Until last Monday, Bill Allen, the good looking former editor-in-chief of National Geographic, was a loner—a "privacy nut" who kept to himself, flew under the radar, and whose only known address was a P.O. Box in Alexandria, Va.
Then, suddenly, he was splashed across the gossip page of The Washington Post, camera in hand, alongside a glamorous shot of fun-loving Tipper Gore.
In breathless prose, the paper implied that the 71-year-old former editor was no mere arm candy, but rather a serious beau for the former second lady. It seems as though Tipper, 63, has found a new man.
Friends say they were “surprised”—some say “shocked” —by the unexpectedly flashy outing.
“It must be true,” concludes a longtime intimate of Tipper. “That picture of Tipper [in the Post] was not a stock shot. It was sanctioned. It was taken by one her closest friends in Nashville, Nancy Rhoda, and either she or someone else gave it to the paper.”
Former National Geographic executive editor and author Robert Poole says he first heard about the “deep friendship,” as the paper calls the pair’s relationship, through the social grapevine early last January. At that time, Poole says, Allen told an associate “he was going out with a woman in California” (Tipper now resides in a plush $8 million manse in Montecito) and after the pair were photographed at an event in Santa Barbara in February, the tom-toms started beating.
Although Poole worked with Allen for many years, he too was startled by the relationship. Allen “was so retiring, and did not want any attention, but he‘s really got it now,” says Poole.
Since her separation from former VP Al Gore after 40 years of marriage, the usually effervescent Tipper has opted out of the limelight as well. She zeroed in on her family (three daughters and a son, plus several grandchildren) and her main interests (photography and mental-health advocacy), dividing her time between California and her childhood family home in Alexandria. Recently she has been spotted around Washington at small gatherings, Allen in tow. Her husband, meanwhile, has been seen out and about with big time environmentalist and Democratic donor Elizabeth Keadle.
Now, suddenly, simply everybody wants to know more about Allen, a once low-profile photographer and wine connoisseur who has been married, had a son, and was so discreet through it all he left few tracks in his wake.
According to well-placed individuals, a shared passion for photography lit the spark. Tipper used to hang out with photographers at National Geographic, and over the years became so accomplished that her work now commands up to $1,000 a photo at galleries in Chicago and Philadelphia. She also attended innumerable seminars, workshops, and conferences and must have inevitably crossed paths with Allen on a number of different occasions.
After a stint as an army photographer in Korea and graduate school at Georgetown University, Allen, a native of East Tyler, Texas, began his career as a photo intern at National Geographic and rose through the ranks to become top editor. “I called for an appointment on Tuesday, had an interview on Thursday, began work the next Monday,” Allen wrote in a Washingtonian magazine article.
He formed a close bond with Gilbert M. Grosvenor, the dynastic chieftain and chair of the board, and stayed for 35 years, primarily as a picture editor. He retired in 2004 after 10 years as editor-in-chief.
Some colleagues viewed him as “calm, friendly, collected, a foxhole type of guy.” Others, like his No. 2 Robert Poole, describe him as outwardly friendly but basically aloof. “He was a safe choice to run the magazine, averse to confrontation. He liked being sucked up to and did not make waves,” reports Poole. In his book Explorers House: National Geographic and the World It Made, Poole also writes:
"Allen watched the magazine shrink, both in literal terms and in terms of the standing it had held within the organization. He cut pages, lightened the magazine's paper weight, reduced the number of map supplements, slashed field time, and gave over an increasing share of editorial pages to advertising—all to meet the straitened circumstances imposed upon him by a new administration that viewed National Geographic magazine as a relic of the glory days but still needed its revenues. Allen yielded them, while producing a magazine that remained quite good, but a bony, lightweight version of its former self, at higher cost to members."
One of the more traumatic incidents for both Allen and the magazine was the brouhaha over The Piltdown Bird, or as the Brits slyly dubbed it “The Piltdown Turkey.”
In November, 1999, National Geographic ran a major story about the Archaeoraptor, a fossil thought to be the missing link between dinosaurs and birds. It turned out to be a fraud cobbled together in China. The gaffe created a furor in the scientific community, which attacked the publication for flawed and faulty research. The incident remains one of the very few times the Geographic ever offered a mea culpa and corrected a story
A far more successful endeavor was the magazine’s first swimsuit issue in 2003, which covered 100 years of bizarre bathing costumes. Allen explained it provided the reader with “a sense of fun and wonder—as well as total astonishment at what some people will wear in public.”
In retirement, Allen remains an enigma. His photography Web site is hardly enlightening. It is filled with pretty pictures of wildlife and scenic views, and features a dazzling collection of his photos of beads and jewels, which are compiled in a book entitled Bedazzled: Where Beads + Inspiration Meet.
Elsewhere around the Web there is mention of his teaching at photo workshops and serving on some boards, but not a scintilla of personal information. So the nagging question rocketing around the photo community is: how will he cope as Tipper’s high wattage sidekick?
Some former associates harbor serious doubts. “I really don’t know,” replies one wry observer. “That man is so secretive and so mysterious he could well be in the witness protection program.”