Grosvenor Captivates With Tales of 50 Years at National Geographic

January 31, 2023 by Dan McCue
Grosvenor Captivates With Tales of 50 Years at National Geographic
Gilbert Grosvenor recalls a life adventurously lived and 50 years at National Geographic at the National Press Club. (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON — After years of dividing his days between publishing and daredevilry, Gilbert M. Grosvenor thought his number might finally be up.

A fifth-generation member of the family that founded the National Geographic Society (his great-grandfather was Alexander Graham Bell), Grosvenor rarely passed up an opportunity to get out of the office and cover stories when he could.

On this particular day in the early summer of 1976, the subject was tall ships, a slew of which were racing from Bermuda to Newport, Rhode Island.

Sizing the situation up beforehand, Grosvenor realized the thing to do was to cover the start of the race from the air. 

Climbing aboard a small, single-engine plane the magazine had hired, Grosvenor began to take notes almost as soon as it was airborne. Meanwhile, from the seat right behind him, a photographer clicked away, capturing the kinds of images — thrilling, beautiful and richly colorful — that made Washington, D.C.-based National Geographic’s reputation.

The plan from the start had been to fly just 200 or 300 feet above the racers, an altitude that would allow the team to broadly take in the scene below while still enabling them to take in the details.

Within minutes, off the east end of Bermuda, those details became all too vivid.

“What had happened was, I looked out and realized that two of these tall ships were obviously going to collide,” Grosvenor said, sitting up in his chair as he described the scene.

“They were too close together, and too difficult to maneuver to do anything about the situation they were in, so I told the pilot to circle the two ships so we could take pictures of the collision.”

Gilbert Grosvenor’s new book.

Beneath them, the Juan Sebastian de Elcano, a Spanish naval training vessel and, at 370 feet in length, the second largest of the ships in the competition, was being approached by the Libertad, a full-rigged Argentinian vessel, that was only slightly smaller at 345 feet.

“‘I’m sure they’re going to collide,’ I said as we began making tight circles around them,” Grosvenor recalled.

In fact, as recounted in The New York Times the next day, the Elcano and Libertad would scrape their topsides and rip at each other in slow motion for several minutes. 

In the end, the Elcano had lost 60 feet off the top of her 180-foot foremast and had to withdraw, while the Libertad saw her mainsail and mizzen ripped, but was able to keep going.

Meanwhile, Grosvenor and company had problems of their own. Suddenly, the engine of their small plane started sputtering and quickly died.

Below them, boats were everywhere. Many were small spectator craft, ranging from 8 to 15 feet; others were 78-foot yachts waiting to start the second-tier portion of the race.

Unbeknownst to the pilot and his two passengers, the centripetal force of the plane flying in tight circles above the tragic tall ships had pushed the fuel in the plane away from the engine and held it tight to the sides of the plane’s gas tank.

“We knew things were serious when the pilot cried ‘Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!’ into the radio,” Grosvenor said.

The pilot then told his passengers to reach for the lifebelts under their seats and put them on.

“‘We’re going into the water,’ he said.”

Grosvenor complied, fastening the belt around him. He then glanced back, and was surprised to see his photographer doing no such thing.

Instead, the photographer was meticulously taping his rolls of exposed film to the flotation device. 

“That was the day I learned the difference between a photographer and an editor,” Grosvenor said to loud laughter from his audience.

How did they ultimately survive?

“As it turned out, it was all a matter of straightening back out. As soon as the pilot did that while preparing to crash the engine coughed back to life.”

Grosvenor, now 91 “going on 92,” as he likes to say, has packed scores of similar adventures between the covers of his new memoir, “A Man of the World: My Life at National Geographic.”

Written with Mark Collins Jenkins, the 392-page epic is one part family history, one part publishing history, and the rest, well, can best be described as a series of capers and exploits.

Its publication recently brought him to the ballroom of the National Press Club, where he was interviewed before a capacity crowd by his brother, Edwin S. Grosvenor, editor of American Heritage Magazine. 

