Eight Bells: Robert L. James
Published on August 31st, 2021
Robert L. James passed away on August 29, 2021, at the ago of 84. From 1997 through 1998, Commodore James served as the New York Yacht Club’s 55th Commodore. A member of the New York Yacht Club for nearly 50 years, James was a tireless advocate for the Club and the sport of sailing.
He was an original owner in and a stalwart of the New York 40 class, sailing his beloved Carronade, and instrumental in the creation of Race Week at Newport. His 94-foot power yacht Misty was a consistent sight on the Annual Cruise and at many major regattas hosted out of Harbour Court, often serving graciously as the VIP boat.
Robert L. James was born in New York City in late September 1936 and joined NYYC in December of 1973. In an interview with Gary Jobson for the Club’s Oral History project, he had this to say: “I felt very privileged because I had read a lot about the club, and it was a paragon of virtue in the sport. It stood for good things, the tradition, especially, I had a friend ask if l would be interested, and I said, ‘Yes,’ very quickly. And then I went around and got my interviews done. I was just happy, very delighted, to find out that I was accepted as a member.”
James purchased NY40 hull No. 10 in time for the 1979 sailing season, the class’s second, and raced the boat offshore and around the buoys for the next 30-plus years. He raced to Bermuda multiple times and across the Atlantic in 1998. James and his loyal crew earned their share of silver, including the Astor Cup and Herreshoff Medal in 1997, the Una Cup in 2000 and 2005, and an overall class win in the Club’s Sesquicentennial Regatta in 1994. Yacht racing provided a much needed escape from his professional life.
After successful stints at Proctor & Gamble, Colgate Palmolive, Ogilvy & Mather and Marschalk Company, James joined McCann Erickson Worldwide in 1981 as a Vice Chairman, U.S. Operations. He was named worldwide CEO four years later. Under his leadership, McCann Erickson became the largest advertising agency in the world, expanding its network to include 99 countries. It was the number one agency in 16 countries and among the top three in 37 countries. In 1995, when James retired after 10 years as chairman and CEO, McCann was the first agency to have revenues exceeding $1 billion.
“When I raced on weekends, I got so involved in what I was doing, it is so absorbing and your intensity of involvement is so deep, that I’d get back to work on Monday morning, and I couldn’t get my mind into what I was doing until midday,” James said in that same interview. “And if you’re in a high pressure job like I was in, then to have that kind of thing has to be really good for you; something that can take you out. And the deeper you get into it, the deeper out you get from your everyday affairs.”
In 1992, James was “blown away” when Commodore Bob Stone, then chair of the nominating committee, approached him about becoming Rear Commodore. But he quickly took to the role, embracing the “opportunity to do some things, to put some stuff back into the bank, so to speak, for this Club that you love and has done so much for you. It was a great privilege to become a flag officer and to have an opportunity to serve the club.”
James served as Rear Commodore during the Club’s sesquicentennial year and then oversaw the first running of Race Week at Newport presented by Rolex in 1998, his final year as Commodore. His enduring passion for Corinthian competition led him to donate, along with Charlie Robertson, the trophy for the Rolex New York Yacht Club Invitational Cup, which will be sailed for the seventh time this September.
In addition to his service to the Club, James was a devoted volunteer to many worthy causes, serving on the boards of the South Street Seaport Museum, The Smithsonian, Operation Sail and the National Captioning Institute. He was a former chairman of the President’s Circle of the National Academies of Sciences, a chairman and trustee of the National Air & Space Museum, a trustee and member of the executive committee of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, a trustee of the New York Presbyterian Hospital and a trustee of the World Ship Trust.
He also actively supported the educational institutions from which he graduated: Fordham Preparatory School, Colgate University and the Columbia University Graduate School of Business.
James leaves behind his wife of 53 years, Anne, his children Robert L. James Jr., Victoria Lincoln and Jeffery B. James; seven grandchildren; and four great grandchildren.
Visitation will be from 1600 to 2000 on Friday, September 3, at Castiglione Funeral Home in Greenwich, Conn. Mass will be held at St. Catherine of Sienna, in Greenwich, Conn., at 1000 on Saturday, September 4, with burial to follow.