Dan Rattiner's Stories

How It Ended: Southampton World Affairs Council’s Secret Is Revealed

The Hamptons is the destination for many wealthy New Yorkers who buy large estates here, then move in for part of the year with their families.

On rare occasions, however, there is a large extended family of wealthy individuals who settle here. I think of the De Menil sisters, Adelaide and Christophe, who lived with their separate families not far from each other in East Hampton and Sag Harbor, and I think of Angier Biddle Duke and his brother Anthony Drexel Duke, who settled in Southampton and East Hampton. Both of these separate families were supporters of many charitable and artistic ventures, and both were and are well respected in the community.

The death of Robin Duke in early February at the age of 92 had special meaning for me, however. With both her husband, Angier, and brother-in-law Tony gone, I can now tell a story about her that for a long time needed to be kept secret. The time has come.

Robin Duke was a tall, beautiful and elegant woman who had been a model, a TV reporter and, as Angier’s wife, a friend of presidents, royalty and the famous. The list of charities she either founded or headed up is long. She raised money for the needy, women’s issues, health and education, not only in America but all over the world. She also served as Ambassador to Norway after being appointed by Bill Clinton. This did not stop her from becoming the chairman of a local World Affairs Council in Southampton that her husband, Angier, had headed up until he died.

It was bittersweet that she did this. Angier had been even more involved in charitable giving than Robin, if that were possible. He also was a friend of many presidents, and served as ambassador to Morocco, Spain, Denmark and El Salvador during his long diplomatic career. He became Chief of Protocol for his personal friend, President John Kennedy. He served as Chancellor of Southampton College in retirement. And then, still vigorous at 79, he went out one day onto Wickapogue Road to go Rollerblading. The sport was new. And he felt he could do it. He swerved out into the road, however, and was hit by a car and killed. This happened in April of 1995.

Earlier, Angier had brought an interesting intellectual organization called the World Affairs Council to Southampton. The World Affairs Council has branches all over the United States that act independently of one another but share the same goals. Each Council has a board of directors that reaches out to interesting people in the community asking them to speak about what they know. The public is invited. A lively discussion follows the talk.

The World Affairs Council of Southampton came to my attention, logically enough, when their talks got listed in the upcoming calendar of Dan’s Papers. The talks took place, appropriately enough, in the beautiful cherry paneled living room of the 100-year-old administration building of Southampton College.

I went to one of these talks. A lectern had been set up at one end of the room. Thirty folding chairs sat in rows facing it. By the time the lecture started, we had a full house. I do not recall what the speech was about. After that, I went to others, and came away from these experiences knowing more about China, Yachting or Public Health in Zambia than before I went in. I liked that.

After a while, I thought I’d like to join the Council’s board of directors. I made inquiries. They seemed happy to have me. I paid dues. Because of what I am going to describe shortly, I will not list some of the other members of this board. Let us just say there were 10, and they were among the most prominent people in this community.

The chairman was Robin Duke, who had taken over for her husband after his passing. I found her a formidable, ramrod-straight presence at our meetings, smart, on-topic and knowledgeable. I felt privileged to have met her and glad she was running this organization.

But as time passed, the World Affairs Council had fewer and fewer events. For one thing, the community was growing up around us and the access to talented and accomplished individuals was more available than before. At the same time, she was getting busier and had less and less time for the group. After a while, we were holding only three talks a year.

Then one day, I got a phone call from the Vice President of the World Affairs Council that there was to be an emergency meeting the following day.

I remember this meeting well. It took place up in that living room where we usually met. It was night.

“I have something important I want to talk about,” Robin said, “and I think it best to ask you not to let it leave this room.”

We all sat up straight in our seats.

“We have people who help handle our books. As we do not have an office, they do the work from home. I call them up and say which checks to write, and they make deposits. Now we find they’ve been stealing.”

What followed was a conversation that lasted more than a half-hour. The issue at hand was what should we do about it?

How much was involved? About $3,500.

How did we find out about it? The person admitted it.

What are our options? We could call the police and have them arrested. Or we could do nothing and just forget about it.

Had this person been fired? Obviously, yes.

Who was it? Robin gave us the name. I had never heard of this person, but they lived in a small house in Patchogue and had five children.

What did this person do with the money? Spent it on food and rent and things for the kids, we were told—this person was living day-to-day.

How much is left in the account? $10.

Some of the members of the board said we have to call the police. We were a nonprofit organization. We had an obligation to do that. Another board member said that was not his thinking. Doing that would create a scandal. Some of the members said so what? But others said that was a point to be considered.

The conversation then moved over to a discussion about the hard times this person was going through, and how part of the mission of the World Affairs Council was to help others. Unsaid was how we all were quite well-to-do.

Someone asked if we couldn’t just reach in our pockets and replenish the account ourselves. But then others said we had to consider ethics and morality and the right thing to do, and that this was stealing.

After this discussion, we realized we were split right down the middle about what to do, and we weren’t going to come to any consensus.

And so, Robin said we should adjourn and meet again to discuss it further at another time. With that, we all got up with a rustling of the chairs and, silently, left.

I suspect another meeting of the World Affairs Council board did take place, though I did not attend for some reason. I was told that the Council members themselves reached into their pockets and made the organization whole. So that was that. But the fact is, no matter how you looked at it, this incident had shut us down. There never were any more panel discussions or lectures. The affairs of the world went on without us.

I am not close to the Duke family and so had no trouble in just never mentioning all that had happened. It had just been one of those things.

Well, now I have gotten it off my chest. And to the person who took the money, wherever you are, you’re forgiven.

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