Gilbert Grosvenor began his presentation by explaining his desire to write the book was inspired not by wanting to tell his own story, but to recapture a different era in the world of publishing, one in which everyone who worked on the magazine was a member of “the National Geographic family.”

“We all worked together. Whether you were working in the carpenter’s shop or working as editor, everybody was a part of that thing. And we took that seriously,” he said. “And I wanted to get it down on paper before it was too late.

“As it was, it almost was too late … or as those of you from the World War II generation might say, ‘a bridge too far,’” he said.

Grosvenor went on to explain that he didn’t start the project until he was into his mid-80s, a period marked by the almost complete loss of his sight.

“It took all of six years and I suppose it was arrogant, on some level, to think I could do it [under those conditions], but I enjoyed it because it brought back my life memories all the way back to when I was three years old,” he said.

“I was in darkness. I had no distractions at all. And I could sit there and think, all day long, about what had happened to me,” he added.

Gilbert Grosvenor reflects on a life lessons learned at the National Press Club. (Photo by Dan McCue)

Despite his family’s longtime affiliation with National Geographic, Grosvenor said his future with the publication was set until 1953, when he and friend, Charlie Neave, volunteered to travel to the Netherlands to help in the recovery efforts following a two-day storm that had left more than 1,800 people dead and had destroyed tens of thousands of buildings.

“Charlie and I didn’t say anything to anybody until we were accepted into the program, which, among other things, would pay for our transportation there and back as well as board for six weeks,” he said.

“Well, as we were getting ready to leave, I told Bud Wisherd, the photo editor of National Geographic at the time, that we were going,” he said. “Now, Bud was one of these guys that was gruff on the outside, but really a nice guy on the inside.

“He said, ‘Get your ass down here and get a camera.’ I said, ‘What?’ He repeated himself and said, ‘Look, we’ll give you some quick lessons and you can take the camera with you to the Netherlands and maybe do a story?’

“I said, ‘Well, I’ll certainly try.’”

Grosvenor was stunned by the devastation he saw, and the occasional critiques he got of his photos from Wisherd, mostly along the lines of, “you’re too far away, get closer, get closer.”

But as he continued to work at it, he realized he had a story on his hands that no one else from the United States was telling at the time. When it was done and published, he reflected on how much he enjoyed the reporter and photographer’s life.

“And I said to myself, ‘I can do this. It’d be an interesting way to spend my life.’ So I joined National Geographic after graduation and never regretted it — mostly — at all,” he said with a sly smile.

By the time the young Grosvenor joined the family business, his grandfather, Gilbert Hovey Grosvenor, known as GHG, and his father, Melville Bell Grosvenor, were virtually publishing legends.

“GHG was a born genius,” his grandson said. “He was good at what I would call scheming … at finding ways to get members. (Subscribers to National Geographic didn’t just buy a magazine, they became members of the National Geographic Society.)

Before coming up with that innovation, staffers from the magazine even walked the sidewalks of Washington trying to solicit new subscribers from passersby.

It was the elder Gilbert Grosvenor who restyled the geographic into a “picture magazine,” after receiving a package of pictures in the morning mail one day and noticing one of them was particularly interesting.

“That, of course, being a picture magazine, became our trademark,” Grosvenor said. “He was kind of a Victorian guy, but he was also an intellectual. He was brilliant. He was creative. And he was the master builder of the Geographic for the next 50 years.”

Although memberships remained strong at the end of GHG’s tenure, there was a feeling the magazine needed a freshening up by the time Grosvenor’s father, MBG took the reins.

Among the first things MBG did was hire a new crop of professional photographers, many of them fresh out of college. When a few Washington magazines folded shortly into his running the Geographic, MBG snapped up their best writers.

“They became the core of the modern National Geographic,” Grosvenor said.

Not that everything always went smoothly. Though MBG had begun running the day-to-day operations at the Geographic in the 1950s, GHG remained on the magazine’s board.

