Go behind the yellow border to meet the family that made National Geographic an American institution. Gilbert M. Grosvenor’s 60-year career followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather—but he learned that sometimes he had to do things his own way. In his new memoir, A Man of the World, Grosvenor recounts a crucial decision that made him rethink the way National Geographic covers the world. Grosvenor also shares an unforgettable conversation with Jacques Cousteau and how he witnessed Jane Goodall’s transformation from unknown young scientist to, well, Jane Goodall.
PETER GWIN (HOST): Tell me about—how did you come to dive under the North Pole?
GILBERT M. GROSVENOR: One day I'm sitting in my office, so long about four o’clock. I'm bored, and the phone rings.
GWIN: In 1979 Gil Grosvenor was the editor of National Geographic magazine. In that job, you don’t stay bored for long.
GROSVENOR: And there's a voice. It was my friend Al Giddings, who was a filmmaker, and he said, “Hey, Gil. I'm mounting an expedition to dive under the ice at the North Pole. Would you like to come?” Oh my goodness. Of course I'd like to come!
GWIN: Even though Gil had lots of scuba experience, diving under the North Pole was a new frontier. Only a handful of people had ever done it, and Gil would be the first journalist. As he sat in a special dry suit with his legs dangling over the gaping hole in the polar ice, he thought of all the things that could go wrong.
GROSVENOR: One of the instructions was, You have to be very, very careful not to get ice crystals in your regulator. If you do, your air supply will be cut off. You have to be very careful not to swallow the 28-degree salt water because it could paralyze your larynx, in which case you're not coming back.
GWIN: Gil was connected to an emergency rope that ran up to the surface. He lowered himself into the water. And then he was all alone, suspended in freezing water at the top of the world.
GROSVENOR: The first thing that I noticed under the ice were these huge ice crystal structures. They look like a stained glass window from Chartres. Amazing. And you could go over and you just flip your hand across it, and the whole thing disappears and it will reform in yet a more beautiful pattern.
GROSVENOR: It was like a kaleidoscope. And I got so mesmerized by that that I used more of my air than I should have for that particular adventure. Came to the hole—and I had one last thing I wanted to do.
GWIN: So Gil comes from a long line of explorers. In fact, the Grosvenors are essentially the first family of National Geographic. His father had also been the magazine’s editor and so had his grandfather. And there was some poetry in this moment, diving beneath the North Pole, because in the early 1900s—during the golden age of polar exploration—Gil’s grandfather had funded Robert E. Peary’s efforts to reach the North Pole. And then later, his grandfather had flown over the pole himself.
GROSVENOR: And he had sent a postcard to all of his grandchildren. And I thought that was really neat, and I hung that on my mirror, in my college dormitory. Now my grandfather had said, “I had flown over the footsteps of Robert E. Peary.”
GWIN: Years later, Gil’s father had made the same flight and sent the exact same postcard: “I have flown over the footsteps of Robert E. Peary.” And so Gil wanted to keep this family tradition going but with his own twist. Before his dive ended, he flipped himself upside down.
GROSVENOR: I increased my air and gently came up underneath the ice, and I pulled my weight belt up to my shoulders, OK? So my head was down.
GROSVENOR: I took four steps. I had walked beneath the ice. So when I sent my postcards around to the family, I said, “I have walked beneath the footsteps of Robert E. Peary.” And I had a lot of fun doing that.
GWIN: I’m Peter Gwin and this is Overheard, a show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have here at Nat Geo and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world.
This week, we sit down with Gil Grosvenor. You might not know the name. But for more than a century, his family shaped how millions of people see the world. Gil had a front-row seat to some of the world’s most daring expeditions: the first climbers atop Mount Everest, the first humans on the moon, the discovery of the Titanic, to name a few. And along the way, he developed close relationships with explorers who helped change our understanding of the planet and its creatures—the Leakey family, Jane Goodall, and Jacques Cousteau among them. But he also came to a sobering realization: It wasn’t enough for Earth’s inhabitants just to see their planet. They—we—needed to take action to protect it. But how do you do that?
