YOU WOULDN'T THINK YOU COULD BLOW AN ENTRANCE ON A CAMEL, but that's what happened when Richard C. Wiese, president of the Explorers Club, made his way into the organization's 2006 annual dinner, bumping and grinding right across the floor of the Waldorf-Astoria's crowded ballroom. It was a frightening sight: not the camel, but the way almost none of the 1,350 guests even looked up. Tough crowd.
The assembled dignitaries on this icy night in March, dressed in white tie or ball gowns, included the cream of the world's adventure crop: Ed Viesturs, Sylvia Earle, Buzz Aldrin, along with dozens of other big names in science and exploration, and more than a thousand wannabes, all of whom packed into New York's most aristocratic hotel to celebrate discovery in a lofty, almost 19th-century atmosphere.
Venerable and slightly irrelevant, the Explorers Club is a Manhattan-based institution with global reach, founded in 1904 to promote exploration in any way possible, which these days means doling out small grants, aiding some explorers with PR, hosting public lectures and events, and toasting heroes at alcohol-soaked banquets like this one. Virtually every major adventurer of the past 100 years has been a member, from polar pioneers Shackleton and Byrd to mountaineers Hillary and Messner to researchers Leakey, Goodall, and Schaller. The club's more sedentary legion is made up of deep-pocketed enthusiasts and ambitious amateurs. Admission requires a background in legitimate field science or expeditions and nomination by two established members.
By definition, everyone at the Explorers Club has a story to tell, and tonight is when they tell it. By tradition, dinner starts late and features exotic animals and bizarre stunts. (In 2002, Wiese rode in on a white horse, which pooped on Sir Edmund Hillary's plate.) Flicking the ballroom lights on and off had no effect on the hubbub. The arrival of a Scottish pipe band was largely ignored, as was this year's parade of showstopping creatures, which included a gyrfalcon, a huge owl, and a nervous llama. Then came Wiese on his camel, pinned in the crossbeams of twin spotlights, his image carried on three overhead video screens as he tossed red carnations from atop the high hump. One landed on the head of a woman who plucked it off and kept right on talking.
Maybe the penis was to blame. We'd started the night at a cocktail reception next door, munching dare-you-to-eat-it appetizers like teriyaki rattlesnake (tough), toasted crickets (scrumptious), kangaroo testicles in French gravy (I didn't), something euphemistically labeled "optic globular capsules" (ibid.), deep-fried tarantula (nope), and bovine penis in sweet-and-sour sauce.
Advised that the bull unit was "very tender," I bit off more than I could chew. Bland and gooey, the meat glued itself to my teeth. I tried washing it down with pinot grigio. (Note to vintner Redwood Creek: Your wine goes great with pecker.) An hour later, as Wiese seized the microphone and urged everyone to sit down, I was still cleaning my teeth of the boogery remains.
The rest of the evening went down a bit better. Amid stirring images of Arctic explorers and atmospheric pioneers, oceanographer Sylvia Earle delivered a bang-up speech touting the salt-watery future of discovery. There was a film tribute to the 51 club members felled by Father Time in the past year. Then Buzz Aldrin rattled off a trillion-dollar list of future space missions that he'd like to see. J. Michael Fay, whose 2002 Megatransect trek across Africa galvanized interest in preserving the continent's rainforest, drew the evening's biggest laugh by admitting that, earlier in the day, he'd needed help from Explorers Club staff to navigate the suit department at Filene's Basement.
It's hard to shine in such company, and, as host, Wiese didn't. He punted a few jokes. He awkwardly quizzed the audience about how long it had been since they last saw his co-host, Jim Fowler, of Wild Kingdom fame. Other stunts just seemed pointless. When March of the Penguins director Luc Jacquet was honored, Wiese led four jackass penguins onto the stage.
"Richard, what kind of penguins are those?" Fowler asked.
"Well," Wiese replied, "I'd have to be a jackass not to know!"
"He is a jackass," a tuxedoed man behind me muttered.
Wiese forged on, urging Jacquet to translate the bird's trilling. "I only speak Emperor," the Frenchman coolly replied. He wasn't playing along.
Wiese sent the penguins packing. A journalist at my table looked up and said, "Wow. What a doofus."
EVEN KOFI ANNAN COULD BOMB at the Waldorf-Astoria, but Wiese was stumbling on a night when he wanted to dance. The day after the March dinner, he declined to run for a fifth consecutive one-year term as president. Instead, he's pouring energy into two new gigs: host of his recently launched TV show, Exploration with Richard Wiese, and guide for American Museum of Natural History Expeditions, the adventure-travel arm of the storied institution on Central Park. These are big steps for a man hoping to go it alone as the new sun-kissed face of exploration.
