The Explorer

posted by SWC on July 10th, 2011 · Leave a Comment | | Printer Friendly Version

Professional indexers do not often get a chance to index books they have written, an appealing idea I thought.  That was one of the reasons I agreed to ghostwrite a book on earth’s vanishing primitive peoples.   The author was Lewis Cotlow whose films and books included titles like Passport to Adventure, Amazon Head-Hunters,  Zanzabuku, or Dangerous Safari, and In Search of the Primitive.  Popular anthropology is not quite the category into which I would place his work, but it is close enough.  Think pith helmets, rainforests. Add escapes from charging rhinos, lectures before the New York Explorers Club, and a touch of malaria.

Cotlow came of age when a square jaw and a rucksack full of gumption could still do everything for a young man.  His lifelong wanderlust was given a swift kick forward when at 21 he went to sea for three years employed as a supercargo, charged with the care and commercial fate of his ship’s cargo, a Joseph Conrad job if there ever was one.  But it was as an aggressive insurance salesman that Cotlow grew rich enough to spend half a year away from home and business as film maker, author, and lecturer, carrying the identity card of an Explorer.

He lived in a large comfortable Park Avenue apartment near Bloomingdales, a likely source of its elegant decor, I imagined.  His den, however, was a stunning last resting place of the great beasts of the wild.  The floor was covered with a large, gleaming white polar bear rug, which I nimbly avoided stepping on.  An elephant’s foot served as an occasional table.  While I was  studying his collection of wall hangings–masks, shields, spears, a zebra hide, clustered arrows,  Cotlow removed a shoebox from a cabinet and asked me if I would like to see a shrunken head, an actual human shrunken head.  I told him that my nerves could manage a peep, and we soon settled down to our drinks and talk of the plight of the primitive world.

After two hours I left Cotlow, my briefcase bulging with a few of his previously published books, which he asked me to  draw ideas and inspiration from as I wrote the opening chapters of The Twilight of the Primitive.   I also carried abundant notes taken during our conversation, along with fresh tapes and transcripts from his recent travels among Brazil’s Xingu River people, who are now in the world news owing to the expected construction of a huge hydroelectric dam which will flood their lands and end their way of life.  And soon he would be off to the Arctic to learn how the Eskimos of Alaska’s North Slope were getting on with their new oil industry neighbors.  Meanwhile, I would be back at St. Marks Place writing and looking forward to a flat-rate check of $300.00 for each chapter, about two month’s rent in the 1970s. 

Before I could start typing away on my portable Olivetti, however, I needed to sort out how Cotlow thought about the people who were disappearing into a twilight of cultural extinction.  They were for him undoubtedly denizens of the dark , the Othermost side of the planet, known best by the plucky and adventurous.  That version sold well in the movie business. The trumpeting of elephants, chattering chimpanzees, and the ever ominous drums.

But Cotlow also wanted us to see the Primitives as not much different from his life insurance customers.  With his camera crew on hand his chummy relationship with the average Masai, Mangbetu, or  Watusi was transactional.  If you wanted to film them doing a ritual dance, he would say,  you first had to sell yourself.  They had to like you.  Another thing:  like the rest of us they had an urge to teach as well as learn, and they had much to teach, as his books attest.  He believed that their absence from the human neighborhood we would shortly and surely mourn.  He was right about that.

As for the index, not quite two week’s work,  it was as much fun to do as I had expected. At the end, Cotlow was generous; there was a bonus, a provision in his will earmarked for my son’s college expenses. That was fine. The only thing I still have difficulty getting over is that he did not understand how I could charge $150.00 for the index.  Indexers have their odd practices too, he must have thought.


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