More after the break. But first, this summer adventure is never far away with a free one-month trial to National Geographic Digital. For starters, there’s full access to our online stories, with new ones published every day, plus every Nat Geo issue ever published in our digital archives. There’s a whole lot more for subscribers, and you can check it all out for free at natgeo.com/exploremore.
(Sound of footsteps)
GWIN (Whispering): Hey there. You are a friendly guy. Yeah. Really nice.
(Sound of dog barking)
GWIN: Gil! Peter.
GWIN: That’s me, right here. How you doing? And this is Jacob.
GWIN: Gil Grosvenor lives in a place you might expect an explorer to retire. His house is nestled among the green hills of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Lots of room for his dogs to run around. And it’s surrounded by thick forests and plenty of wildlife—especially birds, lots of birds. But before moving out here full-time, Gil spent 60 years working in downtown Washington, D.C., two blocks from the White House, at National Geographic headquarters. He climbed the ranks, working jobs in just about every part of the organization. And along the way, he traveled the world as a photographer and editor.
Today Gil is 91 years old, and due to a rare condition, his eyesight has deteriorated to the point he’s almost blind.
GWIN (to Grosvenor): Like me, can you see me?
GROSVENOR: Oh, yeah. I wouldn't recognize you. I wouldn't recognize my wife. But I see you’ve got a white shirt that’s open at the collar.
GROSVENOR: I see you have a checked shirt. Can't see your face, really. It's just—it's contrast.
GWIN: RIght. You spent your life, you know, looking at images and seeing the world in Kodachrome.
GROSVENOR: It's ironic.
GWIN: Yeah. I mean—
GROSVENOR: It’s ironic.
GWIN: But that hasn’t stopped him from publishing a new memoir, titled A Man of the World. To compose it, he enlarged the font big enough on his computer so he could make out the words as he wrote. But possibly a bigger challenge was, having gone on so many adventures, he could barely fit them into one book.
GROSVENOR: I did stories on Sri Lanka, Bali, Monaco … So this hyena had been in our tent … Accompanying President Eisenhower to Europe, Asia and Africa … My counterpart from Russia—very outgoing KGB but …
GWIN: Gil didn’t always plan on working for National Geographic. In college, he studied psychology. But when you look back on where he came from, it almost seems inevitable. Gil’s great-grandfather was Alexander Graham Bell. Yeah, that Alexander Graham Bell. Not only did Bell create the telephone, in addition to several other inventions—he was also an early president of the National Geographic Society. He had a voracious appetite for learning and envisioned a magazine that would cover “the world and all that is in it.” By 1931, when Gil was born, that magazine had become a centerpiece on American coffee tables. His grandfather was running the place, and his dad was one of the photo editors.
GWIN: So when you were a kid, though, and you'd come to the office, I assume—would you come down to the office?
GROSVENOR: A lot. A lot.
GWIN: Yeah. What was that like? What were those days like?
GROSVENOR: I took it for granted, but it was wonderful. I would—if Dad was working, I would go down in the museum and there was a big display down there of Peary's sled and his stuffed sled dogs. And—
GWIN: They had his sled dogs stuffed?
GROSVENOR: All of these dogs, they were all stuffed. It was the major exhibit in Explorers Hall. And I would pretend I was on the sled driving the dogs. And that was fun for me.
GROSVENOR: My idol was my grandfather. I tried to emulate him. He was low-key. He tried to be thorough. He was modest. And I admired those traits.
GILBERT H. GROSVENOR: (Archival sound) Do you want me to begin now?
UNIDENTIFIED: You can begin.
GILBERT H. GROSVENOR: All right.
GWIN: This is Gil’s grandfather in a National Geographic film from 1957. His name was also Gilbert Grosvenor. He had joined the National Geographic Society in 1899, as its very first full-time employee. And over the next 55 years, he did more than anyone to put National Geographic on the map.
In 1910 he added the famous yellow border to the cover and championed the use of photography—a controversial decision at the time, believe it or not. And he’d emphasize the importance of mapmaking. He also funded expeditions in Peru, which made world headlines when they revealed the ruins of Machu Picchu. And it had all started when he’d gotten a letter from Alexander Graham Bell.
