Duke, Angier Biddle

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Duke, Angier Biddle

(b. 30 November 1915 in New York City; d. 29 April 1995 in Southampton, New York), diplomat, public servant, and heir to the American Tobacco Company fortune whose charm, energy, and social skill set a new standard for relations with foreign officials.

Duke was the older son of Angier Buchanan Duke, a wealthy executive of the American Tobacco Company, founded by his grandfather. Duke’s mother, Cordelia Drexel Biddle, was a descendant of prominent Philadelphia banking and finance families. Shortly after the birth of their second son, Anthony Drexel Duke, Duke’s parents separated. In 1921 they were divorced, and Duke’s father died two years later, leaving a fortune in trust to his sons. Their mother and stepfather, T. Markoe Robertson, an architect, raised the boys. Duke attended St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire, and entered Yale College in 1934. Called “Bunny” by his family and “Angie” by his friends, Duke, “a restless, tobacco-rich playboy,” excelled at languages.

He left Yale in 1936 without receiving a degree and married Priscilla St. George on 2 January 1937 in a lavish society wedding. The couple separated after the birth of their son and were divorced on 27 August 1940. Duke, who had worked as a sportswriter for a small magazine, joined the Citizens Military Training Corps in the summer of 1940. Later that year, he married Margaret Screven White. In February 1941 Duke enlisted in the army; he attended Officer Candidate School at Fort Lee, Virginia, and was commissioned a second lieutenant in January 1942. His success in the military shifted his life’s focus from social excess to social responsibility. During World War II he served with the Air Transport Command in North Africa and Europe, achieving the rank of major. He followed the D-Day invasion into France, saw the liberation of Paris, and witnessed the opening of the death camp at Buchenwald. He understood his years in the service to have been his formative education: “Nothing so illuminating had ever happened to me before.” In 1946 Duke established the Duke International Corporation to handle foreign and domestic investments. During the late 1940s he began to contribute and then to participate in New York State Democratic Party politics.

Eager to make use of Duke’s facility with languages and his business experience in Latin America, A. Stanford Griffis, a friend and the ambassador to Argentina, invited Duke to accompany him as a special assistant. Slim, tall, and elegantly dressed, Duke enthusiastically assumed the responsibilities of consular work. President Harry Truman then assigned Griffis with Duke to the Madrid Embassy in 1951. The following year, impressed by his work in Argentina and Spain, Truman named Duke the ambassador to El Salvador. Duke was so popular a public figure in El Salvador that when President Dwight Eisenhower’s election signaled a change of ambassadors, Salvadorans petitioned Washington unsuccessfully in an attempt to retain him. Duke’s marriage to Margaret White ended with divorce in early 1952. Christened in the Methodist church, Duke became a Roman Catholic in October and on 11 December 1952 married Maria-Luisa de Arana. They had two children.

Although Duke’s career in foreign service was interrupted with the election of a Republican president, he continued to represent the United States by chairing the International Rescue Committee (IRC). He traveled to Southeast Asia in 1955 to coordinate relief work in Vietnam following its partition, and he made several trips to Europe to negotiate on behalf of refugees from the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. His administrative work for the IRC was extended by fundraising for related organizations such as American Friends of Vietnam, the Emergency Committee of the United Nations, and the American Immigration and Citizenship Conference. In addition to humanitarian work, Duke continued to spend time and money supporting Democratic Party endeavors. In 1960 he chaired the Democratic Nationalities Committee, reaching out to engage Hispanic voters. In late 1960 the president-elect John F. Kennedy nominated Duke for the position of chief of protocol and raised him to the personal rank of ambassador. Duke’s responsibilities involved greeting and caring for visiting heads of state as well as for the nearly 40,000 people living in the United States who were connected to foreign consulates.

During previous administrations visitors representing foreign governments met with the secretary of state for substantive exchanges and with the president for social and public relations purposes. Duke, whose skill, efficiency, and unfailing good manners were valued by Kennedy, managed to streamline the formal, full-dress meetings so that Kennedy himself could meet officials privately and informally while maintaining dignity and the attention to protocol expected by heads of state. In Duke’s role as chief of protocol, he was often called on to protect dignitaries from African and Asian countries from embarrassing insults in racially segregated Washington, D.C. Duke interceded on the behalf of diplomats seeking housing or service in public facilities and in August 1961 publicly resigned from the prestigious Metropolitan Club to protest its policy of exclusion.

In July 1961 Duke’s third wife, Maria-Luisa, died when a small plane taking her to their summer home in Southampton, New York, crashed. On 12 May 1962 Duke married Robin Chandler Lynn; they had a son, and Duke assumed the role of stepfather to her two children from a previous marriage. In November 1963 Duke helped Jacqueline Kennedy plan the state events to honor her assassinated husband. The country had never before witnessed such an elaborate and moving public funeral. Duke researched other presidential funerals, organized the reception, and planned for the participation of heads of state, former presidents, congressional and state leaders, and the ordinary Americans who streamed into Washington to pay their respects to Kennedy. Duke continued to serve as chief of protocol in President Lyndon Johnson’s administration until 1964. Named ambassador to Spain in 1965, Duke calmed international fears in 1966 by swimming in the Mediterranean after a U.S. Air Force B-52 crashed and lost four 25-megaton hydrogen bombs in the sea. In late 1967 Duke returned to Washington, acting as Johnson’s chief of protocol. Between 1968 and 1969 he was ambassador to Denmark. With the Democrats out of national office, Duke agreed to serve without pay as New York City mayor John Lindsay’s commissioner of civic affairs and public events. Under President Jimmy Carter, Duke served as ambassador to Morocco from 1979 to 1981. At his retirement in 1981, Henry Kissinger presented him with the Hans J. Morgenthau Award for “exemplary foreign policy contributions to the United States.”

Never one to be inactive, Duke became a trustee of Southampton Center of Long Island University. He served as chancellor from 1986 until 1990. On 29 April 1995 Duke was hit by a car and killed at age seventy-nine while rollerblading near his home in Southampton. The funeral at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan brought together more than 1,000 mourners who came to celebrate Duke’s verve, creativity, and vision. He is buried in Southampton. A man of enormous energy, Angier Duke used his wealth, intellect, courtesy, and tact in the service of his country.

A collection of papers relating to Duke’s career is on file at the Southampton Center of Long Island University. A lengthy portrait of him by E. J. Kahn, “Good Manners and Common Sense,” centering on his work as chief of protocol and providing biographical information, appeared in the New Yorker (15 Aug. 1964). Duke was featured in Current Biography Yearbook, 1962–1963, and in Political Profiles: The Kennedy Years (1976). Articles in Time (25 May 1953) and Newsweek (11 Jan. 1965) cover events in his political and foreign service career. An obituary and portraits are in the New York Times (30 April, 1 May, 2 May, 4 May 1995). The Washington Post (2 May 1995) published an obituary and a remembrance, as did the Los Angeles Times (1 May 1995) and the Southampton Press (4 May 1995).

Wendy Hall Maloney