By Maria Saporta
My favorite Anne Cox Chambers story dates back to the presidential campaign of 2008.
Her close friend, Veronica Biggins, told me how Chambers and a small group of Atlantans had gone knocking door to door for then-candidate Barack Obama in Ohio, South Georgia, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Florida, Louisiana and Texas.
Imagine one of the richest women in the world knocking doors of strangers, asking them to vote for the first African-American president in the nation’s history.
Anne Cox Chambers, who died on Jan. 31 at the age of 100, was an enigma.
She was an extremely private person who carefully selected when and where she would take a semi-public role. She preferred to work behind-the-scenes on causes she held dear – the arts and culture, rescue dogs, gardening and flowers, politics as well as international relations with a special love for France.
I first got to know Chambers during the 1980s when I was covering international business for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. At the time, she was chair of Atlanta Newspapers and a director of Cox Enterprises. She also was serving on the board of the Coca-Cola Co. following her tenure during President Jimmy Carter’s administration as ambassador to Belgium.
One special moment was when French President Francois Mitterrand came to Atlanta in 1984. Chambers was part of a VIP reception at the Polaris lounge before he made his luncheon speech at the Hyatt Regency. The next year, Delta Air Lines started flying nonstop from Atlanta to Paris – which solidified the ties between the city and France.
As a journalist, the moments when I actually wrote and/or interviewed Chambers were few and far between. Through her lawyer Chip Allen, I was able to get a feisty quote from her on the eve of Atlanta hosting the 1988 Democratic National Convention about the Southern Center for International Studies, an organization she had generously supported and even chaired the board.
Both Chambers and another past chairman, Sam Ayoub, resigned from the board in protest of the way the Center was being governed with Chambers calling it a “personal fiefdom.”
Another time when she demonstrated her independent streak was shortly after Gov. Joe Frank Harris became governor in 1983. Harris had instituted a zero alcohol policy at the Governor’s Mansion.
One of the first international delegations to come to the Mansion was from France, where it’s common place to be served wine with dinner.
The Harris administration approached Chambers, who lived across the street from the Mansion, to see if she would host a reception with alcohol before the dinner.
Her response was direct. “Tell the governor that I will not be running a tavern for the state of Georgia.”
One of the saddest days of my AJC career was when I interviewed Chambers (and her nephew Jim Cox Kennedy) in April 1998 right after Cox attorney Chip Allen, 53, was killed in a tragic plane accident. Both Chambers and Kennedy were audibly crying as I spoke with them separately on the phone about Allen.
“We have lost our best friend,” Chambers said. “He has left a gap that no one can ever fill for me.”
She told me that when she started having business investments in France, Allen learned French so he could advise her.
“His compassion and understanding and caring just went beyond any lawyer-client relationship,” she said at the time. “”I always counted on him being here long after I was gone.”
A much happier memory was when the Atlanta Press Club honored Chambers (along with her late father, Gov. James Cox, and her late sister, Barbara Cox Anthony) by inducting them into our Hall of Fame in 2012. We were delighted she attended the dinner, graciously speaking to guests, and proudly watching her grandson, Alex Taylor, accept the honor on her behalf.
Shortly before I left the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2008, I was invited to dinner at the Grant Park home of Rev. Austin Ford, the founder of Emmaus House. The intimate dinner included Veronica Biggins, Beauchamp Carr of the Woodruff Arts Center and Anne Cox Chambers.
When I arrived, Chambers was getting out of her limousine with her three non-pedigree dogs that quickly made themselves at home with Ford’s dogs. It was obvious Chambers and Ford, a modest man who was almost blind at the time, were regular dinner companions and dear friends.
I realized some of Chambers’ closest friends were people who had devoted their lives to helping the poor, civic leaders like Rev. Ford and Neil Shorthouse, the founder of Communities in Schools.
Back in the early 1990s, I remember talking with Don Keough, then president of the Coca-Cola Co. who was serving on the board of the Washington Post.
How wonderful it would have been for Atlanta if Chambers had become our version of Katharine Graham, the well-respected publisher and CEO of the Washington Post who led the paper during its coverage of Watergate.
Keough, a dear friend of both women, said such a role was not one Chambers would embrace, partly because of her shyness. She preferred staying in the background as a quiet philanthropist and letting others have the spotlight.
That reminds me of another story that her nephew, Jim Kennedy, laughingly told me.
“When I die, I want to come back as one of my aunt’s dogs,” Kennedy said. “They have the best life of all.”