GILBERT H. GROSVENOR: Well, so I came down on the first of April, 1899. Mr. Bell took me down to the Geographic headquarters.
GWIN: At the time, the National Geographic Society had fewer than 2,000 members, and it published a journal. But Bell thought it was too technical and scientific. Grosvenor’s job was to turn it into a magazine for regular people. At the same time, Bell’s daughter Elsie had taken a shine to young Gilbert Grosvenor. Grosvenor took the job. And a year later, he and Elsie were married.
GILBERT H. GROSVENOR: Well, I addressed the first edition of the magazine, and the edition was so small and thin that I—after addressing it—I carried it down to the post office and mailed it.
GWIN: Yeah—back then the stack of magazines was so small that he could carry them by himself. But it’s safe to say Grosvenor was the right man for the job. By the time he retired in 1954, the magazine’s circulation had grown from 2,000 to more than two million.
GILBERT M. GROSVENOR: He had seven principles of journalism. They were things like it must be accurate, must be timely, must be factual. It must be important.
GWIN: When Gil’s grandfather retired, there was another Grosvenor waiting in the wings. In 1957, Gil’s dad took over as editor. His name was Melville Bell Grosvenor, or as everybody called him, MBG.
GROSVENOR: MBG invented charisma. It was his stock-in-trade. He could motivate anybody, and he recognized charisma in other people.
GWIN: As someone from a younger generation, MBG had new ideas about how to run the magazine. At the time, Nat Geo didn’t have photos on the cover, just a list of the stories inside. MBG changed that, over the protests of older editors. He also expanded into television programs—another controversial decision. And he commissioned the famous theme song that still introduces its shows and documentaries.
But MBG’s trademark—his real talent—was identifying superstars just before they made it big. During his tenure, he would introduce the world to some of the most famous scientists of the 20th century.
(to Grosvenor) So another icon I’d love to hear about that revealed kind of the world of animals in a completely different way—
GROSVENOR: I know who this is gonna be.
GWIN: Who am I talking about?
GROSVENOR: When did I first meet her?
GWIN: Who am I—do you get asked this all the time? How did you meet Jane Goodall?
GROSVENOR: Oh yeah. All the time. All the time.
GWIN: Jane Goodall. Today her name is synonymous with chimpanzees. She started studying chimps more than 60 years ago. So it’s hard for most of us to imagine a time before Jane Goodall. National Geographic gave Goodall her first major funding. In fact, Gil remembers her very first meeting here at our offices. It was 1961. Nobody knew who she was, but she showed up with Louis Leakey. He was a paleoanthropologist who’d found some of the earliest human fossils, and he was looking for a new round of funding.
GROSVENOR: And so Louis makes his pitch and squeezed megabucks out of the research committee for his thing. And then he said, Oh, by the way, you might be interested in doing a little bit of support of this young researcher I have named Jane Goodall. And so these old fuds on the research committee says, “What’s she done?” Well, she hasn't done anything yet because she doesn't have any money. What I'd like to see the research committee do is give her $400 and let her go out and study chimpanzees, and I believe you can learn about human behavior by studying chimp behavior. So they said, “Where did she get her college degree?” Didn't go to college. More groans. And the research committee is just about to say, “Get out of here, Louis,” when MBG looks at Jane and says, “I think we ought to give her a chance.” And so that's how she got her start.
GWIN: I'd say that was pretty well-spent money by the research committee.
GROSVENOR: Best 400 bucks we ever spent.
GWIN: With that small amount of money, Jane Goodall lived among the chimps at Gombe National Park in Tanzania. She showed the world a whole new side of humanity’s closest living relatives. For instance, scientists thought only humans could make and use their own tools. But Goodall showed that chimps do it too. Her field research at Gombe still continues to this day, through the Jane Goodall Institute.
And around the same time, another superstar was coming into his own. Coming up: a surreal conversation with Jacques Cousteau that makes Gil see the world in a whole new way.
In the 1950s, MBG had discovered another one of his big stars: a Frenchman, shining a new light on the oceans.
GROSVENOR: He would become totally enamored of something.
