Sabin Robbins’ love of Africa led him to jobs as a writer at National Geographic
and as a director at the National Zoo. People often ask him about his college love
interest — Jane Fonda. They dated for a year and still correspond. Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star
Sabin Robbins’ life reads like a book and — in fact, it is one, an autobiography that he co-authored with his two sons.
A true adventurer whose travels have taken him to the remotest jungles as well as the world’s busiest cities, Robbins’ professional life has included everything from working for the U.S. government preparing ultra-secret intelligence for the State Department to writing for newspapers and the National Geographic Society. He also served as executive director of the National Zoo and director of development and marketing for the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
With a soft spot in his heart for Africa inspired by Tarzan, which he read while growing up in Cincinnati where his family’s paper company is based, Robbins has led dozens of safaris to the continent. While there for National Geographic he had the opportunity to spend time with some of the world’s best-known animal behaviorists, including Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall.
But it is a third inspirational Jane, not the one of Tarzan fame or the naturalist whose work with chimps is legendary, that Robbins is often asked to talk about.
That would be actress Jane Fonda, who he dated for about a year when she was just 16 and he was a 21-year-old college student at Yale.
They met during the summer of 1954 in Hawaii, where the Fondas were staying while Henry Fonda was filming Mr. Roberts. Over time the relationship got pretty serious, with Jane visiting Robbins’ family in Cincinnati for a week and Robbins visiting her family in New York.
“We were thinking about picket fences and kids,” Robbins recalls.
Eventually the romance between romantic young lovers came to an end. But even today, almost six decades later the two still stay in touch.
Robbins’ friendship with those in the spotlight continued long after he graduated from Yale and spent three months traveling throughout Africa.
Years after returning to the U.S. and to Washington, D.C., — where he worked for the National Geographic Society and the National Zoo — he and his wife settled into a home where neighbors included journalists David Brinkley, Ben Bradlee and Art Buchwald.
In fact, Robbins will tell you that aside from being asked about Jane Fonda, he’s often asked to explain how he became David Brinkley’s “father-in-law,” an unofficial title he received when he walked Brinkley’s wife, Susan, down the aisle in 1972.
Although he is retired and close to reaching his 80th birthday, Robbins is still on the go and traveling the world, now as a lecturer on cruise ships. And he’s still writing, having put together a compilation of his lectures titled Amazing Wonders of the Ocean.
— Rich Pollack
Q. Where did you grow up and go to school?
A. Appropriately for an animal lover, I grew up in the “wilds” of Cincinnati, Ohio, where my pets included a crow and a raccoon. I graduated from Exeter, the Lawrenceville School, and Yale University with a post-graduate year as an Oxford scholar.
Q. What are some of the highlights of your life?
A. Thanks to a career as a writer at National Geographic, a director at the National Zoo and a cruise-ship lecturer in my retirement, I’ve had nonstop highlights around the world that include tracking tigers by elephant-back in Nepal, watching gorillas mate in Africa, charming a cobra in India, and swimming with piranhas in the Amazon jungle. I’ve also authored several books, including a new popular guide on the amazing wonders of the oceans from whales and dolphins to sharks and pirates.
Q. How did you choose to make your home in Highland Beach?
A. My parents retired to Delray Beach and so I moved just a few miles south in an ocean-fronting condo.
Q. What’s your favorite part about living in Highland Beach?
A. I love the water, so when I’m not cruise-ship lecturing on the ocean, I’m watching the ocean from my balcony, walking the shoreline, doing 50 laps in the pool and checking out loggerhead turtles during the nesting season.
Q. If someone made a movie of your life, who would you like to play you and why?
A. Peter Fonda, of course! I’ve got to stick with my almost brother-in-law and he exudes the joys of an adventurous life.
Q. What music to you listen to when you need inspiration? When you want to relax?
A. As an author, I listen to Bach, Haydn and Mozart for inspiration. As a sentimental romantic, I revel in Gershwin and Cole Porter because their music and lyrics take me back to the first loves of my salad days.
Q. Do you have a favorite quote that inspires your decisions?
A. Actually, two: “We don’t stop playing because we get old. We get old because we stop playing.” And: “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll be among the stars.”
Q. Have you had mentors in your life? Individuals who have inspired your life decisions?
A. Yes, great teachers at Yale and Oxford. Because I revere good writers, other mentors have been my editors at the Washington Daily News and the National Geographic, as well as Jane Goodall and Jack Hanna.
Q. What is the last book you read and would you recommend it?
A. Jim Kern (good friend, great photographer, and founder of the Florida Trail Association and American Hiking Society) has just written a must-read book for outdoors lovers, Trail Reflections — 50 years of Hiking and Backpacking.
Q. Who/what makes you laugh?
A. TV comic Jon Stewart provides me with a daily dose of belly laughs. And recalling old escapades with old friends seems to get funnier the older we get.