National Geographic Icon Luis Marden Dies

Mark Jenkins
for National Geographic News
March 3, 2003
He had seemed the very spirit of the National Geographic Society. Therefore when the word was received, it spread quickly, even to the most remote of offices. Luis Marden is dead.

Former chief of the National Geographic foreign editorial staff, photographer, writer, filmmaker, diver, sailor, navigator, pilot, linguist, raconteur, boon companion—and oh yes, explorer—Luis Marden died this morning of complications from Parkinson's disease, in Arlington, Virginia. He was only 90 years old.

No one has quite summed up the National Geographic like Luis Marden. For over six decades—from the early 1930s to the late 1990s—he was usually found somewhere on the other side of the globe. But he was often enough seen in the halls and so was a familiar figure. For many years new employees being shown around might catch a glimpse of a bald man with a natty moustache quietly going about his business—but his passing was usually followed by awed whispers: "There goes Luis Marden…"

Marden was born on January 25, 1913 in Chelsea, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston. His real name was Annibale Luigi Paragallo, though as he grew up in nearby Quincy he went by Louis Paragallo. While attending Quincy High School, he was introduced to photography through a chemistry class. Fascinated with watching images appear from seemingly nowhere, he quickly became hooked.

He did not go to college, choosing freelance photography while working at a radio station instead. While he hosted a radio program, "Camera Club of the Air," the station owners felt Paragallo was too difficult a name for a radio audience. After casting around in a phonebook, they came up with Luis Marden instead.

Marden so steeped himself in matters photographic that by the time he was 19 years old, he had written a book, Color Photography with the Miniature Camera, quite likely the first book ever published on 35mm color photography.

This expertise eventually brought him to the National Geographic Society, which prided itself on publishing quality color photography. When he first walked through the doors, a 35mm camera around his neck, no one could know that the slim young man with the dark moustache would become what one writer would call "the epitome of the Geographic man."

Uncanny Timing

If one thing characterized his career, it was being the right man at the right time in the right place.

To begin with, when Marden was hired on July 23, 1934, photographers for the National Geographic magazine carried bulky cameras with tripods and glass plates into the field. But things were on the verge of change. Marden arrived at the right time, arguing that small 35mm cameras loaded with the new Kodachrome film would revolutionize color photography. His persistence soon paid off, and for decades the Geographic was noted for its dynamic color photography.

Because he could speak Spanish, during World War II he became the Society's "Latin America man," sent on long rambling assignments throughout Central and South America and the Caribbean. Diving off Antigua in 1941, he saw his first coral reef—and decided he had to photograph its riches.

Again he was the right man at the right time in the right place. Underwater color photography was in its infancy, but in the mid-1950s, working with Jacques Cousteau aboard the Calypso, Marden pioneered many of the techniques still used in underwater color photography to this day. Diving became one of his passions.

At the same time, the space age began—and it was Luis Marden, himself a pilot, science fiction buff, and general space enthusiast, who again was the right man to pioneer space coverage for National Geographic. At one point loaned full-time to NASA, he made innovative photographs of rocket launches and the activities of the Project Mercury astronauts.

Finding the Bounty

The high point in his career came in January 1957, when at Pitcairn Island in the South Pacific, Marden, diving day after day in dangerous swells, heedless of one islander's grim prophecy—"Man, you gwen be dead as a hatchet!"—he found the remains of the fabled ship Bounty. The news made headlines around the world.

Marden was a polymath, the Geographic's "Renaissance man." Not only was he a photographer, he also made 11 travelogue films for the Society's lecture series. He was a gifted writer as well. He taught himself at least five languages and made inroads on several others. And he is cited six times in Webster's Third New International Dictionary for words such as "snick," "tot," and "sevillana." But he grumbled that he would not trust anything that used him as a source.

Above all, he pursued his interests so far that he often made new discoveries. His offhand mention of a sea anemone in the Red Sea flashing different colors became the first published report of submarine fluorescence. An orchid lover, he discovered in Brazil a new species of orchid—which was named Epistephium mardeni in his honor. A devotee of H.G. Wells, he found in Madagascar two complete fossil eggs of Aepyornis, an extinct giant bird featured prominently in a tale by the English science fiction writer. And a lover of lobster dinners, he discovered a lobster parasite that was a new species of sea flea, dubbed, of course, Dolobrotus mardeni.

A love of fly-fishing led to an interest in bamboo, of which fine fly rods are made. It further led, in 1974, to his becoming the first National Geographic representative since the Communist Revolution of 1949 to return to China. All he wanted to see was bamboo groves, but it just happened that China was beginning to open up—he was just the right man at the right time in the right place.

A "Corporal" Befriended by Kings

He was equally at home with commoners and kings. He prided himself on being the "perpetual corporal" at the Geographic; yet as chief of the esteemed foreign editorial staff, he traveled around Jordan with King Hussein, was friends with the King of Tonga, and was knighted by the Italian government in a small ceremony in Washington.

Even his 1976 retirement didn't slow him down. Together with his wife, Ethel Cox Marden, he might have dwelt comfortably at "Fontinalis," his book-filled house, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, which overlooked the Potomac River. Instead the couple sailed a ketch across the Atlantic Ocean from England. In the Bahamas they ran aground and the boat was destroyed. They turned around, built a new one, and the following year sailed across the Atlantic without mishap.

Having made the voyage themselves, the Mardens then replotted the route Columbus must have taken when he crossed the Atlantic, and they concluded that he made his first landfall at Samana Cay, not at San Salvador, as previously believed. Although retired, Marden kept a desk at National Geographic Society headquarters and wrote occasional stories. In his seventies, he dove in dangerous waters off Australia to cover the wreck of the H.M.S. Pandora. He also flew ultralight aircraft with the eagerness of a boy. He so loved trout fishing that he made his own bamboo rods, which led him, in 1997, to publish his second book, The Angler's Bamboo.

Luis Marden never lost his capacity for wonder, for new experiences and new people, for good fellowship and fine wine. When admitted to the Underwater Academy of Arts and Sciences, his citation had read: "To Luis Marden: Tracker of cryptic animals, relentless spy of hidden natural phenomena, globe girdling gentleman, adventurer and linguist, delightful companion and undersea photographer nonpareil, senior staff correspondent of the National Geographic Society…"

To which Marden had grumbled something about "hyperbole;" those who knew and remember him, however, know the description didn't go far enough.

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