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- February 22, 1982
- Vol. 17
- No. 7
They Work 500 Miles Apart, but the Diplomatic Coons Share a Most Cordial Detente
It had all the hallmarks of a sad modern ritual. The couple moved into separate homes. He got the dogs and the classical records, while she kept the Iranian bronzes and the collection of arrowheads. No cause for gloom, though. This was a separation without rancor or lawyers' fees—just two happily married people pursuing their mutual profession in two different countries. His Excellency Carleton S. Coon Jr., 54, is the U.S. Ambassador to the mountain kingdom of Nepal. His wife, Her Excellency Jane Abell Coon, 52, is U.S. Ambassador to nearby Bangladesh. The two career diplomats have been separate-but-equal since they were promoted to ambassadorial rank together last spring.
Only a thin slice of northeast India divides Nepal from Bangladesh, so Jane and Carl can fly between Dacca and Katmandu in only 90 minutes door-to-door. "That's better than you can do between New York and Washington," Madame Ambassador observes. The couple spend one week a month together, and there is no your-place-or-mine casualness about the arrangement. They alternate their visits so that neither is off-station for more than one week in eight, although for their next rendezvous, in March, they will both get away from it all, meeting in New Delhi. The back-and-forth visitation protocol was established in the 1970s by the only previous husband-and-wife team of U.S. Ambassadors—Ellsworth Bunker, who was Ambassador-at-Large and envoy to South Vietnam, and Mrs. Bunker, Carol Laise, who was Ambassador to Nepal.
Bunker was a political appointee, while the Coons are career diplomats who clambered up the pin-striped ladder the hard way. Before leaving for South Asia, both held jobs with the State Department in Washington. As Director of North African Affairs, Carl had the thankless task, among others, of looking after this country's tempestuous relations with Libyan strong man Muammar Qaddafi. However, many of the dead-of-night crisis calls were for Jane. She was Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs when Pakistani students burned the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad in November 1979, and when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. "It turned out to be quite a job," she says with wry understatement. Her husband, meanwhile, was sweating out his own diplomatic assault. Two weeks after the violence in Pakistan, he was awakened at midnight with word that the embassy in the Libyan capital of Tripoli was aflame.
In fact, the Coons were so busy handling one diplomatic brushfire after the next that their time together was limited. "The way we live these days is an abnormal way to run a marriage," says Carl, "but now at least when I see her, I see her." In terms of their careers, both partners believe they are enjoying the best of all possible worlds. "After all," says Carl, "it's nice to be an ambassador after 30 years of understudying the role." It is, perhaps, especially nice for Jane, whose dream-come-true once seemed so improbable. After 17 years in the Foreign Service, she was forced by an archaic State Department regulation to quit her job when she married Carl in 1968. He was a widower with six children, and she disappeared into the kitchen and nursery for nine years, until a change in personnel rules at State allowed her to return to diplomacy. When Carl came under consideration last year for an ambassadorship, Jane's career seemed stymied again. "I tended to assume that when we went overseas, I would take a leave without pay," she recalls. Instead, she moved into her own spacious official residence, presides over an embassy staff of 190 and earns the same salary as her husband, close to $60,000 a year. Her assignment, incidentally, is considered the more difficult.
An inveterate globe-trotter, Carl Coon was born on the move. His father, the noted anthropologist Carleton Coon Sr., was on an expedition to Morocco when Carl was conceived, and the baby was delivered in Paris. Later, while Coon Sr. bustled about the world, Coon Jr. was often left in the care of his grandmother. Graduating from Harvard in 1949, Carl passed the Foreign Service examination and went to Germany as a resident officer at the tail end of the U.S. occupation. Since then he has shuttled between home-duty assignments at Foggy Bottom and overseas tours in Syria, India and Iran.
A native New Englander, Jane Abell grew up in Durham, N.H., where her father taught agricultural economics at the University of New Hampshire. A scholarship took her to the College of Wooster in Ohio, where she studied history and political science in departments headed by women professors. "That was uncommon at the time," she recalls, "and while I didn't think in terms of role models then, they had an impact." By the time Jane joined the handful of women battling for places in the male-dominated, old-boy ranks of the State Department, she was obviously no shrinking violet. The stuffy element tut-tutted at her appointment as a junior political officer in Pakistan. But she did well, later learned to speak Hindi and was promoted to the embassy in India in 1960.
Back in Washington, Carl was working on the Indian desk and was struck by the quality of Abell's reports. When they met as professional colleagues for the first time in 1966, he may have been equally impressed by her blunt-ness. Jane's opening remark, she recalls, was: "Where are my six bulldozers and the dump trucks?" Two years later, a year after the death of his first wife from cancer, Carl used all the persuasiveness and charm at his command to woo Jane into marriage and out of her job. "I have never regretted it," says Jane. "The kids were aged 4 to 16 and I was plunged into instant motherhood. I learned to cook. It was very demanding."
The marriage began with what Carl's youngest daughter called a "honeycomb" in Morocco, followed by Jane's basic training in the arts of the housewife. In 1976 she was able to shuck the apron and dust off her dispatch case. The children were at an age where they needed her less, and the State Department was no longer committed to the idea that a woman's place was not in the embassy. Jane made up for lost time and won the post in Dacca one month after Carl was assigned to Katmandu.
Although the Coons hadn't planned on the separation, their same-time-next-month domestic arrangement couldn't be working better, says Jane. "The quality of our time together is much better now." Whoever is playing host—or hostess—cuts down on official functions that week and concentrates on entertaining the visitor. Over Christmas the Coons were joined in Katmandu by three of their children and Carl's stepmother. Bangladeshi jute fabrics and Tibetan hand-weaves were high on the gift list, and the exotic holiday feast featured a Nepalese wild boar spitted over a backyard fire pit. The family hiked into the countryside, visited Lord Buddha's birthplace at Lumbini and thrilled to the sight of a Bengal tiger in a game preserve.
Fortunately, the Coons take such obvious pleasure in each other's company that the complexities of monthly reunions melt away. "We're both tremendously engaged in what we're doing," says Jane. "This gives us an opportunity to do what we want without placing great strains on the marriage."
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