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.
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 His second book, Modern Man is Obsolete (1945), began as an editorial published in the Saturday Review only 12 days after the second atomic bomb had been dropped on Japan.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.
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.
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). □