(1915 to 1990)
Claim to fame: Longtime editor in chief of The Saturday Review.
Quote: “Editors have to be constantly on the prowl for new facts, new trends, new perceptions, new arenas. They have to recognize critical issues early enough to be able to sound an alert.”
Quote above, continued: “They shouldn't have to wait until major events bulge into public view before taking notice. Nor need they fear going back for a second or third look; there may be odd pieces of history left lying around to be discerned, pieces that, when put together, may change the contours of an event, or at least our understanding of it.”
Life in 300 words or less: Norman Cousins is the rare example of a magazine editor who became well known in his own field, then even better known in a completely different one.
Still in his early 20s, Cousins took charge of The Saturday Review in 1942 and edited it until 1977, with the exception of a couple of years in the early 1970s when he left in a dispute with the magazine’s then-owners. During that three-decade stretch, he built the title from 20,000 circulation to more than 600,000.
Cousins positioned The Saturday Review as a magazine of ideas, not normally thought of as a growth proposition, then or now. But, as he traveled and lectured throughout the U.S., he saw a potential audience. The New York Times quoted him as saying, “there was a new breed in America, people who were business executives, or in science, say, who were interested in ideas but not in intellectual cliques or literary gossip. I recognized that this was one of the most exciting intellectual developments of our times--but its manifestations hadn’t been acted upon by those in the world of communications.”
His second career was more a matter of accident. Stricken by a crippling disease in 1964, he determined to cure himself with high doses of vitamin C and laughter, primarily induced by Marx Brothers movies. He waited years to write about it, saying he didn’t want to give others false hope. But when he finally published his book “Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient” in 1979, it became a bestseller and he became a national celebrity. There soon followed what is perhaps the highest honor ever received by any magazine editor, a made-for-TV movie based on his life.
For more: Cousins wrote several autobiographical books. The one with the most to say about magazine work is probably “Human Options: An Autobiographical Notebook” (Norton, 1981). To see him in action, there’s this interview on YouTube. Coincidentally, I saw Cousins speak in 1976 or ’77, and while I don’t recall a word he said, I do remember that he looked really, really healthy. -- Greg Daugherty, 11/08