As a philanthropist, Anne Cox Chambers forever enhanced Atlanta’s civic and cultural landscape. As a political activist and diplomat, her influence spanned the globe.
Yet Chambers, who died early Friday at 100, would want to be remembered as one who enjoyed life’s simple pleasures. She was happiest in her gardens, visiting with family and friends or spending time with her beloved dogs.
“Aunt Anne was a wonderful, kind and elegant lady who cared deeply about her family, her company and her country,” said her nephew, Jim Kennedy, who served as Cox Enterprises chief executive officer from 1988 to 2008 and continues his leadership as chairman. “She took the responsibility of good fortune very seriously and gave back to the best of her ability to the many causes she cared about.”
Friends and family are invited to a celebration of Mrs. Chambers’ life at 2 p.m. Thursday at All Saints’ Episcopal Church, 634 W. Peachtree Street NW.
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp offered condolences in a social media post on Friday: “Anne Cox Chambers’ contributions to the city of Atlanta and the state of Georgia will be felt for generations to come. (First lady Marty Kemp), the girls and I are praying for her family in this difficult time, and join them in honoring her remarkable legacy.”
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms sent a message of sympathy on Friday: “Derek and I convey our deepest condolences to the family of Anne Cox Chambers. She was generous to the community she loved, deeply cherished God’s gifts found in nature, and was a force to be reckoned with. Our thoughts and prayers are with her family and all those who loved and admired her.”
In a past interview, former Atlanta Mayor and U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young said he’d known and admired Chambers for years.
“She had a graceful demeanor,” he said, adding that while he rarely heard her speak above a whisper, “she could be very forceful about her opinions. She's supported people she believed in but never in big, public ways. She operated very much below the radar.”
Chambers and her sister, Barbara Cox, who died in May 2007, were owners of the privately held Cox Enterprises since 1974, when their brother, James M. Cox Jr., died and control of the family trust passed to them.
Since then, the company has grown exponentially. Atlanta and the metro area holdings of Cox Enterprises, including The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, were particularly special to her. Chambers served on the Cox board of directors and retained the title of chairman of Atlanta Newspapers.
“She loved Atlanta,” said her grandson Alex Taylor, the current president and CEO of Cox Enterprises. "She was an inspiring and special woman in so many ways. She had an extraordinary life and made a big impact on Atlanta. We will all miss her very much.”
Chambers, born Dec. 1, 1919, died in Atlanta with family members at her side.
“We had her 100th birthday in her residence and celebrated Christmas together and we were holding her hands when she died,” Taylor said.
Chambers’ parents were Margaretta Blair Cox and James M. Cox Sr., an Ohio schoolteacher who in 1898 launched the company that was to become Cox Enterprises with his $26,000 purchase of the Dayton Evening News Publishing Co., now the Dayton Daily News.
Chambers spent her childhood in Ohio, and as a teenager attended boarding schools in Tucson, Ariz., and Farmington, Conn., before entering Finch College in New York City. While a student there, her mother urged her to take a train to Atlanta in 1939 for a star-studded movie premiere.
“Her father had come to Atlanta to finalize his purchase of the Atlanta paper,” said Taylor. “Her mother contacted her in New York to tell her she had to come down immediately for the premiere of ‘Gone With the Wind,’ which was the biggest event in the world at that time.”
In a 2004 interview, Chambers recalled the occasion: “Mayor (William B.) Hartsfield came in an open car with those . . . beautiful people — coming up right in front of the Georgian Terrace. It was just thrilling.”
Although Chambers shared her father’s interest in politics, she did not become politically active until the mid 1960s, when she met an ambitious young state senator from Plains.
By the time Jimmy Carter became governor in 1971, their friendship had blossomed. Because the Governor’s Mansion on West Paces Ferry Road in Atlanta had no swimming pool at the time, Carter would take his young daughter, Amy, across the street to splash in the pool at Chambers’ home, Rosewood.
“Rosalynn joins me in sharing our condolences to the extended family and friends of Anne Cox Chambers,” Carter said in a statement on Friday. “Ambassador Chambers was an important part of our lives for over six decades. Her life serves as a path for fairness and equality for everyone and especially for women and girls. Atlanta, our state of Georgia and the world has lost a wonderful woman, business leader, and philanthropist. Rosalynn and I are grateful to have been among those whose lives were so richly touched by her.”
In addition to backing Democratic candidates financially, Chambers, at age 84, walked the streets of her former hometown of Dayton on behalf of presidential candidate John Kerry.
