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Feb 7, 2016 10:34 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

Robin Chandler Duke, Champion Of Women's Rights And Longtime Southampton Resident, Dies February 6

Feb 9, 2016 3:26 PM

Robin Chandler Duke, a champion of women’s health and reproductive rights, a corporate executive and board member for some of the nation’s largest companies, a journalist, and a former U.S. ambassador, died Saturday, February 6, at Bishop Gadsden, a retirement community in Charleston, South Carolina. She was 92.

Ms. Duke and her husband, Angier Biddle Duke, had been summer and, later, year-round residents of Southampton since 1961. Ms. Duke sold the family home on Gin Lane a few years after her husband’s death, in an in-line skating accident in the village, in 1995.

“She was the grandest of ladies,” said Southampton attorney Mary Jane Asato, who began representing Ms. Duke in the 1980s and, over time, became a close friend of hers. “She really was truly a lady. She was always, always the nicest, the kindest, the most gracious woman I’ve known.”

Born Grace Esther Tippett in Baltimore, Maryland, on October 13, 1923, Ms. Duke, ever practical and pragmatic, changed her name to Robin Chandler at the urging of her bosses when she was a young news broadcaster in New York in the 1940s.

She began her working life at the age of 16, joining her sister in New York, where they supported themselves and their mother. Ms. Duke was a floor walker in department stores in New York and was a model at the New York World’s Fair in 1939.

In the 1940s, Ms. Duke began her career in journalism as a panelist on an early television talk show “Leave It to the Girls,” created by pioneering broadcast journalist Martha Roundtree. She then worked as a writer for the women’s page at the New York Journal-American from 1944 to 1946, before marrying Warner Brothers actor Jeffrey Lynn and moving to Los Angeles.

Returning to the East Coast in the 1950s with two children, Jeffrey and Letitia, Ms. Duke worked at WCAU–TV, an NBC affiliate in Philadelphia, and as an anchor on the “Today” show with Dave Garroway, where she covered the 1952 Democratic Convention. Ms. Duke divorced Mr. Lynn in 1958.

She became disillusioned with the short employment contracts for women in broadcast news and its show business aspect, so she began studying finance. In the mid-1950s she became one of the first and few women stockbrokers on Wall Street, working the commodities desk for Orvis Brothers from 1953 to 1958, where she was a leading sugar trader for Pepsi-Cola. Pepsi eventually hired her away, appointing her to be vice president of international public relations, a position she held from 1958 to 1962. At Pepsi-Cola, Ms. Duke created a promotion in Africa where she led a four-month tour of West Africa with Louis Armstrong and his band.

“Please, Mr. Armstrong, make this tour a success—my job is on the line,” she remembered telling the jazz great before setting off for Africa. The legendary trumpeter turned to his band and said, “You fellas are going to behave on this tour, and not let this nice lady down.” Louis Armstrong became a lifelong friend.

In 1959, she helped orchestrate the placement of Pepsi in the hands of Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev and then Vice President Richard Nixon while on a state visit to Moscow. The unique promotional photo with the two of them and their Pepsis included the wonderfully ironic marketing slogan, “Be sociable, have a Pepsi.”

While arranging a U.S. exhibition of Peruvian Inca gold in the lobby of the Pepsi-Cola building on Park Avenue, she met Angier Biddle Duke. They would marry in 1962, and lived in Washington, D.C., where he was serving as chief of protocol for President John F. Kennedy. Mr. Duke was a scion of the family that made its fortune in tobacco and founded Duke University and Duke Energy.

Following the death of President Kennedy, Ms. Duke worked alongside her husband, who served as ambassador to Spain, Denmark and Morocco, before moving to London. There, Ms. Duke struck up a lifelong friendship with General William Henry Draper Jr., who convinced her in 1975 to serve as co-chair of Population Action International, a position she held for more than 20 years. Mr. Draper helped establish the organization in response to the growing economic and environmental challenges of the global population explosion.

Ms. Duke’s leadership of PAI led her to serve as trustee of the International Planned Parenthood Federation and president of the National Abortion Rights Action League’s Pro-Choice America and the National Abortion Rights Action Committee, and consultant for the United Nations Fund for Population Activities. She spent 30 years advocating in the United States and abroad for women’s access to birth control, family planning, family health care and education.

She was a fierce and tireless lobbyist in Congress fighting measures limiting women’s access to contraception and fighting for funding both at home and abroad for family planning and health care, particularly for the poor.

“You want to lift Africa out of poverty?” she was known to ask rhetorically. “Well, then, empower women by giving them access to contraception and clean water.”

Ms. Duke was an ardent Democrat and was a proud a New Yorker, despite stints living elsewhere. She campaigned unsuccessfully for U.S. representative from New York’s Upper East Side in 1978.

She served as a board member, trustee and chair of numerous corporate, foundation and organization boards, including the UN Association of the United States of America, Guggenheim Foundation, Rockwell International (1977-1995), American Home Products Corp., International Flavors and Fragrances, Emigrant Savings Bank, Worldwatch Institute, World Childhood Foundation, International Rescue Committee, Institute of International Education, Population Action International, Charles A. and Anne Morrow Lindbergh Foundation, Millennium Project of the Friends of Art and Preservation of Embassies, David and Lucile Packard Foundation, U.S.-Japan Foundation, World Affairs Council, and the Advisory Board of the Tolstoy Foundation.

Ms. Duke was a longstanding member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Colony Club and the River Club of New York, the Southampton Bathing Corporation, the Southampton Club and the Meadow Club.

In 2000, Ms. Duke was appointed ambassador to Norway by President Bill Clinton. She had previously served with the title of ambassador at the 21st General Conference of UNESCO, the UN Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization, in 1980.

At the Bishop Gadsden retirement community in Charleston, where she spent the last few years of her life, her mostly conservative co-residents called her the “Resident Communist” for her liberal outspokenness. Family said she loved that.

“She always was polite, kind, gracious, giving up her time. You did not get the impression that she was … privileged. She did not come off that way,” Ms. Asato said, adding that Ms. Duke was “definitely an accomplished, amazing woman. She was down-to-earth, considering her position and the various things she accomplished.

“She was so busy, but it was always giving back,” the attorney added. “She made it very clear that she felt it was really, really important to give back.”

Ms. Duke received many awards but was most proud of the Mary Lasker Social Service Award (1991) and Planned Parenthood Federation’s Margaret Sanger Award (1997).

Ms. Duke is survived by three children: Jeffrey Lynn of Florida, Tish Lynn of South Carolina, and Biddle Duke of Vermont; two stepchildren, Marilu Duke Cluett of Vermont and Dario Duke of Washington; a daughter-in-law, Idoline Duke; four grandchildren, Maggie and Nick Valiunas, Ellie and Angie Duke; and many friends and admirers.

A private family gathering will be held Thursday, February 11, in Charleston, South Carolina, where Ms. Duke had been living. A memorial service will be held this spring or early summer in New York City; the family said an announcement will be made at a later time of a date and location.

Memorial donations may be made to NARAL Pro-Choice America, prochoiceamerica.org.

Staff writer Alyssa Melillo contributed reporting.

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