Anne Chamberlin, journalist, dies at 90


Anne Chamberlin, 90, died on New Year’s Eve at her home in Sarasota, Fla. She had esophageal cancer. Worked for Life in 1950s and Time from 1958 to 1963. (Photo by Alfred Eisenstadt/LIFE)
January 10, 2012

Anne Chamberlin, a journalist who reported from Paris in the 1950s for Life magazine, then covered John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign for Time but was foremost a droll prose stylist on subjects including sex, taxes and overly precocious children, died on New Year’s Eve at her home in Sarasota, Fla. She was 90.

She had esophageal cancer, said her niece Anne Nevin.

A 1942 graduate of Vassar College, Ms. Chamberlin’s facility with languages landed her a job doing propaganda work for the U.S. government in Cairo during World War II. Later, with Time and Life, she contributed to coverage of world leaders including Kennedy, Nikita Khrushchev and Charles de Gaulle and helped the photojournalist John Sadovy describe in haunting detail his experiences covering the 1956 Hungarian revolution.

Allergic to pomposity, Ms. Chamberlin was disinclined to promote her more somber exploits. “She did not like to sound serious, and she did not like people who sounded serious,” said Timothy Foote, a former Life colleague.

Her toughest assignment, Ms. Chamberlin recalled, involved visiting the Kennedy estate in Hyannisport, Mass., in summer 1960 for a story about the family. She wound up babysitting a fast-melting custard that belonged to Kennedy’s daughter, Caroline, then 2, who handed the food to Ms. Chamberlin and then wandered off to play with her kittens.

“A true Kennedy, she likes to test your mettle by setting you some impossible challenge, then sitting back to watch you disentangle yourself,” Ms. Chamberlin wrote in Time the following year.

“I got frozen custard on the rug, in my shoes, on the dog, on the front door and part of the terrace before I was rescued,” she added. “Now, when I see her, Caroline gives me that look you get from people who have taken your measure and found you a button or two short.”

After leaving Time in 1963, Ms. Chamberlin reported for several years for the old Saturday Evening Post before distinguishing herself as “one of the wittiest and most imaginative of the Washington free-lancers,” journalists Winzola McLendon and Scottie Smith wrote in their 1970 book on Washington newswomen, “Don’t Quote Me!

Writing in Esquire, Ms. Chamberlin bemoaned that a city “designed by a Frenchman and populated by a vigorous army of men and women in their prime” should be so meager in proper lovemaking etiquette.

The men, she wrote, were so single-mindedly ambitious that they treated love affairs as just another business exchange. She provided the example of a man who walks a woman from a dance to her car, kisses her and whispers into her ear, “You’re absolutely marvelous.”

The woman confesses her feelings are mutual.

“Then call me,” he says.

Ms. Chamberlin wrote book reviews for The Washington Post and brought her light touch to the unlikeliest of subjects, including the New York Stock Exchange, for magazines such as Vogue, Ladies’ Home Journal and McCall’s.

“She once wrote something about the IRS for Cosmopolitan that got her audited for about seven years,” said her niece.

Anne Paul Nevin was born Jan. 16, 1921, in St. Louis to a prosperous family with patrician roots. Her grandfather Ethelbert Nevin composed late 19th-century piano parlor standards such as “Narcissus” and “Mighty Lak’ a Rose.” Her father, Paul, was a broker for the Sparkman & Stephens boat design company.

In college, Anne Nevin was photographed while dressed in blue jeans and her father’s shirt. The picture ran in a national magazine with the caption, “the worst-dressed girl in Vassar,” she later told Time.

Astute with languages, she became fluent in French, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish at Vassar. She picked up Arabic while working in Cairo for the Office of War Information during World War II.

In 1945, she married Ward B. Chamberlin Jr., who became a public broadcasting executive. They later divorced. Survivors include two brothers and a sister.

After several years in Paris for Life, Ms. Chamberlin helped cover John Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign. Her family background and “smart and sassy” demeanor, said Time-Life colleague Stanley Karnow, helped earn her a place in the Kennedy social orbit during the next several years.

The Kennedy connection was strengthened by her friendship with a Vassar classmate, Mary Pinchot Meyer, who by many accounts was having an affair with President Kennedy. Mary Meyer was killed in 1964 on the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal towpath, a crime that remains unsolved.

Quoted by authors McLendon and Smith, Ms. Chamberlin offered cheeky advice for freelancers. Good money could be made by offering editors some “fringe” Kennedy story, like “Memoirs of JFK’s Navy Dentist.”

If the freelance life offered any hazards, she wrote, it was the “warm new relationship” one develops with the Internal Revenue Service. One quickly becomes obsessive about deductible business expenses. “The library that inherits the Chamberlin papers,” she wrote, “falls heir to a rich lode of notes to myself reading: Logan Airport toilet, ten cents.”

More on Anne Chamberlin:

A life to emulate

Adam Bernstein has spent his career putting the "post" in Washington Post, first as an obituary writer and then as editor. The American Society of Newspaper Editors recognized Bernstein’s ability to exhume “the small details and anecdotes that get at the essence of the person” and to write stories that are “complex yet stylish.”
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