And what of the club without him? Ambitious, gregarious, annoyingly handsome, Wiese had succeeded in "giving the club an injection of adrenaline," says legendary WWII fighter pilot Burt Avedon, a club supporter for 30-plus years. "The club was a bunch of older guys who didn't have Richard's vision. They needed a big swift kick in the ass, and he gave it to them." He was elected in March 2002, vowing to pump up the nonprofit organization's budget, which was then largely dependent on random bursts of philanthropic kindness. The club, which has chapters across the U.S. and in 12 other countries, owns its regal six-story clubhouse on East 70th Street outright, but expenses add up. An annual budget of $1.5 million to $3 million covers maintenance, a 13-person staff, lectures, events, endless mailings, and $100,000 in grants for students.
More important, Wiese had promised the club a future. At 42, he was the youngest president ever, at a point when club parties could have been mistaken for AARP socials. (Though numbers weren't well kept, Wiese claims that for some years in the eighties and nineties, dying members were on par with new recruits.) Unable to fund its own expeditions since early in the 20th century, and founded to champion the dramatic exploration "firsts" that have mostly been claimed, the club had an image problem: It no longer had an image. It was turning into a musty watering hole for superannuated expeditionaries.
Wiese, a former model who'd worked as a TV journalist and weatherman, sought to change all that. The presidency has always been an unpaid position, a laurel for retired explorers or wealthy benefactors who could shake Manhattan's money tree. Wiese had that talent, but his plan for defibrillating the club revolved around an aggressive new publicity campaign. By making the institution a highly visible supporter of modern exploration in spirit, if not dollars he would attract both corporate cash and new, younger members.
And, as he admits, the presidency was a great platform for promoting the brand known as Richard C. Wiese the job was "an investment in myself," he told me giving him a high-profile way to polish himself up as the go-to guy on global exploration. (Still flush from earlier careers, he could afford to volunteer.)
The match was hardly perfect. Though Wiese was a prolific world traveler, his CV was light on genuine field exploration. He can fumble his patter, using terms like "Pakistanians" or mangling the name of an obscure polar explorer, the kind of gaffe never forgotten by the icy perfectionists who make up the club's active core. Tack on his good looks and naked ambition and Wiese rubbed some older traditionalists the wrong way: Several times, members sent letters to the board of directors complaining about him and bemoaning the club's commercialization.
Such gripes are what Wiese calls "the penalty of leadership," and he shrugged the criticism off while moving ahead with his rescue mission. One smart early move was helping to get some Harvard Business School alumni (one a club member) to conduct a case study of the organization's finances. When the brains concluded that philanthropic funding was drying up, Wiese switched to a corporate-sponsorship model, signing new partners like Redwood Creek and Land Rover to join stalwart Rolex in underwriting events. In exchange, the companies got well-placed banners and booths, plus effusive plugs anytime Wiese was near a microphone. In 2003, he launched the Central Park BioBlitz, a 24-hour scavenger hunt that drew 350 volunteer researchers and students to feverishly dig, dive, climb, and crawl through the urban oasis counting life forms. It earned more press than all but half a dozen moments in club history.
Wiese also used his nose for novelty to boost his own profile. In 2005, the Boy Scouts of America asked him to help name the encampments at their annual national jamboree after noteworthy explorers; their final picks included Jim Whitaker, the first American to climb Everest, astronaut Jim Lovell and Richard C. Wiese. Last fall, he earned a write-up in The New Yorker by installing a clear plastic-walled low-oxygen chamber at the clubhouse, which allowed him to acclimatize for an ascent of 18,700-foot Mexican volcano El Pico de Orizaba while doing paperwork.
For the club, the upshot of all the noise was a record number of members, 3,300, by early 2006, and a reduction in average age, from a retiring 67 to a Viagra-enhanced 59. Social events felt energized even a bit hip. "I swear I see people hooking up," Wiese told me before he left the presidency. "It's starting to be a bit of a middle-aged pickup place."
In the words of mountaineer and member Robert M. Anderson, author of Seven Summits Solo, Wiese "did good by the club." But after four years of progress, Wiese claims he was still in "an absolute dogfight to take some of these people kicking and screaming into the 21st century." Disputes with the board of directors over financing, educational initiatives, and grants were refought every year, Wiese told me several weeks after he left his position, until he was exhausted by "petty politics" worthy of "any PTA meeting in America." Being president was "like herding cats," and there was too much "ego," "jealousy," and "testosterone." Citing a friend's analysis, he insisted that some board members "are so jealous of me. And they are sabotaging me."
