Lynne Duke, Washington Post editor and writer, dies at 56


Lynne Duke, Johannesburg correspondent for The Washington Post, press ID badge for the 1997 African National Congress. (Family Photo)
April 19, 2013

Lynne Duke, a journalist who brought an emotional clarity to the most trenchant stories, from the crack epidemic that terrorized a Miami housing project once known as “the Graveyard” to the legacy of apartheid South Africa, died April 19 at her home in Silver Spring. She was 56.

The cause was lung cancer, said her husband, Phillip Dixon, a former Washington Post city editor. Ms. Duke worked at The Post from 1987 to 2008, retiring as an editor in the Style section after assignments reporting from Johannesburg and New York.

Ms. Duke had once aspired to a career in dance and theater, and she brought the expressive qualities of those art forms to her journalism.

Covering South Africa was a defining experience for Ms. Duke. She first went there for The Post in 1990, when Nelson Mandela was released from prison after 27 years. She returned to Johannesburg in 1994 for the nation’s first multiracial election and stayed on to cover Mandela’s presidency. She also jumped around the region for breaking news, including the aftermath of Mobutu Sese Seko’s dictatorial rule in what was then Zaire.

Howard W. French, a former New York Times reporter in Africa and author of “A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa” (2004), described Ms. Duke as a dogged competitor for whom the experience of working in Africa provoked deep emotional discovery.


Lynne Duke, Johannesburg correspondent for The Washington Post, poses for a portrait in 1997. (The Washington Post)

In “Mandela, Mobutu and Me,” Ms. Duke’s 2003 memoir about her years in Africa, she wrote of feeling connected to a “vast African narrative that resonates within me like an ancestral whisper.

“But sometimes the whisper was a scream,” she added, “for I also had to grapple with ugly Africa: The Africa of horror and unspeakable brutality; the Africa that sometimes made me question the existence of God; the Africa that I could not ignore if I was to claim the continent as my own. I witnessed a terrible warping of the human spirit, and I loathed it.”

Ms. Duke began her career at the Miami Herald after graduating from Columbia University’s journalism school in 1985. She was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for a 1987 feature article about the violent fallout of crack cocaine and intransigent poverty at a Miami public housing project.

The apartment complex was nicknamed the Graveyard because of the rumor that it was built over a cemetery. Although untrue, the moniker evoked the belief of its law-abiding residents that no one from city agencies cared about their plight.

“The tiny woman with purple nails sucks on the makeshift pipe,” Ms. Duke began her article that ran in the Herald’s Sunday magazine on April 5, 1987. “The smoldering rock glows and dims, and now she is holding her breath, gasping back the smoke as long as her lungs permit. She calls herself Awful Thang, because that’s what she is when she’s high.”

Ms. Duke continued:

Awful Thang sinks back against the couch and exhales long and slow.

“Scotteee babeeeeee!” she howls.

They call crack Scotty. Scotty beams them up, they say, just like on Star Trek.

Ms. Duke’s article — and accompanying Pulitzer-winning photography by Michel du Cille, now of The Post — spurred community leaders to vow action.

Police presence was increased and renovations were promised, leading to an influx of new residents who slowly worked to expunge the old reputation for drug and sex dens and stray bullets strafing the air.

Ms. Duke, who was African American, was later asked whether a white reporter could or should have written the story of the Graveyard. She said no.

“When I looked at the black crack addicts I saw something of myself in them, because in the eyes of white society, the color of our skin makes us identical,” she said. “And that’s why no white person could have earned the confidence of the people at The Graveyard. There is a commonality of experience that we share. I am them.”

Lynne Adrienne Duke was born July 29, 1956, in Los Angeles, where her father was a supervisor of the county’s department of parks and recreation. Her mother was a psychotherapist for the state of California.

After studying dance at the University of California at Los Angeles, she moved to New York to pursue a theater career. To support herself, she worked an overnight shift at CBS News, a job that moved her toward journalism. She was a 1984 political science graduate of Columbia University.

Her first marriage, to Donald Benson, ended in divorce. Survivors include her husband of 13 years, Phillip Dixon of Silver Spring; her father, Hubert Duke of New Rochelle, N.Y.; her mother, Constance Duke-Allston of Kensington; a brother; and two sisters.

In an essay on her craft, Ms. Duke acknowledged the sheen of glamour attached to a foreign correspondent’s life, but she pointed to “a far more complex and intangible source of my journalistic pride, fueled by bonds I established with countless people who entrusted their stories, their lives to my pen.”

She wrote that in stories of struggle — about a mother’s grief over a dead child, for example — “I have always felt most at home as a journalist, for I believe that the practice of journalism isn’t worth much unless one believes in its power to do good. So, I have often sought stories where some good was needed, where with luck, my journalism could bring change to someone’s hard life.”

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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