Norman Cousins, 75; Editor, Author, Philosopher, UCLA Teacher
Norman Cousins, a man of letters and peace who late in life wrote of his self-willed triumph over illness, adding yet another dimension to one of the most multifaceted careers of our time, died of heart failure Friday.
The editor, author and philosopher, whose name was synonymous with Saturday Review magazine for nearly four decades, died at the UCLA Medical Center after suffering a full cardiac arrest at a Westwood hotel. He was 75.
Paramedics rushed Cousins, an adjunct professor in the Department of Psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the UCLA School of Medicine, to the hospital, where he died about 20 minutes later.
“We are saddened by the loss of Norman Cousins,” said Sherman Mellinkoff, professor emeritus and former dean of the UCLA School of Medicine. “Cousins was an inspirational leader in trying to understand the grandeur of the human spirit and its promotion of health and resistance to illness.
“His vision and penetrating questions were an inspiration not only to UCLA students and faculty, but to physicians and others throughout the world.”
Just two months ago, Cousins told an Orange County gathering that “the important thing is what we do while we’re alive. The great tragedy of life is not death, but what dies inside us while we live.”
From 1940 to 1977, Cousins maintained a self-professed “love affair with the readers” of Saturday Review, the always prestigious and often financially troubled magazine, which at one time was considered the epitome of arts coverage in the United States.
When that love affair ended, he began a new one--this time with students at UCLA where he taught ethics and medical literature.
Advocate of world peace, opponent of nuclear warfare and ghost writer for Presidents, Cousins was a Renaissance Man in an era of specialists. But it was as a self-healer that he became known to those Americans who were not as interested in his politics as they were in his return from a life- threatening illness.
From that critical abyss came “Anatomy of an Illness--as Perceived by the Patient,” an account of how humor triumphed over pain and of Cousins’ eventual road back to a productive life.
He described in that book, first excerpted in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, that he and his wife had just returned from a 1964 trip to Europe. Shortly after Cousins began experiencing a general feeling of malaise accompanied by achiness and difficulty in moving his limbs.
When his pain got to the point where he could no longer turn over in bed, he went to a hospital where he was told he had a rare disease of the connective tissues--a disease for which there was no known cure and which eventually would lead to an excruciatingly painful death.
Cousins believed that his system had been poisoned by diesel and jet fumes while in Russia and--after extensive reading on collagen (the supportive protein of skin and bone) disorders--attributed his problem to adrenal exhaustion, brought on by the strain of a whirlwind trip.
(He made this self-diagnosis because his wife, who had accompanied him everywhere, was symptom free.)
Remembering that endocrine problems could be aggravated by emotional upheavals, Cousins--by now suffering increasing pain and gravel-like substances under his skin--determined to replace the negatives in his life with positives.
With his doctor’s permission, he took himself off the pain killers which allowed him some sleep, reasoning that the toxins in them might be aggravating his skin condition and that those same toxins were taxing the adrenal gland itself, further inhibiting any possible recovery.
For the pain killers he substituted laughter--setting up a movie projector in his room where he would view old Marx Brothers films and tapes of the “Candid Camera” television series.
To combat inflammation he took massive, intravenous doses of Vitamin C.
Soon, he wrote “10 minutes of genuine laughter would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep.” To augment the films he had nurses read to him from humor books. Between the laughter and the ascorbic acid his fever began receding and his pulse slowed. At the end of the eighth day of self-treatment he said he could move his thumbs without pain.
Several months later he returned to his beloved magazine and by the time the book chronicling his recovery was published in 1979 he could write that he was free of all pain except for a minor problem in one shoulder.
His recovery, he wrote, was due to a coupling of his own determination with the open-mindedness of his physician, a man “wise enough to know that the art of healing is still a frontier profession.”
He also believed that his own reticence to accept the inevitability of death kept him from being “trapped in the cycle of fear, depression and panic that frequently accompanies a supposedly incurable illness.”
The battle of living began for Norman Cousins in Union Hill, N.J. where he was the frail and sickly son of Samuel and Sara Miller Cousins.
Physically he was unable to compete with his childhood friends. But academically he was far their superior. By the time he was 5 his nickname was “The Professor,” a slender, impish boy fascinated with the world of print.
He briefly attended Columbia University and became an education writer for the New York Evening Post in 1934. He then moved to Current History, a world affairs monthly magazine which shared building space with the Saturday Review of Literature. In that building were the writers who were molding SR into the cultural voice of America--William Rose Benet, Christopher Morley, George Stevens and Amy Loveman.
