Norman Cousins

views updated May 11 2018

Norman Cousins

Norman Cousins (1912-1990) was editor-in-chief of the Saturday Review for over 35 years. He was a tireless advocate for world peace and in his later years devoted much writing and study to the issues of illness and healing.

Norman Cousins was born June 24, 1912 (although some sources give the date as 1915), in Union City, New Jersey. He was educated in New York City public schools and at Teachers' College, Columbia University. His journalistic career began in 1934, when he joined the staff of the New York Evening Post. The following year he moved to Current History, which first employed him as a book critic, subsequently as managing editor. Current History had its offices in the same building as the Saturday Review of Literature, and Cousins became friendly with members of its staff, notably Amy Loveman, Henry Seidel Canby, Christopher Morley, William Rose Benét, Harrison Smith, and editor George Stevens. In 1940 Cousins became the Saturday Review's executive editor, and two years later, after Stevens's resignation, he took over the editorship and presidency.

The Saturday Review had just been bought by the petroleum geologist Everette Lee De Golyer. In 1942 it had a circulation of roughly 20,000 and a reputation for an old-fashioned sort of literary aloofness. Cousins wasted no time in converting the magazine into a more broad-based publication which devoted a great deal of space to current events. His efforts at expansion were aided by the astute business manager Jack R. Cominsky, whom Cousins hired away from the New York Times. Cousins built up a stable of regular writers including Cleveland Amory, Bennett Cerf, John Mason Brown, Joseph Wood Krutch, and Irving Kolodin. Cousins's spirit of advocacy was reflected in his magazine. He exemplified the liberal democratic spirit of the Roosevelt era, and his ties with the government were close. During World War II he served on the board of the Office of War Information, co-chaired the Victory Book Campaign of 1943, and edited the magazine U.S.A.

Campaigns for Peace and Health

His first book, The Good Inheritance: The Democratic Chance (with William Rose Benét, 1942), was a defense of the nation's liberal tradition. His second book, Modern Man is Obsolete (1945), began as an editorial published in the Saturday Review only 12 days after the second atomic bomb had been dropped on Japan. In it, he argued for a non-military use of atomic energy. "Man stumbles fitfully into a new age of atomic energy for which he is as ill-equipped to accept its potential blessings as he is to counteract or control its present dangers," he warned. He saw only one solution to this predicament—the unity of nations. "This is not vaporous idealism, but sheer, driving necessity. There is one way and only one way to achieve effective control of destructive atomic energy and that is through decentralized world government." Through its magazine and book publications, Cousins's text is estimated to have reached some 40 million readers. Meanwhile, he campaigned in favor of the United Nations and of Wendell Wilkie's One World Campaign and was named honorary president of the United World Federalists.

He supported the cause of the Ravensbrueck Lapins, 35 Polish women who had been victims of medical experimentation at the World War II Ravensbrueck concentration camp. His advocacy also helped the campaign to treat and rehabilitate the Hiroshima Maidens, Japanese women disfigured by exposure to the atomic bombings, and he and his wife, the former Ellen Kopf (married 1939), adopted one of them, Shikego Sasamori. In 1951 Cousins was sent by the U.S. government as a lecturer to India, Pakistan, and Ceylon and in 1953 to Japan. Out of his experiences in the subcontinent came his book Talks with Nehru (1951). Throughout the 1950s Cousins continued to fight for world peace. He chaired the Committee for Cultural and International Exchange, co-chaired the Citizens' Committee for a Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and joined SANE. His books on the subject of peace include Who Speaks for Man? (1952), The Last Defense in a Nuclear Age (1960), and In Place of Folly (1961).

At the same time he maintained the Saturday Review's campaigning stance, arguing against insufficiently tested "miracle drugs;" warning against the possible side effects of fluoridation, the consequences of cigarette advertising, and the increasing level of violence in entertainment; and editorializing in favor of pollution control and the nascent space program. All was not somber, though. Cousins enjoyed running hoaxes in his correspondence column, such as the series of letters from one K. Jason Sitwell complaining about a proposed congressional ban on golf. The Saturday Review had by this time become an institution, reaching a circulation of 260,000 by 1960. Owner De Golyer transferred ownership to Cousins in 1958, but the latter eschewed autocratic rule, distributing nearly half the stock to his staff while retaining a controlling 51 percent.

Saturday Review Lost and Won

In 1961, however, the stockholders turned around and sold their share to the McCall's Publishing Company, owners of, among other things, McCall's and Redbook. McCall's signed Cousins to a ten-year contract as editor-in-chief. For 14 months in the late 1960s he served as editor of McCall's as well as of Saturday Review. This period saw no flagging of Cousins's public-spirited undertakings. In the early 1960s he quietly negotiated with Khrushchev on behalf of Pope John XXIII for the release of imprisoned Catholic clerics behind the Iron Curtain. He parlayed his acquaintance with the Pope, the Soviet head of state, and President Kennedy to establish communication among the three toward a nuclear test-ban treaty. These diplomatic adventures were described by him in The Improbable Triumvirate (1972). Cousins also found time to write a biography of Albert Schweitzer (Dr. Schweitzer of Lambarene, 1960), to serve as chairman of International Cooperation Year 1965, and to join the (New York City) Mayor's Task Force on Air Pollution.

