Robin Chandler Duke, who went to work in modeling, in journalism and on Wall Street to support her family, then married a moneyed U.S. ambassador and deployed her social connections and personal charisma in a decades-long campaign for women’s reproductive rights, died Saturday at a retirement community in Charleston, South Carolina. She was 92.
Her daughter, Tish Lynn, confirmed her death and declined to disclose the cause. Duke, who had lived in Manhattan and on Long Island, New York, was well known in advocacy and political circles as a former president of the organization that is now NARAL Pro-Choice America. Among her more recent public roles was her tenure from 2000 to 2001 as ambassador to Norway in the final year of Bill Clinton’s presidency.
Duke — the fourth wife of the late Angier Biddle Duke, a four-time U.S. ambassador and heir to a portion of the American Tobacco Co. fortune — secured her first job as a teenager when her father left his family’s law film.
With her family in financial straits, she withdrew from private school and moved with her mother and sister into an $11-a-day hotel room in New York. While her mother worked as a cashier at a tearoom, Vogue magazine reported, 16-year-old Duke lied about her age to become a model at the Lord & Taylor department store.
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She parlayed her fashion work into a reporting position for the women’s pages of the old New York Journal-American, then leveraged that experience into a broadcasting career. In 1946, she married Jeffrey Lynn, a handsome film actor who had appeared alongside stars including Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney before World War II but whose career was on the wane.
The couple had two children before divorcing in 1958. Years later, Duke spoke publicly about the abortion she underwent during that phase of her life, as she worked to provide for the children she already had and feared that she was unprepared to care for more.
Although her broadcasting career showed considerable promise — she did stints on NBC’s “Today” show opposite host Dave Garroway and covered the 1953 wedding of then-Sen. John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Bouvier — Duke decided to change careers.
“I said to myself, ’This is not journalism, this is entertainment, and I don’t want to do entertainment,’ “ she told Vogue in 2006.
After training at the New York Institute of Finance, she became one of the few female stockbrokers of her era, working at Orvis Brothers from 1953 to 1958.
“There was lots of prejudice on Wall Street, but I was immune,” she said. “There wasn’t anybody who was going to get in my way. I had to support my children, and, believe me, I was not pushy, I was excessively polite; I was brought up to be polite, and I was.”
She was a member of the international public relations department at Pepsi-Cola from 1958 to 1962. Through her work in business, she met Angier Biddle Duke, known as Angie.
After their marriage in 1962 — with President Kennedy and the first lady in attendance — Duke moved to Washington where her husband, formerly a U.S. ambassador to El Salvador, served in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations as the State Department’s chief of protocol. She later accompanied him on ambassadorships to Spain, Denmark and Morocco.
Duke became interested in population control after traveling to Africa, where she said she witnessed the difficulties faced by women who “have a baby every 10 months and have very little substance with which to take care of the children.”
She served over the years as co-chairwoman of Population Action International, an organization that promotes contraception and reproductive health care, and as president of the organization then known as the National Abortion Rights Action League. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter named Duke chair of the U.S. delegation to the general conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, Unesco.
Until the end of her life, she campaigned for the cause of women’s reproductive rights.
“I have a real conviction. I never wanted to do just what is fashionable,” she told The Washington Post in 1997, when she received a lifetime achievement award from NARAL. “I’m hardly, at 73, going to be in need of an abortion or in danger of getting pregnant — who are we kidding? It’s for my children and grandchildren.”
She was born Grace Esther Tippett in Baltimore on Oct. 13, 1923. According to her daughter, she began going by Robin Chandler — Chandler was her mother’s maiden name — at the outset of her broadcasting career.
Duke co-founded the United States-Japan Foundation, which cultivates U.S.-Japanese relations, and served on the boards of organizations including General Motors, the grant-making David and Lucile Packard Foundation and the U.N. Association of the United States of America.
Angier Biddle Duke died in 1995 after being hit by a car while rollerblading on Long Island. Robin Chandler Duke’s survivors include two children from her first marriage, Jeffrey Lynn of Vero Beach, Florida, and Tish Lynn of Charleston; a son from her second marriage, Biddle Duke of Stowe, Vermont; two stepchildren, Marilu Duke Cluett of Moretown, Vermont, and Dario Duke of Wenatchee, Washington; and four grandchildren.
Duke once remarked that advocating for reproductive rights “is an issue that’s not very popular.”
“This isn’t like fighting for the museum in your town or some great cultural endeavor that everybody wants to identify with,” she told The New York Times. “This is an issue that nobody much likes.”
Reflecting on her life, in which she had experienced both great difficulty and great success, she observed that she looked “like the Establishment,” and that she had to “stay on that course because I want people like that to help me.”