THERE ARE ACTUALLY THREE MEN known as Richard Wiese. The first is Richard Wiese Sr., a legendary Pan Am pilot. Now 76, Wiese Sr. (who bills himself as "the real Richard Wiese") was the first man to fly solo across the Pacific, in 1959, using a twin-engine turboprop and one of the earliest satellite weather maps.
Junior grew up on Long Island a child of the Jet Age with access to free worldwide flights on Pan Am. He summited Kilimanjaro at age 11 and hasn't stopped traveling since. Sandy-haired and six-one, Wiese has an all-American, glass-of-milk appearance. He worked as a Ford model (see Mademoiselle, August 1979), weatherman (in Connecticut and then New York), and actor (mostly on soap operas, but he also did a brief smooch scene with Brooke Shields in 1981's Endless Love). Then, in 1988, he broke into national television as a correspondent for a Fox science-and-technology program called Beyond Tomorrow.
Now 46 and single (he has a girlfriend), Wiese has a smooth, camera-ready manner that can lead to the assumption he's an airhead. He's not. He's a Brown graduate, fluent in history, biology, cosmology, and literature. As a correspondent for the UPN affiliate in New York, he won a science Emmy in 1996 for his reporting on germs in public places. (Bottom line: Don't use the cash machine in Grand Central.)
Then there's the third Richard Wiese, whom Wiese himself refers to as "Richard Wiese, TV character." This is the name-dropping doppelganger who sometimes shows too much chest hair in photographs and is known to wear nylon safari shirts covered in pointless Velcro tabs.
It's this Richard Wiese who stars in Exploration with Richard Wiese, which is produced by South Carolina based Litton Entertainment and began airing last fall. In one episode I watched, Wiese saddles a horse at a Colorado dude ranch while promising "adventure" and an "expedition." When I woke up 20 minutes later, he still wasn't on the horse. In 22 episodes, syndicated nationally in New York, it's on ABC at the ungodly hour of 5:30 a.m. on Saturdays Wiese climbs New Hampshire's Mount Washington (you can drive to the top), wades with crocodiles in Australia, and ice-axes his way up peaks in the Rockies and Alaska. If the budget were any lower, they'd have to shoot the whole thing in Central Park.
Wiese joined the Explorers Club in 1989. Like Walter Cronkite and Lowell Thomas, he qualified partly for his ability to communicate the importance of exploration to others. Elected president on his first try, in 2002, he began upping his expedition cred, making a first ascent in Alaska and joining an archaeological dig in Cyprus. He stood in contrast to his immediate predecessor, Faanya Rose, a steely Englishwoman "of mature age," as she puts it, a powerful advocate for conservation in Africa, and the wife of beloved club patron Robert H. Rose.
The difference in their styles was illustrated one night this spring, when I attended a book party hosted by Outside on the club's second floor. (The club occasionally rents the space out.) Wiese was there, working the room, collecting contacts, and booming out his anecdotes. Rose, meanwhile, had bypassed what she later referred to as "the promotion" and headed to the members-only fifth floor, a half-timbered space with more stuffed animals than a Toys "R" Us (among them a mounted cheetah, the heads of 22 lions and gazelles, an antelope "collected" by Charles Lindbergh, and a black rhino plugged by Teddy Roosevelt). Amid the trophies, she gamely absorbed a lecture on the latest research in Egyptology.
Rose, who comes across like Margaret Thatcher to Wiese's Bill Clinton, declined to discuss Wiese's friction with the board. When I called her for an interview, she diplomatically said that "every president has their own particular strengths" and made what sounded like a backhanded compliment, noting that Wiese excelled at "the razzmatazz." When I asked what she really thought of him, she gave me a black eye over the telephone.
"I won't be drawn," she hissed.
FROM THE BEGINNING, the Explorers Club was conceived as a place for the frostbitten to meet the star-smitten. That's still how it plays out. Barry Clifford, the underwater-treasure hunter who in 1984 found the pirate ship Whydah off Cape Cod, told me about the time in the eighties when "Frank," a man he'd met at the club, showed up at a dive site and bought lobsters and champagne for the entire crew, then wrote him a check for $20,000. Frank turned out to be Frank Wells, the now-deceased president of Disney.