Edwin Grosvenor posses a question of his older brother at the National Press Club. (Photo by Dan McCue)

Grosvenor recalled one conflict they had — really more of a passive aggressive disagreement — inspired by MBG’s “incredible enthusiasm.”

“He had decided to publish a world atlas and GHG was opposed to it. He thought his son was going too far too fast and that publishing an atlas would be too expensive. But he didn’t want to say anything,” Grosvenor said.

At the ensuing board meeting, the meeting at which MBG was going to ask for permission to do the atlas, the elder Grosvenor suddenly got up and left the room. His grandson followed him into the hall.

“‘Are you sick?’” he asked his grandfather. ‘Do you want to go home?’”

“No,” the elder man said. “I just don’t think we should be publishing an atlas. But I can’t vote against my son, so I’m just going to stay out of it.”

As it turned out, the National Geographic world atlas was a roaring success.

“That was the thing about MBG, he was willing to take risks. Part of his charm was that nothing bothered him,” Grosvenor said.

A case in point came the year, in the late 1950s or early 1960s, when the National Geographic actually appeared to be on the verge of losing money.

“There was a meeting in his office and he was told that salaries just kept going up and the cost of the magazine and its shoots in exotic locations kept going up, and finally he asked, ‘Well, how much do you think we need?’”

A million dollars, he was told, not an inconsequential sum at the time.

“‘Okay, let me think about it.’”

Moments later, MBG walked into the magazine’s newsroom.

“‘Boys,’” he said. “‘We have got to find a product that can make us an additional $2 million. And you’re going to have to postpone your summer vacations, though I promise I’ll make it up to each and every one of you.’”

“With that, MBG revealed his idea — a new U.S. atlas. And it had to be out in time for Christmas. Which meant they had just eight weeks to get a new product to market,” Grosvenor remembered.

“The thing about it was, nobody complained,” he said. “He didn’t make the expenses their departments created the problem; he made them part of the solution. He said, ‘Let’s increase revenues, not curtail expenses.’ And that’s exactly what he did. In the end, the U.S. atlas sold more than 600,000 copies, bringing in $3 million in new revenue.”

Grosvenor tried to learn all he could from his elders, but admitted it could be difficult.

“I mean, MBG was so good at running the magazine, but it was very hard to learn from some of the examples I just cited because it really was like going to Las Vegas.”

Other lessons of the business were easier to learn. In 1959, Grosvenor’s father asked him to travel with President Dwight D. Eisenhower on an extended tour of Europe, Asia and Africa.

“It was the first time Eisenhower was traveling abroad and it was a big deal,” Grosvenor said.

The problem was the kind of photographs National Geographic wanted were the same kind of photos the other, traditional news organizations were after.

“So you’d have the other photographers getting together on the plane, discussing their strategies and it was nothing that I would do. In fact, every time someone came to get them to set up in their spots, I’d go the other way. Dignitaries shaking hands just wasn’t the kind of thing that was important to National Geographic.”

However, this meant Grosvenor traveled a long way before he finally got “his” shot. It didn’t happen until the entourage got to Yugoslavia, one of the last countries on the itinerary.

“It was mid-December, and I knew the remaining European countries we were going to be stopping in were going to be … boring,” he said. “So I decided to redouble my effort to find this one special photograph I was looking for.”

Scanning the crowd outside one of Eisenhower’s stops, Grosvenor saw an elderly Yugoslavian woman waving an American flag and cupping one ear to try to hear what was going on.

“I knew in an instant that this was the picture, and it was all the more special because she initially had no idea I was photographing her. So I took a shot. And then, just to be safe, I took some more.”

At that point the woman noticed Grosvenor and began pointing in his direction.

“The thing you have to remember about those days is you never knew whether you got the picture or not until your film was developed,” he said. “In that case, I did not see that picture for almost 30 days, but when I did, it turned out to be perfect. And that was a wonderful story for me.”