GROSVENOR: And he became totally enamored of Jacques Cousteau, and we supported him before he became famous.
GWIN: What did your dad see in Jacques Cousteau? What was it that he fell in love with?
GROSVENOR: Dad was a genius at assessing talent, even assessing the promise of talent.
GWIN: In 1952, Cousteau appeared in the magazine for the very first time in an article called, “Fish Men Explore A New World Undersea.” Just like MBG, Cousteau and his fish men were oozing with charisma. For example, he hosted a lunch meeting with food served on 2,000-year-old plates that Cousteau had salvaged from an ancient Roman shipwreck. By the early 1960s, Cousteau was a hot ticket to see in person, and Gil was in charge of the National Geographic lecture committee.
GROSVENOR: It was my job to make sure he showed up, escort him around during the day, get him to the Constitution Hall on time, and also make sure he had a film to show. Jacques wasn't—sometimes’d come in, he'd hold up a piece of film—”Well, that'll work,” and he’d go out and lecture with it. That was my job.
GWIN: In 1963, Cousteau arrived in Washington, D.C., to give a talk. The date was November 22. Hours before he was scheduled to speak, a news flash said President John F. Kennedy had been shot in Dallas.
GROSVENOR: And then Walter Cronkite came on the air and announced to the world Kennedy had been shot and killed. That’s how I learned about it.
GWIN: The news was so shocking that nobody felt comfortable giving a lecture that night. They canceled, and instead Gil and Cousteau went to dinner. The National Geographic offices are only a couple of blocks away from the White House. And that night, the whole city—including Cousteau—was in a somber mood.
GROSVENOR: There weren't many people there, but the waiters were all huddled around a radio listening to the progress of Air Force One being flown to Andrews Air Force Base and then to the White House. But these waiters would be whispering together—never mind that patrons weren't getting their dinner—but people were just so out of character. Everybody was out of character. It was an extraordinary evening.
GWIN: So what did you and Cousteau talk about? I mean, I think this is so interesting. You had this—
GROSVENOR: Well, it’s interesting. Cousteau and I—first we talked about the canceled lecture, and it was the right thing to do. Then we talked about the assassination of Kennedy. And then—then we got talking about conservation, the oceans, the fear that the oceans were not impervious to man's destruction. And it was the most poignant conversation I ever had with Cousteau till the day he died.
GWIN: Cousteau would go on to dedicate the rest of his life to protecting the oceans. And that conversation stuck with Gil. It made him consider that Earth might be more fragile than we thought. In the 1960s, other people were waking up to that revelation too. In 1962, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, which raised alarm bells about the dangers of pesticides. In 1965, a report by the Johnson White House warned about the dangers of burning fossil fuels and releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
And in 1969—in one of the most vivid environmental disasters of the time—the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland caught fire because it was littered with oil and debris. Gil saw this was a huge story. But inside National Geographic, there were debates about how to cover pollution. Or whether to cover it at all.
(To Grosvenor) You know, you have this period, right, where Cousteau is revealing the ocean like we've never seen it before.
GWIN: Like, all this new environmental storytelling’s happening. And how did you decide what role National Geographic—there's more of an activist feel. I think that comes with Kennedy. Like you said, the country’s stagnant, they're ready for some change, and it’s—activism is sort of in the air. How does Geographic fit into that?
GROSVENOR: The Geographic was a fairly conservative outfit. We didn't change things rapidly. Why would you change when you have an incredibly successful organization? It's difficult to motivate that change.
GWIN: The magazine still followed the seven basic principles laid down by Gil’s grandfather. One of those principles was, If you can’t write something nice, don’t write anything at all. But Gil felt like he had to say something about a river catching fire. And it was not gonna be nice.
GROSVENOR: Pollution is hardly a compliment—an “up” story. It's a downer. It's a negative story, if you will. And it was controversial at the time. Environmental issues were controversial.
GWIN: In 1970 Gil became the editor of the magazine—the third Grosvenor to hold that title. Inside the Geographic, he was part of a generation of editors that called themselves the Young Turks. Many of them opposed the Vietnam War, something the older editors—several of whom were World War II veterans—disagreed with. The Young Turks pushed for edgier stories about contemporary issues like pollution and racism.
