For more than two decades, Susan Schiefelbein enjoyed a remarkable working relationship with the underwater adventurer Jacques Cousteau in helping to bring his beliefs to the written page. June marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Cousteau, who counted Schiefelbein among the five closest friends of his life.
By Beatrice Pavia
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
When a young Susan Schiefelbein ’72 MEDIA first met the famed undersea explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau, perhaps it was appropriate she was soaking wet.
“What are you doing here?” Schiefelbein recalls a forgetful New York City editor asking her at the end of a workday back in 1975. “You were supposed to be at the Pierre Hotel meeting [him] at 5:30.”
“It was pouring down rain … and I couldn’t get a cab,” the veteran writer recounted, resulting in a very soggy self at their very first encounter.
And so began a 20-plus-year relationship between a young writer and a visionary, an American ingénue and a French legend, a pair who, despite their 40-year age difference, could enjoy both nailing down the details or grandly expounding on the universe. “He was my ‘éminence grise,’” Schiefelbein said, using the French term for “gray eminence” or powerful adviser. “He was the most imaginative and creative man I’ve ever met,” she said. “I will never have a friend like that again.”
If underwater cameras were Cousteau’s eyes and the Aqua-Lung his breath, then Susan Schiefelbein has been his voice. True, “The Silent World” and other Cousteau documentaries have garnered attention, acclaim and wide-eyed wonder, but it is Cousteau’s words – his “unsilence,” if you will – that have underpinned the dazzle of imagery with the thoughtfulness of reflection. Throughout much of her career, Schiefelbein has helped bring those messages to the public – via Cousteau’s Saturday Review columns, magazine articles, the narrations for several of his films and their decades-long collaboration on his manifesto on social issues, “The Human, the Orchid and the Octopus” (Bloomsbury, 2007).
But don’t mistake her for having reached the spotlight by hanging onto a famous man’s coattails (or diving flippers). Schiefelbein was in New York City, the mecca of magazines, in the first place by virtue of having won a nationwide contest for journalism students. Just seven years out of college Schiefelbein landed the
National Magazine Award, “the most distinguished the magazine world has to offer,” according to The New York Times. And as a very young writer, she was working at Saturday Review, one of a quartet of “big-think” magazines that also included The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s Magazine.
But first, Schiefelbein was an undergraduate journalism student at the University of Illinois, so shy, she says, that she trembled in a phone booth as she dialed her sources for her first assignment.
Reading, writing and the rawness of nature
Hailing from the Chicago suburb of Western Springs, Schiefelbein said she had never seen anywhere else as flat as her new campus environs – nor as brutal. “I remember the wind blowing so hard that you’d put your feet together,” she recalled, “and it would blow you along the ice. … It was so cold that I took in a breath, and my lungs froze.” Weathering those woes proved worth it, though, if for nothing else than the solitary hours it gave her with her father on the long drives back and forth from home. “It was the best time I ever spent with him,” she said, “because … he would speak to me as though I were a peer because I was [at] the University.”
Flat, brutal, precious – the wholeness with which Schiefelbein views the world has served her well in the course of her career. She would go on to cultivate her skills, producing works known for a richly visual quality hushed with awe. And the well-roundedness of her observations mirrors Schiefelbein as well. A diminutive figure with a prodigious brain, her friendly neighborliness contrasts oddly with her throaty, cabaret-type voice; she is equally at home in a senator’s office or a Gregory Hall classroom; she agrees to an interview and thanks you for asking. She holds fast to friends – including the high and heroic – and still counts her mother as a pivotal force.
“Susie was apart from other people,” said Donna Vasilion Urschel ’73 MEDIA, Schiefelbein’s Chi Omega sorority sister and roommate. “She was just so golden.” The girl who swam in the English Building pool, steadfastly exercised and headed the UI Panhellenic Council “had this wonderful ability to converse with people,” Urschel said of Schiefelbein. “She can charm anybody.”
It was at Illinois that Schiefelbein would begin to build a lifelong habit – gathering people together to discuss just about anything. She brought in a steady stream of professors to lunch at the sorority and even cajoled then-Chicago news reporter Bill Kurtis to share a meal with her and the late photojournalism professor Dick Hildwein. “I thought it was just like brainstorming,” she said, “an interesting conversation with interesting people.”
If underwater cameras were Cousteau’s eyes and the Aqua-Lung his breath, then Susan Schiefelbein has been his voice.
It was also at Illinois that Schiefelbein gained a thorough grounding in journalism-related issues and the value of digging deep, believing that she “had a preparation better than any other young [writer] in New York.” She also presents a daunting scenario of the monumental work ethic which would become her calling card: “I always thought … that the way to get ahead was to do so much work in the time limit [your editors] gave you that they’d be stunned,” Schiefelbein said. “So you’d stay at home, you don’t get dressed, you don’t take a shower, you don’t stop to eat, and then when you do get dressed, you go to the library, you stay from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., and then you come home and read the articles and look at the bibliographies and see who the experts are quoting, and then you go back to the library the next day and get those experts.”
Exactly the tools Schiefelbein would use in the course of her career to snag nearly 20 cover stories, the National Magazine Award (for the Saturday Review cover story “Children and Cancer”), the Front Page Award for science reporting, the award of the American Association of University Women for best writing on women’s issues, and the ability to debate learnedly and gracefully with some of the most forward-thinking minds of the 20th century.
