WASHINGTON — The first few letters caused consternation at National Geographic. They were from readers wanting to know more about the life and work of photographer Robert Kincaid, whose story on covered bridges in Iowa had, they thought, graced the cover of the magazine's May, 1966, edition.
Susan Canby, the head librarian, went to her master index. The only Kincaid she found was a Don Kincaid who had done a story on ghost galleons in 1982. And never, since its founding in 1888 as a technical journal, had the National Geographic done a story on covered bridges--in Madison County, Iowa, or anywhere else.
The sad truth was that the Geographic's most famous photographer, Robert Kincaid--the subject of Robert James Waller's book "The Bridges of Madison County" and the character played by Clint Eastwood in a movie of the same name--didn't exist. The truth was so crushing to Kincaid's followers that many chose not to believe it.
"I still have eight or nine people a day coming in wanting to buy the magazine with Kincaid's bridges story," said Pat Tobin, a receptionist at Geographic's Washington headquarters. "When I tell them this is fiction, a novel, they say, 'I understand that. But I'd still like to see some of the things he's done.' "
Joseph Blanton, whose 11-person staff is responsible for answering the 50,000 inquiries National Geographic receives a year from its 9 million subscribers, has fielded several thousand letters asking for information about Kincaid since Waller's bestseller was published in 1992.
Each speaks of Kincaid with a reverence, as though Waller has created a character so believable he transcended fiction and became as real as the mythic loner of our legends. He had to be real; after all, didn't the movie show a copy of the May, 1966, Geographic, complete with the old laurel and oak leaf border, featuring Kincaid's bridges story? (The magazine was a mock up; the real edition that month had the Golden Gate Bridge on its cover.)
"This letter's from Barcelona, Spain, this one from England . . . Israel, California, Australia, Milan, Italy," Blanton said, thumbing through a stack of correspondence on his desk. "Like it or not, Robert Kincaid has become part of our world." Blanton now has a form letter that sets the record straight and ends with: "I do hope this recital of cold facts hasn't spoiled your enjoyment of Waller's popular tale."
Although the straight-laced National Geographic was initially reluctant to capitalize on Kincaid's popularity--Kincaid did, let us not forget, have an affair with a married woman, and the book didn't receive much literary acclaim--a one-hour special on the magazine's photographers premiered Sunday on the cable television program "National Geographic Explorer," and the August edition of the magazine will feature a story on the real Robert Kincaids.
"There are a lot more lonely hotel rooms and a lot less romance than people would ever know by reading about Robert Kincaid," said photographer Robert Caputo, an African specialist who spent months alone living with the Dinka tribe in the Sudan and tracked the Nile from Burundi to Egypt. He's had malaria nine times, and on his last assignment was struck by dengue fever.
When the movie opened here earlier this month, the Geographic flew 30 of its top advertisers to Washington for the premiere and played host at a dinner at which one of its photographers was seated with the advertisers at each of the eight tables.
Ironically, even as the photographers are being feted, the relationship between them and the venerable National Geographic Society has grown testy.
With the magazine looking to cut costs, a voluntary buyout reduced the number of staff photographers from 12 to two and the magazine's 50 to 60 contract and free-lance photographers have been locked in a dispute with the Geographic for two years over control of their photographs. They want to retain ownership of photos they take on assignment that are not published in the magazine--an important source of income for free-lancers--while the Geographic wants to gain control of the rights. It's a touch of reality Robert Kincaid apparently never had to face.