Gil had watched his dad remake National Geographic with big ideas and big personalities. And now, just like MBG, Gil had to balance the way it was always done with his own internal compass. To kick off his career as editor, he left no question about where he stood. The December 1970 cover story is called “Our Ecological Crisis.” Inside, there’s a foldout photo of the Cuyahoga River with smoke rising from the water. There are photos of air pollution and smog. And on the cover, a duck swims through water tainted by an oil spill off the coast of California.
GROSVENOR: And in our projection session where we decide on these things, there was a fair amount of objection to publishing such a downer picture on the cover. ‘Cause we just didn't do that. But it was the thing to do. It set the tone for the issue. It set the tone for my editorship. I wouldn't take it back in a thousand years.
GWIN: Today we’re still following Gil’s lead, by reporting the threats to our planet—the causes and effects of climate change, the widespread loss of crucial habitats, the extinction of species. And like his predecessors, we’re constantly looking for new explorers, the next Goodalls and Cousteaus—people like Tara Roberts, Andrés Ruzo, Paula Kahumbu, Lee Berger, Enric Sala—
many of whom you’ve heard right here on our show. And of course, we’re still experimenting with new ways of telling stories using virtual reality and, hey, even podcasts.
At the end of this year, Gil’s daughter, Lexi, will complete her term on the board of the National Geographic Society, and after that, there won’t be a Grosvenor here for the first time in more than a century. But even as National Geographic evolves and changes, we’ll be following in Grosvenor footsteps as we continue to cover “the world and all that is in it.”
If you like what you hear and you want to support more content like this, please rate and review us in your podcast app, and consider a National Geographic subscription. That’s the best way to support Overheard. Go to natgeo.com/exploremore to subscribe.
There’s a link to that deal in our show notes. And we have tons of material to send you down the rabbit holes we just talked about in this episode. For starters, we’ve profiled Jacques Cousteau and Jane Goodall right here on Overheard. Yep, the links to those episodes are in the show notes.
Subscribers can even read Jane Goodall’s iconic 1963 article about the early years of her chimpanzee research.
We also have a behind-the-scenes shot of Gil’s grandfather, the first Gilbert Grosvenor. You can see him in the field in 1913, testing a new state-of-the-art camera for the time. And you can check out the full video where he reminisces about his first day on the job in 1899. Also, see how we’re carrying on Gil’s legacy of speaking up for Mother Nature, like our series Planet or Plastic, or our special issue from earlier this year called “Saving Forests.”
And finally, we only had time to scratch the surface with Gil. Get the whole story in his new memoir. It’s called A Man of the World: My Life at National Geographic. You can find it wherever books are sold. More info about his legacy—and much, much more—is in our show notes, they’re right there in your podcast app.
This week’s episode is produced by senior producer Jacob Pinter. Our producers are Khari Douglas and Ilana Strauss. Our senior producers include Brian Gutierrez. Our senior editor is Eli Chen. Our manager of audio is Carla Wills. Our executive producer of audio is Davar Ardalan. Our photo editor is Julie Hau. Hansdale Hsu sound-designed this episode and composed our theme music.
This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners. Whitney Johnson is the director of visuals and immersive experiences. Nathan Lump is National Geographic’s editor in chief. And I’m your host, Peter Gwin. Thanks for listening, and see y’all next time.
Check out Gil Grosvenor’s new memoir, A Man of the World: My Life at National Geographic.
From his first day of work in 1899, Gil’s grandfather, Gilbert H. Grosvenor, put National Geographic on the map. A behind-the-scenes photo from our archives shows Grosvenor testing a state-of-the-art camera in 1913.
Gil’s commitment to environmental storytelling is now a part of National Geographic’s DNA. See how we continue that legacy with initiatives like Planet or Plastic and our special issue, Saving Forests.
Subscribers can also read about the development of Cousteau’s Aqua-Lung, which threw open the undersea world, and revisit Goodall’s groundbreaking 1963 National Geographic article, “My Life With Wild Chimpanzees.”