Anne Cox Chambers

A conversation with the famously private billionaire

This article was originally published in our May 2011 issue.

Even though Anne (with an e, please) Cox Chambers reigns as the richest person in Atlanta—her estimated $13.4 billion almost ten times what Arthur Blank could cough up—you wouldn’t necessarily know it after a visit with the Cox Enterprises doyenne. Rosewood, her two-story white brick manse, is a vestige of pre-McMansion Old Atlanta, modest and tasteful by West Paces Ferry standards. (For contrast, see Lee “Big Poppa” Najjar’s gargantuan MTV-cataloged crib a few doors down.) Inside, sure, light from crystal chandeliers glints off marble floors and gilt-framed art. But the couches are comfy, overstuffed—made for enjoyment. Dog toys are strewn everywhere, her affection for canines besting any other design theme: a pack of pooch statues in her living room, oil paintings and drawings on the walls, a tangle of leashes by the door.

Chambers, at ninety-one, should be at the age—or tax bracket—where she doesn’t care what people think of her or her opinions. But famously private and media shy, she’s still reticent to speak about her role at Cox (which owns the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and WSB-TV, among many other outlets). She’s on the board of directors and is chairman of Atlanta Newspapers, but it’s clear from her clipped answers that her involvement—both in the company and in Atlanta politics—is minimal. She still has to mind what she says, though; after all, generations of her family are still rising in its ranks.

Chambers inherited her trusts and—after the deaths of her brother and sister—the largest ownership stake in Cox from her father, James M. Cox Sr., a former Ohio governor and 1920 Democratic presidential nominee. She’s spread that wealth to a laundry list of Atlanta causes: the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Fernbank Museum of Natural History, the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum, Shepherd Center, and the High Museum of Art (which named a wing after her in 2005), among others. She’s served on the boards of the Forward Arts Foundation, Coca-Cola, the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, the Atlanta Botanical Garden, Atlanta History Center, and Central Atlanta Progress. An avid gardener, Chambers was the first “Yankee” to be elected Peachtree Garden Club president.

The Francophile flew in from her home in Provence recently and spoke with Atlanta magazine senior editor Amanda Heckert. As one of her seven dogs, Missy, lolled on the foyer floor, Chambers, diminutive as a fairy, sat engulfed by a love seat in the morning room, giving a sigh before answering business questions and becoming most animated when speaking about her family, her causes—and a zebra.

You’re from Ohio, you’ve got homes in New York and France, and your late sister, Barbara Anthony, and her family lived in Hawaii. What inspired you to make your home in Atlanta, and also to keep Cox based here? Oh, [Cox] really wasn’t my decision. But I came here for the premiere of Gone with the Wind, and I say I never left. [She laughs] No, I married someone from here [the late Louis Johnson] six months later, so that’s why.

You’ve lived here at Rosewood most of that time. We’re the second family that has lived here. It was built by [famed Atlanta architect] Philip Shutze the same year he built Swan House. He was an old gentleman when we moved in, and he used to come and have supper with us. He’d come just by himself, and he was especially proud of the dining room. He would stand in the doorway and say, “It’s one of my most celebrated rooms!”

Of the roles you’ve played in Atlanta, of which are you most proud? One of the first big involvements was the Forward Arts Foundation. [The Foundation began in 1965 when a group of arts patrons conspired to rehab the Swan Coach House to support the Atlanta History Center and the High. The FAF still supports emerging artists today.] Twelve ladies decided to [form the group], and some of the men who didn’t like women interfering named us the “Dirty Dozen,” and we loved that! We were very proud of that.

Why have the arts been so important to you? I guess it was the way I was brought up. I got that from my parents; the school I went to, Miss Porter’s School, in Connecticut; and then I spent a year in Paris, which many young girls did then. Particularly girls who decided not to go to college. [Chambers did graduate from New York’s now closed Finch College after that.] That obviously opened my eyes to the world.

What is your philosophy when it comes to giving? What kind of pressure do you feel to give? No, I don’t feel pressures. I think, well, it’s obviously interests—things that interest me. And right now, it’s animal welfare, and education. Do you know about Communities in Schools [one of the country’s leading dropout-prevention programs]? That started in Atlanta as EXODUS. I learned about that from my son when he was in high school here. He met Bill Milliken [the founder], who was an inspiration. And now Jim, my son, has taken my place on the board, which I’m very happy about.

What spoke to you about the work Milliken was doing? It was going into the underprivileged parts of the city and making it possible for children to have an education, and to give them a future that they wouldn’t have had otherwise. They mostly came from divided homes, difficult ones, some no family at all. Bill Milliken is a big hero of mine.

What about animal welfare? Well, what I’m particularly interested in now is—have you heard of Noah’s Ark [in Locust Grove]? They rehabilitate children and animals. This is my current big interest. There was a zebra that fell off the back of a truck, and the person driving the truck didn’t stop. [The zebra] was called Evidence [and] ended up at Noah’s Ark, and that’s how I first heard about it. [Evidence died of an infection late last year.] Then I met Jama, who runs it, and I was just thrilled by what she does. In fact, I’m taking my two great-granddaughters next week. After all the flooding that we had around here, we ended up with two beautiful deer in our woods. We heard that other people in this neighborhood had the same—you know, animals were dislocated from the floods. And so our two deer are now living happily at Noah’s Ark. We fed them every day, but I didn’t think they really had enough room here, and one of them got out one day and was in the middle of [West] Paces Ferry Road.