On most of the dozen nights I visited the club (all but three while Wiese was still president), Wiese was on the second floor, scoping the movers and shakers "He knows the Anheuser-Busch people," he whispered about one fellow; "His family is Upjohn Pharmaceutical," he said of another. He was in his element, standing by the gilt-framed oil paintings that were preliminary studies for the famous dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History. The walls also display some of the club pennants that have traveled the world: Roy Chapman Andrews's flag from the 1925 Gobi Desert trip, during which he found fossils proving that dinosaurs laid eggs; Thor Heyerdahl's Kon-Tiki flag from 1947; and the flag of the 1970 Apollo 13 astronauts, who never reached the moon and almost didn't come back. The club continues to bestow the flags on expeditions as a kind of Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval that can encourage others to write checks.
Which brings us back to publicity, the double-edged sword that Wiese calls "crucial" to exploration (and to the club) because it drives funding. Any successful modern expedition, he says, must generate "millions of media impressions."
That sounds crass, but it's nothing new. "Funding is related to visibility," Robert M. Anderson says. "That's been true since before Columbus. In those days, royalty funded expeditions; then it was governments. In the U.K., it's still the army sometimes. In the U.S., it's corporations."
But to the club's old guard, not all media impressions are created equal. Wiese learned that the hard way in 2003, when he was named to People's 25 Hottest Bachelors list. "The board thought it was distasteful or were somehow shamed by it," Wiese says, adding ruefully that he had a girlfriend at the time. "They thought I was reckless. I wanted to make the [club] a fun place. I didn't want to have to beg someone to come."
Two longtime members, who asked not to be identified, told me that Wiese had come to symbolize a generational split at the club. Some older members were uncomfortable with his style and his push to expand the head count at what was, after all, supposed to be a highly exclusive organization. Others objected to the commercialization of club events. There were grumblings that Wiese made too many club-funded visits to chapters in other countries. Not all the old-timers complained, however: Wiese recalls fondly that, after one party salted with Manhattan beauties, a pleased septuagenarian member declared, "I've got really deep pockets!" and then wrote a $2,000 check to pay for another party.
Overall, Wiese was "very good for the club, and most of the current members would agree," says former club executive director Steve Nagiewicz. People may remember him for People, but they do remember him. The bachelors list was a positive, Nagiewicz argues, since it introduced younger people to the idea of a "handsome guy who's president of a club for interesting people . . . For good or bad, Richard has taken the concept of exploration and brought in new people."
SO HE'S HANDSOME and more or less articulate, travels the world for free, and stars on a TV show with his name on it. Even if he never makes prime time, it is still very good to be Richard Wiese.
Shortly after he stepped down from the presidency, I reached Wiese on his cell phone as he transited Norway, heading for Spitsbergen, and thence the Russian Ice Station Borneo, where he would start skiing to the North Pole. Freed from the day-to-day hassles of running the Explorers Club, he was charging ahead with his guiding work for Expeditions. Among other duties, Wiese was tasked with developing a North Pole trip, as well as a climb of Everest. He now has two new titles: At the Explorers Club, he is welcomed as "president emeritus," while the American Museum of Natural History Expeditions calls him an "explorer in residence" which smacks of commercial hype, given that he doesn't actually work in the museum. But so what? Like those oil studies on the walls of the Explorers Club, he's scaling up to a larger venue.
The club itself is probably in its best condition in decades, though the presidency has become a much tougher job. Wiese ended up persuading his successor, a wealthy Texas sportswear entrepreneur and amateur climber named Daniel Bennett, to run against three others. Bennett, 54, was elected just one day after joining the board of directors and says he hopes to see the club start funding expeditions again, as it did in the days of early Arctic research. But it's unlikely he'll be able to remix the place's pith-helmet DNA any more effectively than Wiese.
"Richard Wiese, TV character," meanwhile, remains a work in progress. Since "low-budget" also means "easy to renew," Litton Entertainment is considering re-upping Exploration with Richard Wiese. He may yet become the next iteration of America's explorer-entertainer of the airwaves, a role that's passed from Explorers Club stalwarts like Lowell Thomas, in the thirties, to Jim Fowler, in the seventies and eighties, and, earlier this year, to Josh Bernstein, the Indiana Jones style host of the History Channel hit Digging for the Truth.
Stranger things have happened. Wiese came back from the North Pole two weeks later with all his fingers and toes, tan and burnished by the sun and wind into his natural colors of bronze and brass. He looks like he's going to be around for a while.