Les Line, Legendary Audubon Editor, Dies

Les Line, Legendary Audubon Editor, Dies

David Seideman
Published: 05/24/2010


Common blue violet. Photo by Les Line.

In the spring of 1971, in the wake the first Earth Day, I became absorbed in an issue of a magazine that my mother had recently subscribed to. I was barely 10 years old, but I enjoyed the lucid prose by Robert H. Boyle and, oh, those pictures. Audubon magazine had devoted an entire issue to the Hudson River, from its pristine source in the Adirondacks to its filthy end in New York Harbor. In the shocking photos, pollution turned crystal-clear waters into ungodly, rainbow hues.

The genius behind this issue was one of the fathers of environmental journalism and one of the most important magazine editors who ever lived, Les Line. Les passed away yesterday, just a few days before Audubon goes to press. As Audubon’s editor from 1966 to 1991, he created the signature blend of explanatory journalism and vibrant photography that defines the magazine till this day. Les earned more recognition in the national magazine awards, our industry’s top honor, than any other Audubon editor. The magazine has received six nominations since he left, but the last win was Les’s, in 1981 (the prize sits on the shelf above my desk).

Les’s unerring eye for writing talent survives through two of our most consistently superb contributors, Frank Graham Jr. and Ted Williams (see their words on Les, below). He was a gifted wordsmith in his own right. “You know, as great as an editor as Les was, he may even be a better writer,” Ted once told me. For the past nine years the staff marveled at Les’s tiny masterpieces of eloquence and succinctness on our last page, “One Picture.” One of his final features, on bobolinks (“Buying Time,” November-December 2009), was vintage Les. “My attention is focused on a close-by male in smart, skunklike breeding plumage, offset by a prominent straw-colored nape. The handsomest bird in the neighborhood by far, he’s clinging for the moment to a wobbly dock weed, lord of a small piece of this flowing meadow of grasses and forbs.” One of the pleasures of editing this magazine was an annual pilgrimage with managing editor Jerry Goodbody to Les’s house in rural upstate New York. Another was calling him to hear old Audubon war stories. During our last phone conversation I asked him about the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989 in light of today’s catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. He recalled, with the most excitement I’ve heard from him in some time, phoning a favorite contributor and ordering him to get on the first plane to Alaska and write his heart out.

The upcoming issue and all the subsequent ones are for you, Les.

From Field Editor Frank Graham Jr.
Les Line, editor of the magazine Audubon for a quarter century (1966-1991) and a leader in the great surge in nature photography at the time, died of heart failure on May 23 in Sharon, Connecticut. He was seventy-four years old and lived in Amenia, New York.

 
Appointed by the National Audubon Society to edit its magazine in the fall of 1966, Line took over a small but attractive publication designed chiefly for the society’s membership, which then numbered only a little over 35,000 member/subscribers. Engaging top writers and photographers in the fields of nature and conservation and aiming at a national audience, he put together what The New York Times described as “the most beautiful magazine in the world.”
 
Membership rose to 60,000 by 1968 and eventually soared to 500,000. Audubon won a National Magazine Award for Excellence in Reporting in 1975 and Line himself earned a Gold Medal of the Rhode Island School of Design in 1976. Other honors followed for both the magazine and its editor, including a Lifetime Achievement Award from the North American Nature Photography Association. A picture in Audubon became a kind of certification of a nature photographer’s skills.
 
He was born Leslie Dale Line in Sparta, Michigan, on June 24, 1935. An interest in the natural world blossomed early, and by high school he was writing a weekly outdoors column called “A Line from Les” for his hometown newspaper. His professional life began at the Midland (Michigan) Daily News, where he served as outdoors editor and chief photographer during the 1960s.
 
Meanwhile, Line perfected his skills in bird watching and nature photography. Active as a conservationist, he became a director of the Michigan Audubon Society and edited its newsletter. His photograph of a Kirtland’s warbler appeared on a cover of Audubon and brought him to the attention of senior staff members at National Audubon in New York. They hired him as an assistant editor for the magazine in 1965 and appointed him editor the next year.
 

While at Audubon, Line wrote or edited some 35 books on nature and wildlife conservation, among them several for children. Two of his most popular publications were A Countryman’s Woods and A Countryman’s Flowers, collections of essays written by his friend Hal Borland and illustrated with Line’s photographs. After retiring as an editor in 1990, he wrote articles for a variety of magazines, including Audubon and National Wildlife. His last-page feature, “One Picture,” appeared regularly in Audubon, and his final article, on hayfields, ran in its November-December issue.

Line is survived by his wife Lois, of Amenia; his son Michael, of Laurel, Maryland; and his daughter Heather Gibbons, of Dobbs Ferry, New York.

From Field Editor Ted Williams
Submitted Sunday, May 23, 2010, 5 p.m.:

It grieves me to report that my close friend, mentor and former editor, Les Line, died this morning (May 23, 2010). Les had been in failing health for two month. I spoke to him in his hospital bed only a week ago, and he sounded strong and determined to recover from what appeared to be severely broken ribs.

Les was the longest-serving editor of Audubon magazine (and, for that matter, any magazine I know). I first began working with him in 1979, 13 years after he started. He left Audubon in 1991.

Les was accurately credited by The New York Times with evolving Audubon into "the most beautiful magazine in the world."

He was as a superb writer as an editor. After he left Audubon he wrote extensively for National Wildlife, National Geographic, and Audubon.

Les grew up in Michigan where he was a newspaper reporter and photographer from the age of 12 with his own outdoor column ("A Line from Les") in his hometown weekly. He was active in Michigan Audubon Society affairs as newsletter editor and conservation chairman before joining the National Audubon Society staff in 1965.

Les wrote, edited or photographed some 35 books on natural history and wildlife conservation. His honors include a doctorate in literature from Bucknell University; being named a fellow of the Rhode Island School of Design; the Jade of Chiefs Award from the Outdoor Writers Association of America; the Hal Borland Award; and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the North American Nature Photography Association.

A good man who left the planet a better place than he found it, he will be badly missed.