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Obituaries

L. Marden, 90; Adventurer, National Geographic Writer

March 05, 2003|Graeme Zielinski | The Washington Post

Luis Marden, who as a National Geographic photographer, writer and editor became the embodiment of the Washington-based society's romantic spirit and flair for adventure, has died. He was 90.

Marden died Monday at an Arlington, Va., nursing home. He had Parkinson's disease.

"It's impossible to create a fictional life as rich as the one that Luis had," said William Allen, the editor of the society's magazine, on Monday. "No one would believe it."

In a career that stretched from the 1930s into the late 1990s, Marden found the ruins of the legendary ship the Bounty, retraced and rejiggered the route Christopher Columbus was thought to have taken to the New World, dove from the Calypso with his friend Jacques Cousteau and, over rum with natives, finagled two eggs of an extinct bird in Madagascar.

He was an accomplished pilot and diver. An orchid he discovered and a species of undersea flea were named in his honor. Dictionaries drew from his voluminous knowledge that covered, literally, every corner of the Earth.

"How's Luis Marden?" was the question National Geographic correspondents encountered everywhere, from Jordanian officials to jungle guides in Venezuela. One writer was denied an interview with a native hermit living off a rocky promontory in Alaska. It already had been promised to Marden.

He wrote more than 55 National Geographic articles with famous elegance, spoke a half-dozen languages, pioneered the use of underwater and 35mm color photography, and read Egyptian hieroglyphics. He was a picture of refinement in pinstriped suits, silk ties and a clipped mustache that had turned white. A closer look, though, hinted at his swashbuckling, puckish side -- an image from the Kama Sutra on the tie and cuff links made of sheathing nails from the Bounty.

The Massachusetts native was born Annibale Luigi Paragallo. He pursued a career in radio, where a producer urged him to change his name. He became a freelance photographer for the Boston Herald.

He came to National Geographic in 1934 to work in the photo laboratory. He soon found his way onto the magazine's foreign staff, and his first assignment was to the Yucatan Peninsula, where he got the bends diving in a holy Mayan well. He was the last of the "Geographic men" who wrote stories in the first person and took their own pictures.

One of his most celebrated trips was spurred by a sight he saw in a Fijian museum while covering Queen Elizabeth's empire tour in 1954. It was a rudder of the armed vessel Bounty, famously commandeered by Fletcher Christian from Captain Bligh in 1789.

Marden badgered editors into allowing him to dive off Pitcairn Island in the South Pacific, where the piece had been recovered. He was accompanied by one of Christian's descendants. After weeks of futile dives, he wrote in 1957, "I could see little squiggles in the surface, a curious marking that resembled nothing so much as petrified worms.... My heart gave a jump. The squiggles were encrusted sheathing nails, dozens of them.... We had found the resting place of the Bounty."

Another of his sea adventures came in the 1980s, after his official retirement in 1976. He was tapped to work with editor Joseph Judge to recalculate Columbus' voyage. Working with his wife, Ethel, a retired mathematician, and updating translations from Columbus' log, he re-plotted the course. In 1986, after twice crossing the ocean in his own ketch, he announced in the magazine that landfall came at Samana Cay, 65 miles southwest of San Salvador, which scholars had previously held to be the site. Those findings were in turn disputed, but National Geographic stands by them.

Traveling in the 1950s with Cousteau, Marden blazed trails in underwater photography. His early equipment, boxy and unwieldy, often imploded under pressure, twice tearing into his hands. His 1956 story "Camera Under the Sea" was the first color underwater feature of its kind to appear in National Geographic.

"The luminous transparency of the warm water bathed me in light," he wrote. "Fish, corals, even my own body were outlined in soft lunar effulgence. I seemed to hang suspended in the heart of an enormous liquid sapphire."

Marden's adventuring did not stop with his official retirement. He had always been known to immerse himself in stories. So in his 70s, while researching ultralight aircraft, he acquired and began flying one, naming it the Red Baron and soaring over the Potomac. In 1998, he filed his last story for National Geographic.

Survivors include his wife, whom he married in 1939.

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