And at 89, Chambers knocked on doors and passed out fliers in a number of states on behalf of Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. At one stop in Virginia, a homeowner threatened to get his gun when Chambers walked up with an Obama flier in hand.
Her support of Democrats was not blind, however. “She was in a rage with (President Bill) Clinton,” said the Rev. Austin Ford, a longtime friend. “He lied, and she said that people who have to raise children and grandchildren can’t put up with public officials who lie.”
Things worked out, apparently. In 1994, Clinton appointed her to the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities.
Political independent Mary Norwood, a former city council member and mayoral candidate now serving as president of the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods, called Chambers an inspiration.
“She was an influential businesswoman, dedicated public servant and legendary philanthropist,” Norwood said Friday “She was the epitome of grace and charm and we will all miss her. Atlanta and the world have lost an iconic figure whose impact will be felt for generations to come.”
Former Gov. Roy Barnes delighted in Chambers’ quick wit. While in office, he invited her to accompany him and then first lady Marie Barnes to a production of “Swamp Gravy” in tiny Colquitt, seat of Miller County in southwest Georgia. Gov. Barnes introduced Chambers to Terry Toole, editor and publisher of the local newspaper, the Miller County Liberal.
“Terry was taking up tickets at the old tobacco warehouse which acted as the theater for Swamp Gravy,” Barnes said Friday. “I said ‘Anne, I want you to meet Terry Toole, the editor, publisher, reporter and delivery man for the Miller County Liberal.’ Anne never missed a beat and said, ‘Nice to meet you Mr. Toole. I see we are in the same business.’ Everybody laughed and we had a great night. That was Anne. I will miss her greatly.”
A natural diplomat
Because Chambers’ allegiance to the Democratic Party was widely known, politicians and her newspapers’ readers might have assumed her views were made known to editors and opinion writers in order to influence coverage. That was never the case.
Journalists on her payroll even advocated for Carter’s defeat when he first ran for governor, but she would later tell an interviewer that the company would never force editorial support for a certain candidate.
“You can’t have a strong editor and do that,” she explained.
After Carter was elected president in 1976, Chambers was named ambassador to Belgium, one of four Georgians appointed to represent the United States abroad.
“She will be remembered and appreciated for having contributed to the strong relations between the United States, Georgia and Belgium,” William De Baets, Consul General of Belgium, said on Friday. “Mrs. Cox Chambers strongly supported Belgium’s presence and activities in Georgia, and kept close relations with Belgium’s diplomats in the Southeast.”
To prepare for the diplomatic assignment, she read voraciously and polished her French. The posting, from 1977 to 1981, was a seminal event in her life. Belgium’s King Baudouin I presented her with the Order of the Crown, one of the nation’s highest honors.
“She was not trained as a diplomat in somebody's formal diplomatic university, but her style, her class, and her wisdom enabled her to negotiate the European political community,” Young said.
As her ambassadorial assignment drew to a close, she purchased a home in Provence in the south of France, where she spent many months each year. The home, Le Petit Fontanille, was first recorded to an owner in 1350.
She spent many happy hours on the estate’s grounds, growing lavender and olives, which are harvested by raking them from the trees.
“On any given fall day, you’d find her out with a hand rake … up on a ladder,” Taylor said. “One time we were walking around in her olive garden. I said, ‘Can you just eat it straight from the tree?’ And she said, ‘Sure.’ I bit into it and it was the most rancid thing. I looked at her and she just giggled. … She loved joking around.”
Longtime friend William N. Banks of Newnan recalled her spirited personality in a past interview: “She was funny. She was marvelous. She was a lively conversationalist about everything.”
Chambers generously supported a wide array of causes and institutions including the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, the Atlanta Botanical Garden, the Atlanta Speech School and the High Museum of Art.
“Anne Cox Chambers was a remarkable friend and an extraordinarily generous supporter of the High Museum of Art,” director Randall Suffolk said Friday. “Her leadership made it possible for countless Atlantans and others from around the world to view the highest examples of artistic achievement. Through our exhibitions, programs, and outreach, we will continue to honor her legacy as a woman of great strength and kindness. She will be missed dearly.”
Chambers’ support of the High was integral to its design expansion by famed Italian architect Renzo Piano. One of two gallery buildings that opened on the Midtown campus in November 2005 is named for her. From October 2008 through September 2009, the High exhibited a number of important works from the Louvre Museum in Paris, owing largely to Chambers’ patronage.
