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100 Years of a Living Legend : C. D. B. Bryan Records Growth and History of National Geographic, the Society and the Magazine

November 04, 1987|BETTY CUNIBERTI | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — C. D. B. Bryan, a successful writer of both fiction and nonfiction, had not read the familiar yellow-bordered magazine for 20 years when he agreed two years ago to write a book on the National Geographic Society's 100-year anniversary.

Bryan had, of course, read the National Geographic magazine "as a kid. It was the kind of magazine your grandparents gave you."

Considering the source of the gift, it contained an unbelievable bonus for a young male mind: those pictures of bare-breasted native women.

Trademark Photographs

"It's their trademark," said the 51-year-old Bryan, who is best known for his Vietnam drama "Friendly Fire," about a soldier accidentally killed by his own forces. "Generations of schoolboys have grown up with this pre-Playboy."

In the 1950s and '60s, the Geographic became "bloody boring" in Bryan's estimation. Increasingly in the latter decade, protesting the war in Vietnam began occupying his time, so, bare-breasted women or not, he stopped reading it.

"I would read it when I went to the dentist, like everybody else," he added.

Nonetheless, Bryan agreed to write the book for the Harry N. Abrams publishing company, having already authored a commercially successful book for Abrams on the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum. Writing about the Geographic would, among other things, give him a financial base to work on a "Friendly Fire"-style account of a real family coping with a teen-age suicide, a book he is still working on.

To Bryan's surprise, not only was "The National Geographic Society, 100 Years of Adventure and Discovery" a lot more work than he had envisioned--two years of interviewing staffers and plumbing through files--but it has already become much more successful than he thought it would. It was released last week with a first printing of 750,000, it was chosen a Literary Guild selection and there are plans for translations and sales in foreign countries.

"None of us in our wildest moments thought it would do this well," Bryan said.

What apparently has proven irresistible is the 473-page collection of dramatic stories and photos of earthquakes, undersea and polar expeditions, volcano eruptions, microscopic cells and the peoples, vegetation and wildlife of foreign lands.

Not Always Flattering

The book also contains Bryan's unauthorized account of the history of the National Geographic Society, which is not always flattering to the main figures: Alexander Graham Bell, who was president of the society in 1898, and three generations of the Grosvenor family who followed him.

"Like every organization, it's filled with fiefdoms and riven with jealousies," said Bryan, who said he admired the society's "courage" in hiring an outsider to write its history. The society, which has had its headquarters here since its founding in January of 1888, gave Bryan complete access to its massive files, and Bryan spent months submerged in them.

Hearing the adventures of the explorers, photographers and writers was an adventure in itself for Bryan, a tall, pencil-thin, academic-looking man with glasses, who does much of his writing in a Guilford, Conn., cottage on Podunk Road.

"I loved 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' so I had sort of a vision of people trooping into the office covered with seaweed, dressed in safari jackets and snake-proof boots," he said. "But in fact they dress rather like members of the Metropolitan Club, in suits and ties for God's sake, very old-fashioned and very gentlemanly and probably more WASP than you would think they might necessarily be."

Despite their Washington-issue apparel, staffers were able to delight Bryan with, as he wrote in the book's introduction, "tales of bandit raids and angry mobs, of walking away from airplane and helicopter crashes, of being flung from boats into icy rapids, of having cameras bitten by crocodiles or retrieved only through tugs-of-war with venomous sea snakes, of surviving shark bites, capricious imprisonments and mysterious fevers."

"Where else but at the society would one learn of free-lance photographer Alan Root, who, while on assignment in Mzima Springs, Kenya, in 1974, was attacked by a bull hippopotamus? 'The next thing I knew,' Root said, 'he had my right leg in his mouth. The hippo then shook me like a rat.' After skin grafts, treatment for gangrene and a month's convalescence in a Nairobi hospital, Root recovered."

The society liked the book enough to give each magazine staff member one as a present and offer a cut-rate edition to its 10.5 million membership, but Bryan said there were disagreements about what went into the book.

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