Of course, National Geographic did have its critics, those who claimed its photos sometimes seemed too perfect, and its reporting averse to tackling controversial topics.

Grosvenor said this distorts the actual history of the magazine, and he pointed to specific stories involving Russia and then the Hungarian Revolution as examples of National Geographic being in the thick of world affairs.

And then there was the situation in South Africa, a topic of the younger Grosvenor’s first meeting at the helm. This, of course, was in the era of apartheid and Grosvenor was determined to publish a truly balanced and accurate article on the country.

“The first copy I got exhibited the typical bias at the time in favor of the apartheid government. The second go-around, however, was pretty balanced. I read it and I felt better,” he said. Now, at the time, we always sent our stories to our host countries — not to get their opinion, but to get them to point out any factual errors we’d made.

“So I sent an advance copy of the story over to the South African embassy and they called me up and said, ‘The ambassador wants to see you right away,’” Grosvenor said. “So I went down and when I arrived, I noticed the ambassador had copies of National Geographic, Time and Newsweek all on his desk and all three had done stories on South Africa.

“What’s more, I had already seen the articles Time and Newsweek had done, and they were both devastating indictments of the apartheid government,” he continued. “So I said to the ambassador, how can you call me on the carpet for our piece, which I consider completely objective, when you’ve got these other two magazines scorching your desk over here.

“Well, he paced back and forth, and then he picked up the National Geographic and slammed it down on his desk.

“‘Don’t you understand?’” he said. “‘People believe what you write!’”

Gilbert Grosvenor engrossed in a story at the National Press Club. (Photo by Dan McCue)

“All these years later, that was almost the lead of my book,” he said, inspiring a warm laugh from the audience.

Of course sometimes it wasn’t so easy to extricate himself from trouble. Such was the case, he admitted, when he had to tell his fianćee they needed to put off their nuptials — then just days away — because he was going to join a team scuba diving beneath the North Pole. 

Even today, as people stood in line to have her husband of many years autograph his new book, Wiley Jarman Grosvenor bristled as well-wishers mentioned the story to her.

The invitation to swim beneath the pole came from the cinematographer Al Giddings.

Grosvenor said he did initially try to beg off, telling Giddings that “Wiley would not be very happy if I’m not at the church.” He grew even more concerned when he asked Giddings what would happen if they somehow got stuck at the pole.

Giddings said it could be several weeks before they got home. Eventually, however, Grosvenor’s itch to explore got the better of him. 

Though he didn’t go into detail on their exchange, Grosvenor said his future bride did not tell him he couldn’t go. “She would never do that,” he said.

So off Grosvenor went to the North Pole. 

“It was cold,” he said. “But honestly, it wasn’t seen as being too dangerous,” he said. “The only thing was, if you have a problem in normal scuba diving, you can float to the top and find out what’s wrong.

“You can’t do that as easily in the North Pole, because once you enter the water, you’re pretty quickly under the ice. So that was the main concern,” he said.

Grosvenor said that for a measure of safety, each team member going under had a rope tied around their waist. One jerk on the rope would indicate to those above the ice that everything was okay. Two tugs meant something was wrong.

Then came a few more last-minute tips, the biggest one being don’t swallow the water.

“They said, it’s 28 degrees right under the surface, and if you swallow the water, your larynx could be paralyzed and, of course, you won’t be able to breathe. So you’ve got to be careful about that.”

“So it’s my turn to go and I dropped below the ice and it was beautiful. It was a moment that definitely changed my life,” Grosvenor said. “I looked up and just beneath the ice, it was powder blue and then as you looked down the blue got a little darker and then a little darker until finally, about 30 feet down, it was jet black.”

Grosvenor continued to marvel at what he was seeing until his rope snagged on a sharp piece of ice. “It didn’t take that long to reach down and retrace the rope and free it, but that was a defining moment,” he joked.

Before heading back to the surface there was one last thing he wanted to do. When he was away at college he received a postcard one day from his grandfather that read, “I am at the North Pole and I have just flown over the footsteps of Robert E. Peary,” the explorer who claimed to have reached the Pole on April 6, 1909.

