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Robert Low

Robert Allen Low

Former New York City Council member and mayoral candidate, died in San Francisco on January 3, 2014 at the age of 94.


Bob Low was born in Scarsdale, NY on June 6, 1919 and raised in New York City. He and his siblings, Stuart and Doris, were the children of Clarence Low, former Treasurer of the Democratic State Committee, and Madeleine Low (née Mayer), daughter of Levy Mayer, one of America's most distinguished lawyers of the early twentieth century and co-founder of the global law firm Mayer Brown LLP. Bob attended Collegiate School and then Choate in Connecticut. He was the youngest tennis player ever to compete in a National Tournament at the age of 9, and as a teenager won numerous titles including National Junior singles and National Junior doubles. He also captained the men's varsity tennis team at Stanford University, where he graduated from in 1941.


The day after his graduation from Stanford, Bob entered the US Navy and served in the Pacific during World War II aboard the destroyers Worden and Abbot; at 24 he became one of the youngest Lieutenant Commanders ever, and won 9 battle stars during his service. Among the battles he fought were Iwo Jima, Midway and Okinawa.


After the war, Bob moved to Washington, D.C. where he worked as an advertising manager at the Saturday Review Magazine and graduated from George Washington University Law School. Bob's father, Clarence, believed that public service was one of the highest callings and this belief was deeply ingrained in Bob and guided his professional life. He became an officer for the State Department and worked for Senators Herbert Lehman and Henry "Scoop" Jackson (a lifelong friend and mentor), handling congressional relations.  It was during this time that he met and married Frances Delia Levison, one of the first female reporters for Time-Life Magazine and the lone woman reporter among the Time Washington Bureau staff. They met in 1952 and were married for 60 years until she passed away in 2012 in San Francisco. Bob would often say that she was "the most remarkable woman I ever knew".


In 1954 Bob and Frances moved back to New York City where Bob was appointed assistant to Mayor Robert Wagner.  In 1961, Bob was elected into the New York City Council where he served for two terms until 1969, representing the "Silk Stockings" District of Manhattan's Upper East Side, East Harlem and Yorkville- a cross section of upper, lower and middle classes. He is best remembered for writing and seeing the signing into law by then-Mayor John V. Lindsey of a local anti- pollution law that outlawed the burning of soft coal and apartment house incinerators, and gradually reduced the permissible content of sulphur in fuel oil. The legislation was co-written with his counsel, Larry Pollack, and was one of the first anti-pollution laws in the United States. On May 21, 1966, Bob was featured in the New York Times as "Man in the News" in an article entitled "Pollution's Nemesis", detailing his critical role in the fight for clean air, which eventually led to the federal Clean Air Act.


Bob was also chairman of New York City's Buildings Committee and was asked to take charge of a new building code in NYC, the first major revision of the code controlling construction in the city since 1897. Bob disguised himself as a struggling writer and moved into a slum room in the cellar of a building in East Harlem where he lived amongst the rats and leaky water pipes for a week to experience first-hand the living conditions. On another occasion, he moonlighted as a taxi driver to better understand the challenges faced by cab drivers and advocated for higher wages. He also took it upon himself to learn Spanish in order to communicate and connect with the growing Puerto Rican population of New York. In 1969 he entered the New York City race for mayor and president of city council and although the campaigns were unsuccessful, he proved to be a progressive and political maverick.


In the 1970's Bob was appointed Regional Administrator for the Environmental Protection Administration (1973 until 1977) and then Regional Representative for the U.S. Department of Energy (1978 until 1981) He continued to work towards enforcing air pollution laws, the growth and development of the New York City water system, and handling garbage, waste water and nuclear waste in the region. In 1980, Bob returned to civilian life and a small private law practice.


Bob's "retirement" was anything but. He and wife pursued their passion for people, food and wine, founding "Le Cercle de Gastronomes", a precursor to contemporary "pop-up" restaurants, at their house in Dutchess County, New York, where Bob cooked and served French haute-cuisine paired with fine wines. He was a food critic and an editor for the renowned French restaurant guidebook "Gault et Millau", befriending some of the most famous chefs in the world. In New York City, he hosted a weekly 2-hour radio show on WMCA dedicated to food and wine. In 2002, he and Frances moved to San Francisco where they lived until their deaths.


Bob is survived by his brother, Stuart, as well as his son, Allen, his children Alexandra, Andrew and Elena (and their mother Berta); his son Roger, his children Jesse, Sarah and Gabriel (and their mother Virginia), and many nieces and nephews. Donations in Bob's memory may be made to Fromm and Stanford Tennis. A gathering of friends and family to celebrate Bob's life will be held at a later date.


Published in San Francisco Chronicle on Feb. 9, 2014
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