Despite their best efforts the magazine, with a circulation of only 20,000, was losing vast sums of money. When Henry Seidel Canby--with Stevens the driving force behind the tiny cadre of writers--resigned in 1940, Cousins was asked to take over.
“I got the job because no one else would take it,” Cousins wrote years later in “Present Tense: An American Editor’s Odyssey” a collection of his essays.
With the encouragement of the magazine’s publisher, Everette Lee De Golyer, a wealthy geologist, Cousins broadened the extensive literary coverage into a more-sweeping overview of art and music and in 1942, coincidental with Cousins’ appointment as editor-in-chief, Saturday Review of Literature became simply Saturday Review.
Cousins made the erudite publication more palatable. He kept the “Double Crostics” puzzler, the bane of wordsmiths everywhere, but added editorials which offered both thought and whimsy; he brought Irving Kolodin aboard as music critic; had Bennett Cerf write of the bemused world of publishing. Cleveland Amory, the essayist and Joseph Wood Krutch, the naturalist, graced SR’s columns.
While sales and subscriptions inched upward, Cousins found time for his first book: “The Good Inheritance: The Democratic Chance,” an examination of the collapse of Periclean Greece which he coupled with a proposal for international cooperation to protect democracies everywhere.
Next he edited two similarly themed anthologies: “A Treasury of Democracy” in 1941 and “The Poetry of Freedom” in 1945. During the war he served on the board of the Overseas Bureau of War Information and edited U.S.A., a government journal disseminated abroad.
Spurred on at war’s end by its devastation, Cousins began writing the series of editorials and articles that soon involved the magazine with both discussing and reviewing.
Cousins, at a surprise party celebrating the 25th anniversary of his editorship, summed up the magazine’s impact thusly:
“I am proud that Saturday Review was the first magazine to report and write in depth about the implication of the atomic age and to maintain its concern. I am proud of the part Saturday Review played in the campaign for a ban on nuclear testing.
“I am proud of Saturday Review’s role in bringing about reform in the manufacture and dispensing of unsafe drugs and in giving its readers such an early and authentic awareness of the problems and possibilities in space travel.
“I am proud of its service to and standing in the educational community. . . . I am proud of its stand on cigarette advertising. . . . I am proud . . . of the battle it has waged for freedom and intellectual inquiry.”
The world seemed even prouder of Norman Cousins.
He was named honorary president of the United World Federalists and co-chairman of the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy. He helped arrange for the “Hiroshima Maidens,” 25 young women victims of the atomic bomb blast of 1945 to come to the United States for medical treatment. As a personal footnote he adopted one of them, Shigeko Sasamori and saw her through nursing school.
In October, he was presented the Albert Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism for his efforts on behalf of international peace and the relief of human suffering.
Of all the hundreds of editorials he wrote perhaps one, “Modern Man Is Obsolete,” a touching plea in which he argued that man must learn to live as a “world citizen” or die a “world warrior,” will be his most lasting printed legacy.
By 1960, Saturday Review had confounded those who felt that a magazine devoted to the arts could never be a commercially viable entity. Circulation was at 260,000 and climbing. Two years earlier geologist De Golyer had given the magazine to his editor and Cousins, in turn, had given 49% of that to the magazine’s staff.
Then came what Cousins later called the greatest mistake of his life. He and other stockholders sold out to McCall Corp., a publishing conglomerate which owned McCall’s and Redbook magazines. Cousins’ contract called for him to be editor in chief of McCall’s but 14 months later he had resigned, unable or unwilling to cope with the competitive world of women’s magazines.
Subsequently McCall’s was taken over by Norton Simon Inc., which in 1971 sold Saturday Review (with its then circulation of 650,000) to Nicolas Charney and John J. Veronis, publishers of Psychology Today.
Originally, Cousins stayed as editor but after Charney and Veronis decided to reshape SR’s format into four separate monthlies, emphasizing education, science, the arts and society and to use SR’s name for a series of marketing adventures, Cousins resigned, citing “philosophical and professional differences.”
He started a new magazine, World, devoted, to “the proper care of the human habitat.” But critic Dwight Macdonald found Cousins’ World “flat” as did many other media experts.
By 1973 Charney and Veronis had bankrupted SR and Cousins reassumed custody of his literate offspring. The result was Saturday Review/World, a biweekly which its editor said would offer “reportorial reach” plus the “literary and cultural interests” of his old SR.
The magazine probed the links of Cubans in Miami to the Watergate break-in, explored the latest in surgical techniques and put such diverse personalities as George Gershwin and Andy Worhol on its covers. Within a year it was prospering and Cousins was named “publisher of the year” by the Magazine Publishers Assn.
Cousins is survived by his wife Ellen and four children.