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Marcia Chambers, 78, Who Exposed Discrimination in Golf, Dies

Marcia Chambers, a longtime legal affairs reporter who in the 1990s turned to writing groundbreaking articles and a book that examined discrimination against women and black people at private golf clubs, died Friday at a hospital in New Haven, Connecticut. She was 78.

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Richard Sandomir
, New York Times

Marcia Chambers, a longtime legal affairs reporter who in the 1990s turned to writing groundbreaking articles and a book that examined discrimination against women and black people at private golf clubs, died Friday at a hospital in New Haven, Connecticut. She was 78.

Barbara Marks, a close friend, said the cause was complications of uterine leiomyosarcoma, a rare and aggressive form of cancer.

Chambers’ tenacity while covering criminal justice for The New York Times and The Associated Press proved helpful when she began writing about golf, mostly for Golf Digest.

In what she described as her most difficult work, she examined the exclusionary practices at private golf and country clubs that prevented African-Americans from joining and denied women voting rights, weekend tee times and equity interests that men — including their husbands — had. Her work was an early element of the long campaign to admit women at the Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia, home of the Masters, in 2012.

“Marcia was the voice of reason on all golf’s really serious issues of the law and discrimination during an important period of change — the late 1980s and 1990s,” Jerry Tarde, the editor-in-chief of Golf Digest, who hired her there, said in an email.

Her two-part series for Golf Digest in 1990 took her into the sheltered worlds of clubs that believed their membership rules were sacrosanct and would be changed only when they chose to change them.

“As private country clubs enter the decade of the ‘90s,” she wrote in the magazine’s May 1990 issue, “many are seeking new legal ways to define privacy and shore up their constitutional defenses so they remain truly exclusive. Their purpose is to look for roads to take them beyond the reach of laws aimed at ending discrimination by gender and race.”

Shortly after the second article was published the next month, a local newspaper reporter in Birmingham, Alabama, asked Hall Thompson, the founder of the city’s Shoal Creek Country Club, host of the forthcoming PGA Championship at the time, about its policy against having black members. Thompson said that extending invitations to black people was “just not done in Birmingham” and vowed not to be pressured.

He quickly apologized for his remarks, and nine days before the PGA Championship was to begin, Louis Willie, a black insurance company president, was invited to join the club. But the damage had been done: ABC and ESPN lost more than $2 million in advertising because of Shoal Creek’s racist policy.

“The crisis proved to be a turning point,” Chambers wrote in Golf Digest in 2009. “For those black executives who can afford memberships, the change at the country-club gates appears to have been profound and positive.”

She expanded her Golf Digest articles into a book, “The Unplayable Lie: The Untold Story of Women and Discrimination in Golf” (1995). Reviewing it for The New York Times Book Review, journalist Andrea Cooper wrote that Chambers had raised important questions, including “How can men treat their wives, daughters and female colleagues as subservient at the club but as fully equal at work and home?”

Chambers’ reporting about a sex-discrimination lawsuit filed in 1995 by nine women against the Haverhill Country Club, about 30 miles north of Boston, “gave the whole notion of what we were doing some legitimacy,” said Marsha Kazarosian, the lawyer for the women, who were eventually awarded damages of nearly $4 million.

In a telephone interview, Kazarosian said of Chambers, “Her reporting changed the landscape in terms of how she gave the verdict a national voice.”

Marcia Ann Goldstein was born in Brooklyn on April 19, 1940. Her father, George, owned and ran a shoe store, and her mother, Rae (Higer) Goldstein, was a homemaker and legal typist for New York City. The marriage ended in divorce.

Goldstein graduated from City College and taught English at schools in Brooklyn and Queens. Inspired by a summer writing course at Columbia University to pursue a career in journalism, she was hired as a reporter at the Albuquerque Journal and then the Perth Amboy Evening News in New Jersey.

Early on, she spotted a book in her apartment about the Elizabethan stage by E.K. Chambers and adopted the surname legally.

Chambers was hired by The Associated Press in 1971. On one of her first days there, she covered the attempted assassination of reputed Brooklyn Mafia boss Joseph A. Colombo Sr., who was gunned down at a rally in Columbus Circle in Manhattan. (He died in 1978.)

At The Times, which hired her in 1973, her beats included politics, education and federal and state courts. She was part of the reporting team on the Son of Sam serial-killer case, and she covered the trials of Bill and Emily Harris, who kidnapped heiress Patricia Hearst in 1974, and John Mitchell and Maurice Stans, two former members of President Richard M. Nixon’s Cabinet, on criminal conspiracy charges.

She worked out of the Times’ Los Angeles bureau for two years before leaving in 1987 to write a column for The National Law Journal. She went on to pursue a master’s degree in the study of law at Yale Law School, where she met her husband, Stanton Wheeler, who taught there.

She returned to writing for The Times in the 1990s as a freelance journalist, contributing articles about golf and issues in sports law.

Chambers is survived by her sister, Janice Kabel, a retired lawyer; two stepsons, Warren and Steven Wheeler; and five step-grandchildren. Her husband died in 2007. Over the past 12 years, Chambers worked for the Branford Eagle, a digital-only news outlet in Connecticut, as the editor and a reporter. She wrote about politics, zoning board meetings and flower shows in Branford, a shoreline town just east of New Haven. She also lived there.

She also reported extensively on the murder in 2010 of a Branford doctor, Vajinder Toor, by a former colleague, Dr. Lishan Wong, until he pleaded guilty last year.

Chambers adjusted easily to focusing on happenings in a modest-size town after years of reporting on big-city and national stories.

“She loved finding out things you shouldn’t find out,” said Paul Bass, editor of the New Haven Independent, which is affiliated with the Eagle. “She got so excited finding out first who was running for state representative or learning a great developer story.”

Charles Kaiser, a former colleague at The Times, added in an email: “She was acutely aware of the damage to democracy from the disappearance of daily reporters at courthouses, state houses and city halls. That’s one of the reasons her micro-coverage of Branford affairs gave her so much satisfaction.”

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