Robert L. Breeden, a top officer with the National Geographic Society who helped launch a series of popular books about the White House and magazines such as National Geographic Traveler, died March 15 at his home in McLean. He was 87.
The cause was a brain tumor, said his daughter, Cindy Scudder.
Mr. Breeden was an assistant illustrations editor at National Geographic Magazine when he was tapped in 1961 by Melville Grosvenor, president of the society, to create the White House’s first official guidebook.
“The White House: An Historic Guide” was published in 1962 in conjunction with the White House Historical Association, a nonprofit that uses book sale proceeds to support White House refurbishment and acquisitions.
He worked closely with first lady Jacqueline Kennedy in designing the book. “She selected every item that we photographed, read every word, looked at every layout, selected every type face. She was a delight to work with,” Mr. Breeden told The Washington Post in 1994.
It was an immediate bestseller. Mr. Breeden told The Post the first edition, which cost $1, sold 250,000 copies within 90 days. The text has since appeared in more than 20 editions and has sold millions of copies.
Inspired by the success of the public service book, Mr. Breeden persuaded Grosvenor to start an independent book publishing enterprise, National Geographic’s special-publications division.
Starting in 1962, Mr. Breeden oversaw sales that would rise to more than 100 million books and a staff of nearly 300 employees. He was instrumental in expanding the division’s magazine publications. He founded in 1975 what became National Geographic Kids, one of the nation’s most widely read children’s magazines. National Geographic Traveler Magazine followed in 1984.
At National Geographic, Mr. Breeden was promoted to vice president of publications in 1980, joined the board of trustees in 1984 and became senior vice president for publications and educational materials in 1985. He left National Geographic in 1991 but continued to hold the title of trustee emeritus.
During his career, Mr. Breeden was also active in the White House Historical Association. His success with “The White House: An Historic Guide” led to other book collaborations with the association, including “The Presidents of the United States of America,” “The First Ladies of the United States of America” and “The Living White House.”
In 1983, he founded the association’s journal, White House History, which is published twice a year.
He was an association board member for 24 years and served as president from 1986 to 1990. He then served as the association’s chairman and chief executive before retiring in 2001.
Robert Lewis Breeden was born in Montgomery, W.Va., on June 20, 1925. After Navy service in the Pacific during World War II, he graduated in 1949 from West Virginia University Institute of Technology.
He received a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri in 1952 and soon afterward joined the National Geographic Society as a writer.
Mr. Breeden was past chairman of the United States Capitol Historical Society and a board member of the Supreme Court Historical Society. He was former vice chairman of the National Geographic Education Foundation, which awards endowments and grants that support geographic study. He received lifetime achievement awards from the White House Historical Association (2008) and the United States Capitol Historical Society (2012).
His wife of 64 years, Hilda Rushing Breeden, died in 2011. Survivors include a daughter, Cynthia Scudder of Annapolis; and two granddaughters.