Bill Garrett: “He is variously described as vain, charming, and bulldog-like, and almost always, by enemy and friend, as an editorial genius.”


Former National Geographic editor Bill Garrett pets a young jaguar.

Bill Garrett, one of the extraordinary magazine editors, died on August 13. The lede of his obit in today’s Washington Post:

Wilbur E. “Bill” Garrett, a well-traveled photographer and onetime picture editor of National Geographic magazine, who was abruptly terminated as the magazine’s top editor in a policy disagreement, died Aug. 13 at his home in Great Falls, Va. He was 85. The cause was a stroke, said a son, Kenneth Garrett. Mr. Garrett left in 1990 after 10 years as editor in a widely publicized dispute with the president and chairman of the National Geographic Society, Gilbert M. Grosvenor, scion of the family that had managed the society for a century.

The story of Bill’s firing,  titled “Earthquake,” was featured in the December 1990 Washingtonian.

The story’s deck:

The National Geographic Society Had It All: Loyal Employees, Devoted Members, a Proud History. Then Gil Grosvenor Made His Move and All Hell Broke Loose.

The caption under Bill Garrett’s picture: “He had two fatal flaws,” says an editor who remains at the magazine. “He thought he was immortal, and he thought he had the board of trustees on his side.” The trustees didn’t save him—because his name is Garrett, not Grosvenor.

The caption under the picture of William Graves, who succeeded Garrett as editor: “We could all see there were difficulties, abrasions, two strong characters. But, yes, I was surprised when Bill Garrett was fired. Garrett was stunned. And I think Gil Grosvenor was, too—that he finally did it. I also think of all the people who got hurt, Gil got it the worst. He’ll never get over that.”

From the Washingtonian story, by Howard Means:

“Bill Garrett is one smart son of a bitch—the ‘son of a bitch’ goes first,” a former Society division head says.

He is variously described as vain, charming, and bulldog-like, and almost always, by enemy and friend, as an editorial genius. Once he got control of the magazine after a 26-year apprenticeship, he wasted little time making his imprint.

Charles McCarry was brought on board in the number-four slot. The appointment caused some consternation. McCarry hadn’t worked his way though the ranks, and his CIA background—his spy novels are not cut out of whole cloth—raised the specter that the Agency might once again worm its way into the copious resources of the Society.

“Some people felt we were hand-in-glove with the CIA,” Garrett said. “The CIA had copied hundreds of pictures from our files, but that had stopped some thirty years ago.  Mac’s past was so well-known that he was a most unlikely plant or mole, especially since I was recruiting him.”

Whatever the murmur, the message was clear. The magazine was going to have better writing—long its weak point—and some of the choicest assignments would be going to name brand outsiders.

Articles began to veer toward the occasional hard edge—the cocaine trade, AIDS in Uganda,  the slums of Harlem, environmental chaos. Ironically, Gil Grosvenor himself had been brought up short by the board during his term as Geographic editor when he tried to move away from what is known in-house as the standard “bare breasts and sunsets.”

Always notable for the quality of its photographs, the magazine began to take more visual risks. In one memorable photo piece, wild animals were were shown in studio portraits, like rock stars or movie queens.

Whatever objections Grosvenor had to Garrett’s editorial decisions were either ignored or shouted down.

“Garrett really made of career out of Gil’s cowardice,” one veteran of the ninth floor warfare says. “Bill knew he could blow him down. Gil wouldn’t stand up to him.”

Firings of magazine editors are not especially newsworthy—editors serve as the pleasure of owners—but Bill Garrett was not to pass gently into that good night.

The Washington Post Style section followed Black Monday with a long article by Charles Trueheart, notable for its detail. The newsweeklies joined the fray.

Black Monday, one magazine staffer says, “was like the day Kennedy died. People were standing in the halls, crying.”
On June 15 in a speech to Society employees, Grosvenor sought to deal with the unrest.

“Good morning to the entire staff and a hi to Charlie Trueheart,” he began, referring to the Post reporter who had written up Black Monday. “I’ve heard the rumor that I’m going to announce a ten percent salary cut across the board and that I’m going to announce my resignation. The good news is that I’m not going to announce a ten-percent cut; the bad news is that I have no intention of resigning.”