Grosvenor affixed the postcard to his mirror. Then, five years later, his father sent him a postcard, saying he had also reached the North Pole, “and had flown over the footsteps of Robert E. Peary.”

“So one of the photographers we were with said, ‘What’s all this, walking upside down under the ice?’ And I said I wanted to send my father a postcard that read, ‘I am at the North Pole and I have walked under the footsteps of Robert E. Peary.’”

Peary would come up again in the conversation at the National Press Club when Edwin Grosvenor asked his older brother whether he had any regrets about his life or his years at National Geographic.

Gilbert and Edwin Grosvenor on stage in the National Press Club. (Photo by Dan McCue)

“I have a lot of things that I would have done differently,” Gilbert Grosvenor said. “There are people I would have treated differently.

“Particularly I would have liked to have handled the situation with Will Garrett differently after he committed what I considered the cardinal sin of publishing a story in the National Geographic claiming Peary had not reached the North Pole and that the magazine had been guilty of supporting his false claims when it shouldn’t have — and there was no real evidence for that.”

Garrett was a longtime photographer for the magazine who rose to become its picture editor, a job that also gave him wide latitude in planning and editing stories.

“The article ticked me off,” Grosvenor said, “and then The Washington Post picked up on it and ran a story that started on the front page and took up the whole right-hand side of the second page.”

Though it did not do so explicitly, the Post article strongly suggested that Peary, knowing he hadn’t made it to the Pole, simply faked his claim and that the magazine, which had sponsored the expedition, and by extension, Grosvenor’s grandfather, had bought into his claims after only a cursory review of the explorer’s evidence.

In the decades following Peary’s claim, scores of explorers, authors, researchers and lecturers have sought to debunk it, but never National Geographic, until, that is, the story Garrett approved and ran in the magazine’s September 1988 issue.

Making the article even more embarrassing was the fact that only months earlier, in January 1988, National Geographic had put Peary’s portrait on its cover as part of the magazine’s centennial celebration.

In an editor’s note in the September 1988 issue, Garrett said the issue is “devoted to a once-in-a-century bit of introspection … holding up the mirror to ourselves for a change. We look not just at what’s old but also at what’s new about our past.”

In Grosvenor’s view, Garrett’s desire to break with tradition, something they’d disagreed about in the past, went too far.

But the controversy over the article did have an upside. After years of being rankled by all the attempts to besmirch Peary and, by extension, the magazine, Grosvenor could finally respond.

“So I hired our own expert to do our own research on the story, figuring we could probably find some kind of supporting evidence,” he said.

Thomas Davies, president of the Navigation Foundation, took on the effort on the grounds that his research would be conducted entirely independently and that his study would be released without prior review or approval from either National Geographic or Peary’s surviving family.

Using techniques of forensic photography that hadn’t existed in the early 1900s, Davies and his team of researchers used pictures that had strong shadows in them to calculate the angle of the sun to fix the location. 

Knowing the focal length of the camera lens and the angle at which the camera was held relative to a horizon, they found a common point where lines drawn through the shadows converged at different angles. 

This enabled them to determine the sun’s elevation.

They then considered a picture taken at the Peary camp on April 7, 1909. Partly in shadow, it showed two men in front of a flag atop a pile of snow.

Davies and his team calculated a sun angle of 6.8 degrees, indicating the location was very close to the pole, where the sun’s angle that day was 6.7 degrees.

The study also said most measurements of ocean depths by the expedition coincided with depths on modern charts.

Upon learning of the findings, Grosvenor declared the results “good enough for government work” and called a big meeting “and all the media I could find and we had it out.”

“In the process we destroyed our own article, forcing Bill to run a piece retracting the earlier article and saying, ‘Here’s the evidence that he made it.’ We had won. And that was satisfying to me.”

However, the bust up would never heal. Two years later, Garrett left the company.

Dan can be reached at [email protected] and at


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