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In 1949, when Carolyn Bennett Patterson first suggested to her National Geographic colleagues that the magazine try putting a picture on the cover every month, her superior, Miss Strider, scoffed and gave her a dressing-down. As Patterson, now 77, recalls in her new memoir, Lands, Legends, & Laughter: The Search for Adventure With National Geographic (Fulcrum), Miss Strider bellowed, “You must know that it is tradition to have only article titles and authors printed on the cover of the magazine. And tradition here is sacred!” Miss Strider paused for a moment, then added, “And while I’m on the subject, you should know that you have been seen walking too fast through the corridors. It’s not the custom here for young ladies to race around.”

That wasn’t the only time that Patterson found herself way ahead of the curve at National Geographic. In the early ’60s, Patterson became the first woman ever to be named a Geographic editor. In that post, she discovered—long before any of her colleagues—the value of “legends,” which in Geo-speak means photo captions. Patterson knew that the magazine’s picture-loving subscribers were likelier to read the legends than the articles themselves. Using that rationale, she managed to persuade her bosses to increase the legends department’s editorial space, not to mention its staff and its travel budget. As a result, caption writers at the Geo—and probably nowhere else on earth—travel overseas for firsthand reporting forays.

Patterson, a Mississippi native who experienced a “lonely” childhood, came to the Geographic from New Orleans States. The only “girl” on the city crime beat there, Patterson covered—among other things—the murder of a butcher who had refused to pay protection money to the Mafia. The butcher lost his head on his own meat-chopping block; not long after Patterson tracked down and interviewed a witness to the crime, the witness’ corpse was found in a lime pit.

Life at the Geographic proved no less dramatic. In an Aguirre, the Wrath of God-like scene, Patterson’s canoe was fired upon by bow-and-arrow-wielding Indians in Brazil. And once, an elderly baron invited Patterson to his dusty ranch, then proceeded, under the lunch table, to try to feel her up. She firmly resisted, though she accepted the uncut emeralds he gave her as a goodbye present. Later she laughed about it with her husband, Pat. “You can’t wander around the world,” she says, “and not expect to get some of that stuff.”— Louis Jacobson