In 1972 Norton Simon took over the McCall's Company and sold it for $5,500,000 to an investment group headed by Nicholas H. Charney and John J. Veronis, who had founded Psychology Today. The magazine that Cousins had redesigned and come to personify had reached an all-time high circulation of 650,000, but Cousins opted out, after 31 years, unable to agree with the new owners. This cannot have come as anything but a major blow to the man who once said: "Nothing in my life, next to my family, has meant more to me than the Saturday Review. To work with books and ideas, to see the interplay between a nation's culture and its needs, to have unfettered access to an editorial page which offered, quite literally, as much freedom as I was capable of absorbing—this is a generous portion for any man."

Undaunted, Cousins proceeded to launch World ("for the proper care of the human habitat"), which began in 1972 with 100,000 charter subscriptions. It scarcely had a chance to prove its mettle, however, because in 1973 Charney and Veronis declared bankruptcy and Cousins immediately returned to the Saturday Review, vowing to increase the "reportorial reach" of the new edition.

Cousins had a history of illnesses dating back to the tuberculosis that confined him to a sanatorium for a year when he was 11. In the mid-1960s he suffered a paralyzing collagen disease, which he claimed to have cured with massive injections of vitamin C. Reflections on mortality gave him the spur for his 1974 book The Celebration of Life: A Dialogue on Immortality and Infinity, in which he rejected existentialism, proposing in its stead the philosophy of "consequentialism," which, as the name would imply, fosters an awareness of the results of action. Around 1977 Cousins contracted cancer. He sold the Saturday Review to a former Village Voice staffer, Carll Tucker, remaining chairman of the editorial board and, after 1980, editor emeritus. His disease eventually went into remission, the whole struggle being described in Anatomy of an Illness (1979), which was later made into a CBS television movie starring Ed Asner and Cousins himself in 1984. Illness, both its prevention and cure, continued to interest Cousins, particularly after he suffered a near-fatal heart attack in 1980. It led him to write The Human Option (1981) and The Healing Heart (1983) and to compile the anthology The Physician in Literature (1981). Throughout Cousins's bouts with illness, he subscribed to the belief in a "laugh-cure", documenting his theories in his various books on health, and also in magazine articles. He also served as an adjunct professor at the University of California at Los Angeles School of Medicine.

In the late 1980s Cousins wrote Head First (1989), which further explored his theories about medicine and the doctor-patient relationship. His 1987 work, The Pathology of Power was a treatise on world peace. Other of Cousins's later works include, The Human Adventure: A Camera Chronicle (1986), and Albert Schweitzer's Mission: Healing and Peace (1985).

On November 31, 1990, Cousins died in Westwood, California. The literary world mourned his loss, prompting even the politically opposed William F. Buckley to write in National Review, "He was a brilliant editor, a prolific writer, truly the man engaged. He was surpassingly generous, and I mourn his passing."

In his lifetime Norman Cousins received nearly 50 honorary degrees, and numerous awards. He received the Author of the Year Award from the American Society of Journalists and Authors in 1981, and was nominated for the American Book Award in 1982 for Anatomy of an Illness.

Further Reading

Cousins is his own best source. Besides the titles cited in the article, many of which are autobiographical to one degree or another, there is a full-fledged autobiography, Present Tense: An American Editor's Odyssey (1968). □

Cousins, Norman

views updated May 18 2018


(b. 24 June 1915 in Union Hill, New Jersey; d. 30 November 1990 in Westwood, California), journalist, editor, author, and lecturer; a vocal opponent of nuclear arms proliferation and a proponent of a nuclear test ban who, as special envoy between U.S. president John F. Kennedy and the Soviet Union leader Nikita Khrushchev, helped bring about a nuclear test ban treaty.

Cousins was the son of Samuel Cousins and Sara Barry Miller. He attended public school in New York City and Teachers College at Columbia University. Cousins served as the education editor for the New York Evening Post in the mid-1930s and then as literary editor and managing editor for Current History. He then became executive editor at the Saturday Review of Literature (renamed the Saturday Review after 1972) and served as editor until the mid-1970s.

Cousins also worked in the overseas bureau of the Office of War Information from 1943 until the end of World War II in 1945. In the 1950s he became involved in the world peace movement and various organizations focusing on altering what seemed to be an inevitable course toward nuclear war. Cousins also cofounded the committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE) in 1957. On 23 June 1939 he married Ellen Kopf; they had four children.

