the universe, the department is now remapping our small planet. Its maps are so accurate, show so many details, that Franklin D. Roosevelt constantly referred to a set of them in the White House during the Second World War and had NGS

send an identical set to Winston Churchill.

Melville Bell Grosvenor. the man who now edits the magazine and directs the digging of archeological and anthropological treasures, the finding of new species of fish, birds, insects and mammals, the educational program, the map-making, the preservation of wildlife and primeval trees, was born in 1901, at Washington. He has since spent nearly all his summers in Canada. on Cape Breton, where there is a small colony of Grosvenors and Bells and an Alexander Graham Bell museum, in which papers and photographs and other relics provided by the two families are housed in a building put up by the Nova Scotia government.

In Nova Scotia. Melville and Gilbert Grosvenor and one of Melville’s sons, Gilbert Melville, who is now an upcoming NGS staffer, sail a lovely sloop and talk— generally about Alexander Graham Bell or the National Geographic or. because they are all sailors at heart, the weather. Melville, who graduated from the U. S. naval academy at Annapolis in 1923, and for a while was a navy officer, is usually at the wheel. And, when he is, he'has time to wonder whether the ever-proliferating NGS can. through its friendliness and kindly view, help the cause of peace. Sometimes he has hope. At a cocktail party at the Russian Embassy in Washington recently, a Soviet general, the oufgoing military attaché, told him: “I’ve been a member of the Geographic Society for many years. Send the magazine direct to Moscow now. I look forward to going home and reading it from cover to cover.”

But. against the Russian, Grosvenor has to weigh the patriotic American woman who demanded that the price of a globe she’d bought from NGS be refunded because Red China had more square inches on it than the U. S. She didn’t deny that Red China’s area was larger than that of the U. S.—but she declared, vehemently. that anybody who would show it that way on a globe was un-American. Communist and proper bait for a congressional investigation. But. as she vented her spleen, ground was being broken for a second national geographic building, bigger than the present building. NGS was so big it needed them both, if