“She was very proud of the French-Atlanta partnership,” Taylor said.
Her devotion to the Atlanta Humane Society is reflected in its annual honor, the Anne Cox Chambers Humane Heroine award. Its Alpharetta adoption center is named for her.
“Mrs. Chambers’ compassion, generosity, and commitment to our communities was exemplary and truly remarkable,” said Cal Morgan, President and CEO of the Atlanta Humane Society. “Her impact on the mission of the Atlanta Humane Society and the animals in greatest need has been and will continue to be felt for generations to come.”
This year’s recipient of the Anne Cox Chambers Humane Heroine award, Pamela Isdell, will be honored at the organization’s April 26 Bow Wow Brunch fundraiser. Past honorees include Ginny Millner, Cindy Voyles, Jenny Pruitt and Kay Quigley.
"To know that the first honoree was Anne Cox Chambers, I'm traveling in good company," said Pruitt, CEO and founder of Atlanta Fine Homes Sotheby's International Realty and the 2018 Anne Cox Chambers Humane Heroine award recipient.
Chambers’ support of the arts took on a creative, pioneering bent at times. In the 1960s, a number of homes along Peachtree Street were razed to make way for the modern new Woodruff Arts Center. Gone, too, was the coach house where members of the museum’s Women’s Auxiliary had operated a gift shop and tea room. Chambers was one of 12 volunteers who opted to find a new location and were therefore dubbed “The Dirty Dozen” for their bold action, although the late Atlanta society writer Yolande Gwin insisted that “such chic, smart and prominent women” be known as the “Darling Dozen.”
The Dozen chartered the Forward Arts Foundation on Sept. 21, 1965 and the Swan Coach House, the renovated carriage house originally part of the Edward Inman estate, opened in 1967. The restaurant, gift shop and gallery is near the Inman home known as the Swan House, now part of the Atlanta History Center’s campus.
The Forward Arts Foundation, which benefits the High Museum of Art, the Atlanta History Center, the Michael C. Carlos Museum, and the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, honored Chambers at its annual luncheon in 2013. Its 1965 articles of incorporation listed, along with Chambers, the other founding members to be named as lifetime trustees: Louise Richardson Allen, Elkin Goddard Alston, Frances McDonald Carmichael, Frances Floyd Cocke, Virginia Campbell Courts, Sylvia Montag Ferst, Isabelle Woolford Kennedy, Nora Clancy Maddox, Sara Giles Moore, Catherine Smith Nunnally and Josephine Crawford Robinson.
Chambers had been the last surviving founding member.
Educating underprivileged children was another passion. Chambers was a decades-long supporter of Communities in Schools, a program that serves at-risk students.
“Anne Cox Chambers has been with us since Day One,” said co-founder Neil Shorthouse. “We wouldn’t be here without her.”
In 2014, she was honored by the Atlanta Botanical Garden at its annual Garden of Eden Ball for her dedication and support of the Garden. A year or so before the event, Chambers visited the verdant property and wanted to see it all.
“She walked every square inch of the garden,” Atlanta Botanical Garden president and CEO Mary Pat Matheson recalled. “We kept offering her a ride in the cart and she walked.”
A lifetime trustee, Chambers had supported the Garden since its founding in 1976.
Chambers’ philanthropy at home and abroad was well-recognized. In 1993, Francois Mitterrand, then the president of France, named Chambers a member of the French Legion d’Honneur (Legion of Honor). She also supported many causes anonymously.
In Atlanta’s business world, Chambers established two firsts. In 1973, she was the city’s first female bank director, joining the board of Fulton National Bank, later renamed Bank South. Three years later, she became the first woman to serve as a director of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, now the Metro Atlanta Chamber. She was also a director of the Coca-Cola Company.
Her love for her parents, siblings and offspring kindled in her a desire to stay true to the Cox family’s commitment to civic duty.
“Her father had big ideas for changing the world,” Taylor said. “She wasn’t a politician, but she carried those same ideas about making the world a better place.”
Chambers is survived by three children, Margaretta Johnson Taylor, Katharine Johnson Rayner, and James Cox Chambers; four grandchildren, seven great-grandchildren, one niece, one nephew, and a host of loving relatives and friends.
Friends and family are invited to a celebration of life for Mrs. Anne Cox Chambers at 2 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 6 at All Saints’ Episcopal Church, 634 W. Peachtree Street, NW in downtown Atlanta.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.