From early childhood to her last year at 86, Elsie May Bell Grosvenor was uniquely linked to the National Geographic Society, wrote Gilbert Hovey Grosvenor in a tribute published in the July 1965 issue of National Geographic Magazine. Responding to the many messages of sympathy he received from Society members when Elsie died, the former editor of the magazine said: “It reaffirms the unique spirit of the National Geographic Society as my wife and I envisioned it together nearly seventy years ago–the spirit of a great and enduring family dedicated to knowledge and understanding.”
Elsie was the granddaughter of the Society’s principal founder and first president, Gardiner Greene Hubbard; the daughter of its second president, Alexander Graham Bell; the wife of long-time president and editor, Gilbert Hovey Grosvenor; the mother of the next president-editor, Melville Bell Grosvenor; and the grandmother of an ensuing president-editor-chairman, Gilbert M. Grosvenor. The kin of four presidents of the Society, it was no wonder that she referred to National Geographic as her “eighth child”. (Read “Why National Geographic is a Family Affair“)
But more than being the matriarch of the National Geographic Society, Elsie Grosvenor was also keenly engaged with many aspects of the magazine, including as a correspondent. Three articles were penned by her: “Safari Through Changing Africa,” August, 1953, “Safari From Congo to Cairo,” December, 1954, and “Alaska’s Warm Side,” June, 1956. They were among the most popular ever published in the magazine, according to her husband Bert, who was the editor in chief from 1899 until 1954.
Activist for Women’s Rights
Elsie May was also a staunch advocate of women’s rights, fighting for the right for women to vote. As an officer in the local Washington, D.C., branch of the National American Woman’s Suffragette Association, “Elsie opened her home to a meeting in 1913 to plan the annual convention and a protest march on the Capitol,” Bert wrote in his tribute. “She rode with four of her six children in the ‘great parade of earnest-minded women,’ as her father [Alexander Graham Bell] described it,” Grosvenor wrote.
When Bert Grosvenor wanted a flag for the Society in the very early 1900s, Elsie volunteered to design one. She came up with a flag that has been carried on thousands of expeditions, from the deepest part of the ocean to the highest mountains, probably every country, and even by astronauts to the moon. Her simple idea for the famous banner was blue, brown and green stripes, to symbolize earth, sea and sky.
Once the children had grown, Elsie and Bert became explorers in the best tradition of National Geographic, spending nearly half a century traveling to remote parts of the planet on behalf of the Society and its magazine. “In that endless search for articles and photographs for the National Geographic, for fresh challenges to research and exploration, Elsie Grosvenor’s keen eye was a priceless asset,” Bert wrote in his tribute. “She had an unfailing sense of what would interest the women of our growing family of members.” Among her adventures: riding an ostrich, at the age of 74.
‘She belonged to us all’
To the Socety and its great family of members, she gave a lifetime of devotion, Bert wrote. “As many of our members have said, she belonged to us all.”