At the beginning of the 1960s Cousins published two books that reflected his commitment to exploring the implications of the "atomic age." In The Last Defense in a NuclearAge (1960), and In Place of Folly (1961), Cousins set forth his thoughts about nuclear arms proliferation and the need for a ban on nuclear testing. The books also delved into such issues as peace through world law administered through a democratic world federation, for example, a strengthened United Nations. In his book In Place of Folly, Cousins summed up his view concerning individual world governments and the ineffectiveness of the United Nations: "The nations have insisted on retaining for themselves ultimate authority in matters of security. They want the right to possess greater physical force than they are willing to invest in the organization chafed with the maintenance of world peace. They have provided no specific or adequate machinery to prevent aggression."

Cousins was the primary initiator behind the Dartmouth Conferences. Appalled by the growing tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, Cousins had begun working in the 1950s on the idea of bringing together leading citizens from the two countries. When the Soviet Union agreed to the concept, Cousins and others organized the first meeting, to be held at Dartmouth College in 1960. The idea was to open up the lines of communication between the two countries. The Dartmouth Conference meetings were held throughout the decade in both the United States and the Soviet Union. They focused primarily on Soviet-American relations and included participants such as scientists, businesspeople, writers, and journalists.

Cousins's diplomatic success in bringing together the Dartmouth Conferences led to his becoming an unofficial ambassador who went on missions for President John F. Kennedy and his successor, Lyndon Baines Johnson. In 1963 Cousins was serving as an emissary on behalf of Pope John Paul XXIII to negotiate the release from the Soviet Union of two Catholic religious leaders who had been imprisoned at the end of World War II. President Kennedy requested that Cousins also talk with the Soviet prime minister Nikita Khrushchev about the U.S. government's sincere wish to pursue a nuclear test ban treaty. Cousins later said in an interview at the Institute of International Studies that "Kennedy felt that a dialog with the Soviet Union had to be based on mutual recognition, mutual respect for the security requirements of both countries." Cousins also began a massive public education campaign in the United States to sway public opinion in favor of a nuclear test ban. As a result, he played a pivotal role in the ratification of the test ban treaty by the U.S. Senate in 1963.

In the mid-1960s Cousins experienced a debilitating illness called ankylosing spondylitis, which results in the breakdown of the fibrous tissue (collagen) that binds cells of the body together. Cousins received the gloomy prognosis that he had only a few months to live. He decided to take matters into his own hands and had himself released from the hospital to a hotel room, where he treated himself with massive doses of vitamin C. He also determined that he would keep up his spirits and boost his ability to fight off the disease by entertaining himself with Marx Brothers movies and humorous books by such authors as P. G. Wodehouse and James Thurber. Cousins recovered and used a similar approach in his fight against cancer more than a decade later.

Despite his illness, Cousins did not waver long from his duties. He continued to speak out on issues such as the Vietnam War, as in his 1967 Saturday Review piece titled "Public Opinion and Vietnam." He also published the first of his autobiographies, called Present Tense: An American Editor's Odyssey (1967). In the book, Cousins commented on the mood of Americans at the time: "In traveling around the United States, I have been made aware of a melancholy tension. The questions people ask are not related to their personal incomes or the need to find better ways to amuse themselves. They want to know how to overcome their sense of personal futility on the big issues."

Throughout the 1960s, Cousins used his talents as a writer and his position at the Saturday Review to pique the American public's conscience about issues concerning politics, government, and nuclear arms. He editorialized on many issues that later became popular, such as concern about cigarette advertising, the importance of controlling pollution, and the level of violence in entertainment. Cousins received numerous awards for his work in journalism and on the world stage, including the Eleanor Roosevelt Peace Award in 1963, an Overseas Press Club award in 1965, and the New York Academy of Public Education Award in 1966. In 1971 the United Nations honored Cousins with its Peace Medal.

By the time Cousins ended his tenure as the full-time editor of the Saturday Review in the 1970s, he had increased circulation from some 20,000 to 600,000. He became ill with cancer in the late 1970s but recovered, once again incorporating his belief in the physical healing power of positive thinking. He wrote about his views on health in Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient: Reflections on Healing and Regeneration (1979). Cousins, who also later recovered from a heart attack, became more and more interested in the mind-body connection and health and wrote several books on the topic. He went on to become professor of medical humanities at the University of Los Angeles, where he also worked with the Brain Research Institute. Cousins died in 1990 of a heart attack.

Cousins's early autobiography is Present Tense: An American Editor's Odyssey (1967). An account of his work as a liaison between Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the pope is The Improbable Triumvirate: John F. Kennedy, Pope John, Nikita Khrushchev (1972). An obituary is in the National Review (31 Dec. 1990).

David Petechuk