The jokes fell flat, and what followed only served to stoke the fear.

“We will strive to trim our work force during the next five years. . . .”

The immediate victim of Black Monday was Bill Garrett. Fifty-nine years old, editor-in-chief of the National Geographic for 10 years, Garrett was called into Gil Grosvenor’s office opposite his own and told that his 35-year career with the magazine was at an end. He and Grosvenor had been friends for more than three decades. They had traveled and built boats together. Now Garrett is to not set foot in the Society’s headquarters.

Within the hour, Joe Judge also had been fired. The son of a Washington Senators baseball great, Judge held the number-two spot on the magazine. During the 1970s, when Grosvenor was the Geographic editor, Judge wrote the “editor’s column” that appeared over Grosvenor’s signature. At age 62 and with more than twenty years service, Judge was nearing retirement.

The following week at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York, the Geographic received a National Magazine Award for best single-topic issue, a 174-page homage to the bicentennial of modern France, orchestrated by Garrett for the July 1989 issue. The award was accepted by photographer James Stanfield, who spoke in choked tones of Garrett’s genius. Stanfield seems to have been forgiven for his emotionalism, but the bloodletting that brought it on wasn’t over.

Tom Smith had come to the magazine a year after Garrett and risen to its number-three spot. Much beloved within the ranks, he was allowed to twist in the wind for several weeks before being cut loose.

Charles McCarry—author of the Paul Christopher spy novels and ghostwriter for Alexander Haig and Donald Regan—held the magazine’s number-four spot. He resigned before the axe could reach down to him.
One of the few light moments was a fake memo sent around headquarters. Purportedly from human resources, it offered a “Resignation Letter Workshop.” Those in a hurry could use the “Rapid Departure Form.” Also under consideration was a “Drive-Through Resignation” service. “Thanks for falling on your sword voluntarily,” the memo ended.
A September 2015 update from Paul Farhi of the Washington Post:

Ever since it was launched from the temple-like headquarters of the National Geographic Society in Washington in 1888, National Geographic magazine has illuminated the world’s hidden places and revealed its natural wonders.

On Wednesday, the iconic ­yellow-bordered magazine, beset by financial issues, entered its own uncharted territory. In an effort to stave off further decline, the magazine was effectively sold by its nonprofit parent organization to a for-profit venture whose principal shareholder is one of Rupert Murdoch’s global media companies.

In exchange for $725 million, the National Geographic Society passed the troubled magazine and its book, map and other media assets to a partnership headed by 21st Century Fox, the Murdoch-controlled company that owns the 20th Century Fox movie studio, the Fox television network and Fox News Channel.

Under the terms announced Wednesday, Fox will control 73 percent of the operation, called National Geographic Partners, with the balance held by the National Geographic Society. The partnership, based in Washington, will include a portfolio of National Geographic-branded cable TV channels, digital properties and publishing operations, most notably the magazine that has advanced the society’s founding mission — “the increase and diffusion of geographic knowledge.”

The agreement provides a financial lifeline not just for the much-honored magazine, but also for the National Geographic Society itself, the organization’s chief executive acknowledged Wednesday. Like many print publications, National Geographic has been hurt by the onset of the digital era, which has put it on a slow trajectory toward extinction.

The magazine’s domestic circulation peaked at about 12 million copies in the late 1980s; today, the publication reaches about 3.5 million subscribers in the United States and an additional 3 million subscribers abroad through non-English-language editions. Advertising has been in steady decline.









  1. Steve Raymer says

    This obituary of Bill Garrett is one version of the man. For those of us who were photographers and editors, I think many of us saw him as a man ready to break tradition and spend money to get the most interesting set of pictures into the magazine, come what may. Bill believed in the importance of photojournalism being a record for history, as well as an important means of exposing social evils. He always was supportive of me and my journalism and with his support, I was rarely ware of his uphill battle with Management. Bill’s mandate was to bring back the best set of images possible and to make excellence your only standard. Too bad this was left out of the Washington Post’s obit. RIP, WEG.

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