Jumping off the high dive
“I had all the time in the world to write whatever I wanted,” muses Schiefelbein of her more than three decades as a writer. “That means you can just take a [leap] off the high dive and stay in the water as long as you wanted.”
And she has swum wide, deep and far in bringing to the public her searing but scrupulously researched stories on issues facing the environment, science, society and health – from limb regeneration to how doctors treat female patients to the plunder of fisheries to the storage of nuclear waste. She can report on a brutish medical school professor, then turn you around for a glimpse into the birth of the universe. She describes her impulse to walk away from a children’s cancer ward as honestly as she lets you in on the confusion of Parisians shopping in an American products store. She can load you up with projections on the problems of oceans, then weaken your knees in describing the beauty down under.
Schiefelbein’s stories on science have been read into the Congressional Record; her documentary film narratives have won Peabody, ACE and Sept d’Or awards. And she has not only written on her own but in conjunction with 20th century icons: the pioneering Cousteau, the impassioned Norman Cousins and the endlessly fascinating National Geographic Society.
At Saturday Review, Schiefelbein eventually made her way up the ladder to senior editor, but she started as a first-rung editorial assistant, where she worked with Cousteau on his magazine columns (it didn’t hurt that she spoke French). After their initial encounter at the hotel, the pair’s first serious business meeting plunged her into a marathon weekend. “I glanced at the hundreds of books lining the shelves along the walls and knew they contained accounts of all the legendary storytellers, from Scheherazade to Coleridge’s ancient mariner,” Schiefelbein writes in “The Human, the Orchid and the Octopus.”
“Before me sat their real-life incarnation. For 14 hours in an empty office building, this mariner had held me spellbound with the tales he’d told. It was a day the likes of which I wondered if I’d ever live again.”
“I just adored, adored talking with him,” said Schiefelbein, a permanent resident of Paris since 1993, of these conversations that flowed throughout their friendship. “When we were together like that, it was the most wonderful afternoons and evenings and sometimes midnights that I ever spent in my life.”
While “other people would go from A to B to C to D, logically, to get to Z,” she said in describing the way many people express their thinking, “Cousteau would go from A to Q to Z … and I would understand all of what was in the middle.
“We just clicked that way.”
“Susie’s education and her knowledge interested JYC most of all,” said Jan Cousteau, referring to the acronym (pronounced “zheek”) formed by the initials of her father-in-law’s name. “JYC admired Susan a lot, admired her intellect, her understanding of a lot of the issues that were important to him. … Susan and JYC could sit and talk ideas.”
The Saturday Review folded several years after Cousteau and Schiefelbein met, prompting him to want to keep her writing talent all to himself. “Don’t take another job right away,” he told her, “because we could spend six months together writing an environmental manifesto.” Between his years-long exploratory jaunts and his inability to sit still (“Let’s go to a chocolate shop; let’s go get tea”), “The Human, the Orchid and the Octopus” took nearly two decades to complete.
Weaving together Cousteau adventures with shocking examples of the destruction of nature, the book, which was published to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Cousteau’s death, shines with his unflagging curiosity and courage. Calling the intricacy of nature “an orchestration of accidents,” the book observes: “In its relatively short existence, life has evolved into the forms biologists consider the most complex vertebrate, the human being, and the most complex plant, the orchid. I [Cousteau] would designate the octopus, given its intelligence and devotion to the continuation of its species, as the top invertebrate. The resounding chord in evolution’s symphony: the human, the orchid, and the octopus.”
With the book project stalling and starting, Schiefelbein proved invaluable during that time to Cousins as he wrote his ground-breaking book, “Anatomy of an Illness,” (1979) on the effect of attitude on health, and to National Geographic, co-authoring “The Incredible Machine” (National Geographic Society, 1986) about the human body. She also traveled with Cousteau to the Amazon, Canada and California and sometimes took up translation work when Cousteau’s checks were late.
Due to complications with the family estate, the Cousteau-Schiefelbein book, completed in 1996, lingered for years after Cousteau’s death in 1997. It finally came to print a decade later, “never intended as his final statement,” she said, although it may have looked that way due to the timing of its publication. “He just wanted to do a book on our beliefs.”
Deciding for the future
And expressing those beliefs is paramount to Schiefelbein, whose conviction in the importance of such writing verges on the spiritual.
“The urgent problems of today and the urgent problems for the future are science problems, science decisions,” she said. Pooh-poohing from public officials and experts on serious matters like pollution and nuclear waste angers her “because they’re taking a great privilege from the [populace] to determine its own future.
“I’m a firm believer that these are public issues,” Schiefelbein said, “and they shouldn’t be kept just for the scientists or just a politician – they should be decided in the public forum, and that’s the great privilege of a science reporter.” While journalists are paid to ask the questions that everybody in the community has the right to ask, she said, the writers then “have an obligation to the community to say, ‘Here is what I learned.’”
Has Schiefelbein followed her own credo? In “The Incredible Machine,” she offers an insight into a human baby’s development; her words may well reflect not just the science of the moment but Schiefelbein’s own work at large.
“The making of a human being is more than just assembling differentiated cells,” she writes. “Our genes issue orders for our bodies and our brains, but our humanity is the embodiment of concern provided or begrudged, education offered or withheld, love denied or bestowed.”
Just so are Schiefelbein’s writings: reaching far beyond a mere assemblage of data, infused with concern, education and love, prompting and guiding us to the full potential of our humanity.