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Tribute: The Master, Les Line, Dies

Baboon bacchanals; eau de crawfish pee; snake fights; World Cup bottle tops; more.

The Master
Audubon’s legendary editor left his mark on this magazine, and environmental journalism, in many ways.

Les Line, who died of heart failure on May 23 in Sharon, Connecticut, was a great editor by any standard. From 1966, when he assumed the helm of this lively but small-circulation magazine until he relinquished it in early 1991, he assembled an estimable team of writers, photographers, designers, and editors who helped transform Audubon into a publication of national influence. Yet no matter what their exemplary skills or reputations, he rivaled each in his or her area of expertise. This editor was also a superior writer and photographer, and a master of design.

Yes, Les could be overbearing, almost self-destructive at times. Often disdainful of niceties, he could tread on the toes of other senior staff members who wanted the magazine to function as an informative house organ of the National Audubon Society. He envisioned Audubon as a different kind of organ, one of many splendors, with the flair to marshal public opinion beyond the society’s membership on behalf of nature.

The glory of his magazine attracted subscribers, and helped swell a membership that was about 36,000 when he arrived to a number close to 500,000 when he retired. In addition to the National Magazine Awards he won, he earned for himself a Gold Medal from the Rhode Island School of Design, a doctorate in literature from Bucknell, and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the North American Nature Photography Association.

He was born Leslie Dale Line in Sparta, Michigan, in 1935. Birding, hunting, and nature photography were early and lasting avocations, while his professional life began as a photographer and outdoors editor of the Midland Daily News. He would sometimes go on assignments with a young reporter and editor from the paper’s women’s page, and in 1961 she became Mrs. Lois Line. An active conservationist, Les served on the board of the Michigan Audubon Society and as editor of its newsletter. From there he came to New York to assume the job he seemed destined for.

Les had the gift of inspiring confidence and great loyalty among his staff. In 1977 he suggested I research and write a brief article about a subject that didn’t especially interest me, a story about a controversial new nuclear power plant. I kept a low profile, hoping he’d eventually forget about it. But after he mentioned it a third time, I decided I’d better look into it. I soon realized I had a good story and told him so. Without hesitation, and before he had seen the results, Les scheduled it as a major feature, with what was, for the time, a lavish color design.

My name went on the sleek piece of crystal that represented the major national award the article won. But all of us at Audubon knew the crystal really belonged in Les Line’s trophy case.

For memories from others who knew Les Line, and to add your own, click here.

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