It’s obvious from your decor that you love dogs, too. Most of them are shih tzus. But we have some rescued dogs; I always look at the [AJC] Pet of the Week. So one day, it was not one, it was two: Missy and Sam. And Sam is a beautiful cocker spaniel, and Missy is the white one here. So they were the Pet of the Week, and they were five years old and had never been separated. And it was hoped that someone would take both of them. Well, when I read that . . . I restrained. I didn’t call on Sunday. So on Monday afternoon, I gave Becky [her assistant] the article and asked, “Would you just call and see if they’ve been adopted?” [Later] Becky came in and stood in the doorway and said, “They’re waiting for you!” So I said, “Come on, Becky, let’s go get them!” So we went out to the [Atlanta] Humane Society, and they opened the door into the corridor, and [the dogs] both just came bounding out. They knew!

Another of your passions has been politics and the Democratic party, from Jimmy Carter’s campaigns to going door to door for Barack Obama. [A cardboard cutout of Obama graces her living room.] What was it like growing up with a father involved in politics, and what spurred you to take his passion on as your own? When my sister and I came along, my father’s political life was completely over. He ran for president the year I was born. So that was the end of it. He had been congressman first, then governor, before all that. So when we came along, he was running the Dayton newspaper.

Was politics still very dear to him? Oh heavens! Yes, definitely.

Did that inspire your passion for it? Oh sure. Well, I mean, I admired him more than anybody, yes, definitely.

What did you admire about him? Oh goodness! Well, his brain, first of all. His values, his integrity, his sense of humor; he was just the most marvelous man in my life. Whatever values I have came from him.

What appeals to you about the Democratic party? Well, goodness! Well, that’s just so obvious. I just am a Democrat. I could never, never be a Republican. I remember someone asked Daddy if he would ever think of voting for a Republican, and he said, “Sure I would, if I ever found one worth voting for.” It’s the ideals of the Democratic party.

You campaigned hard for then Governor Jimmy Carter in his bid for presidency, and he named you ambassador to Belgium after the election, a position in which you served four years. What did that experience mean to you? I never got over the thrill. If I’d go to a reception, the formality, they’d say, “The ambassador of the United States of America!” And I’d look around and say, “That’s me!” It was such a source of pride.

What about the AJC’s perceived slant? Some Republicans have decried the “lib’rul AJC,” and some Democrats have thought it too conservative. I think that the AJC is very fair. We certainly—goodness, we had Jim Wooten’s column right alongside Mike Luckovich; you couldn’t have two more opposite viewpoints. And I think that’s what we try to do.

When you first took over, what sort of role did you play at Cox? I never took over. Well, just as a member of the board. Whatever a board member does.

Fewer and fewer family companies stay together these days. What inspired you and your family to keep Cox intact? We feel a great deal of pride, and fortunately we have the next generation, now two generations [involved]. You probably know that Jamie Kennedy—who is Jim and Sarah’s oldest son [James “Jim” Cox Kennedy is her nephew and Cox Enterprise chairman]—and my grandson, Alex Taylor, are both working for the company, which makes me very proud, and I feel it’s in good hands. [Jamie, a Stanford grad, is now Cox Enterprises’ vice president of corporate development, and Taylor was promoted to executive vice president of Cox Media Group in March.] As I say, I feel we’re very lucky that we’ve had family members who are not only interested but capable.

Your imprint is undeniably on the city, from Cox to your work with numerous boards and nonprofits. But you remain a mystery to many Atlantans. What was behind the decision to keep a low profile? I guess it’s my personality. Well, really! I don’t know what other profile I would have had.

Do you think there’s anything people would be surprised to know about you? I could tell you all sorts of things, which I won’t!

Speaking of that hands-off approach, I read that your father believed that the Cox owners should leave their papers’ editors alone. Definitely. Yep.

What do you say to critics who claim you should have had more of a say? One time my brother said, “The papers must vote for so and so,” and we lost two of the best editors on the paper. I think to my knowledge that’s the only time that ever happened. I think it would be terribly frustrating otherwise. And probably not very productive.

There were some who lamented the AJC leaving Downtown. It was just practicality. If you’re running a newspaper, you’ve got to think of that. There of course was a lot of sentiment about the old building. But you can’t run a business on sentiment entirely.

What do you think your legacy will be? I just think to speak about my legacy is a bit premature.

What do you enjoy doing when you’re here in the city? I come back kind of to unwind. And to see friends. This is home still. As I say, it depends on what’s going on here. Right now, Noah’s Ark is what I’m most interested in. One other is the French-American Foundation [in New York; she’s a board member]. They have a program called the Young Leaders program [which allows French and American up-and­-comers to meet and discuss policy and social issues]. Hillary and Bill Clinton, separately, were part of the Young Leaders program. Very early in their careers, obviously.

In what other ways have you been involved in relations between France and the U.S.? Equally important has been the Pasteur Foundation. [It supports the Paris-based Institut Pasteur, focused on biology, disease, and vaccines. It was one of the first places where HIV was isolated; Chambers is the advisory board chairman.] I’ve had my house [in France] now for thirty years, so that just led to becoming involved in related things. [Being given the Commander of Legion of Honor, France’s highest honor, in 2009] is a very overwhelming compliment.

When are you happiest? Well, I guess working in the garden with all the dogs running around!

Photograph by Alex Martinez

This article was originally published in our May 2011 issue.