From the Editor: Curveballs at the Un-Magazine | 40th Anniversary | Smithsonian
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Founding editor Edward K. Thompson guided the new magazine through its first decade. (Howard Sochurek / Time Life Pictures / Getty Images)

From the Editor: Curveballs at the Un-Magazine

From the first issue 40 years ago, Smithsonian has blazed its own path through the media landscape

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I don’t believe in ghosts, but I do believe the spirit of Ed Thompson, who died in 1996, still stalks these corridors, his hair slicked back, his tie loosened, a fat cigar stuck in his mouth. He swears a lot. He mumbles. Sometimes I feel him looking over my shoulder, shaking his head at what the world in general—and this magazine in particular—has come to. “What a lotta foofaw,” he might say, employing a favorite expression.

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Edward K. Thompson had been the editor of Life, back when Life had clout, and after Life, in 1968, he signed on as an assistant to the secretary of state, a job that brought him to Washington. He then came to the attention of S. Dillon Ripley, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, who invited Thompson to his Connecticut farm.

Thompson recalled that day in his memoir, A Love Affair with Life & Smithsonian: “[Ripley] started off by observing that the Institution should have had a magazine since the early 1900s—well before our times. Since I was obviously there as a possible editor, I said I didn’t want to run a house organ. He said he didn’t want that either. After we had rambled over some possible subject matter, we agreed that the magazine’s content could be about whatever the Institution was interested in—or might be interested in. I threw in, ‘And should be?’ He agreed. That was about all that was articulated as a working idea, but an almost unlimited variety of subject matter was possible under such a concept.”

In early 1969, Thompson began putting together a staff. He hired Sally Maran, who had been a reporter at Life, as an assistant editor. The first issue, sent to 160,000 subscribers in April 1970, featured two elephants on the cover and the line “Courting elephants.” “We were very proud of it,” says Maran, who retired as managing editor in 2007. “We got 30 letters on the first issue. They were 25 yeas, 3 nays and 2 that you couldn’t tell.”

Institution reaction was more guarded. “We had curators calling and saying, ‘We have a great idea for a story on the Eastern Shore mollusk,’” Maran says. “I remember telling them, ‘Well, we are going to be a national magazine.’ And they said, ‘Well, we can cover Pacific Coast mollusks in another issue.’ We said, ‘Thank you very much.’ They were really upset that we weren’t a house organ.”

The director of the Natural History Museum wrote to Thompson asking that the magazine run a disclaimer disassociating its views from those of Institution scientists. Thompson hedged in his response. In a memo, the director fired back: “Many of our staff members have reacted negatively toward Smithsonian, largely as a result of your response to my memorandum.”

“I think we have got into an unnecessary foofaw about disclaimers,” Thompson replied and suggested the two have lunch. No disclaimer ever appeared in Thompson’s Smithsonian.

The magazine was catching on. “Each issue of Smithsonian is convincing evidence that eye-popping layouts, superb color photography and solid craftsmanship will always lure an audience,” Newsweek wrote in 1973, the year Smithsonian first turned a profit. By then, circulation had reached 465,000; it would hit a million two years later.

“Thompson’s brilliance was as a picture editor,” says Joseph Bonsignore, Smithsonian’s longtime publisher, now retired. “The pictures were played big as they could be. The best picture went on the cover. The second-best picture went in the centerfold. In each story, the best picture led the story.”

Coming up with great photographs was the job of Caroline Despard, who felt like Caroline Desperate. “I was always scared to death, because Ed Thompson was so demanding, and not always in a rational way,” she recalls. “He loved issuing impossible dictums. Once he asked me for a photograph of 100 babies all in one picture. I became very fond of him, but he was terrifying to work for.”

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About Carey Winfrey
Carey Winfrey

Carey Winfrey was Smithsonian magazine's editor in chief for ten years, from 2001 to 2011.

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