Today is Doris Duke’s 103rd birthday. She was in the newspapers from the day she was born, her every move chronicled and scrutinized. Her art collection, the house she built in Hawaii, her love life, she did everything large. If Susan Sarandon and Lauren Bacall star in movies about your life, you are doing something right. The world is a better place because she was in it and still feels the loss that she has left.
BEST KNOWN FOR: Tobacco heiress Doris Duke was the only child of American tobacco baron, James Duke. When she was born, the press called her the ‘million dollar baby.’
Tobacco heiress, philanthropist. Born November 22, 1912, in New York City. Doris Duke was the only child of American tobacco baron James Duke and his wife, Nanaline. When she was born, the newspapers christened her “the richest little girl in the world.” However, Duke was the most reluctant of celebrities. For over 50 years, she sought to avoid the glare of publicity, hiding from cameras and refusing interviews. When she died at her Beverly Hills mansion, without family or friends, Duke’s billion-dollar legacy was left in the sole control of her butler, the semiliterate alcoholic Bernard Lafferty. In death, the reclusive Duke again became the focus of the world’s attention.
The Duke family fortune was made from the tobacco fields of North Carolina. Doris Duke’s grandfather, Washington Duke, created a cartel with other local farmers at the end of the Civil War. Following Washington’s death, the thriving business was inherited by his son James, who formed the American Tobacco Company in 1890. Like other barons of industry at the turn of a century, James Duke gave his name and money to worthy institutions. In Durham, North Carolina, Trinity College became Duke University, on receipt of a $40 million donation.
James fell ill with pneumonia during the winter of 1925. He died in October of the same year. A week later it was revealed that he had left the bulk of his fortune to his 12-year-old daughter, Doris Duke. On his deathbed, James cautioned her to “trust no one” — a piece of fatherly advice that would forever resonate in the mind of the impressionable child. On the other hand, Duke’s mother had only been left a modest trust fund, which made for a strained relationship. At age 14, Duke was forced to sue her mother in order to stop her from selling family assets. Later when Duke wanted to attend college, her mother forbade it. Instead, Nanaline opted to take her daughter on a grand tour of Europe, where Duke was presented as a debutante in London.
At the time of the Great Depression the lives of the wealthy held a morbid fascination in the minds of the American public. Barbara Hutton, the Woolworth heiress, and Duke were nicknamed the “Goldust Twins” because of their vast inheritances. While Hutton delighted in the press coverage, Duke sought to avoid it.
At the age of 22, Duke stunned everyone when she hastily married aspiring politician Jimmy Cromwell, who was 16 years her senior. After a two-year around-the-world honeymoon, Duke and her husband arrived in Hawaii, where they built a house named Shangri-La (after the mythical land where no one grows old). Although Duke supported Cromwell’s political ambitions, her attempts to campaign for him were overshadowed by the media’s unwavering interest in Duke herself. Eventually, their marriage began to unravel. When Cromwell was appointed Minister to Canada, Duke retreated to Hawaii, and to the freedom and anonymity she had enjoyed there.
Now living apart from Cromwell (the couple eventually divorced in 1943), Duke’s behavior and indiscreet affairs scandalized society. When she became pregnant at age 27, it was speculated that any number of men could have been the father. The child, a girl named Arden, was born prematurely in July of 1940, and died within 24 hours. Told by doctors that she was never to have children again, the devastated Duke consulted psychics to contact her dead daughter.
In 1945, Duke became a foreign correspondent for the International News Service, where she reported from various cities in war-torn Europe. After World War II, she continued her short-lived writing career in Paris, where she worked for Harper’s Bazaar. While there, she met and married Dominican playboy Porfirio Rubirosa, whose legendary reputation for his sexual prowess entranced Duke. Because her wealth was so vast, the U.S. government drew up Duke’s prenuptial agreement. When they presented Rubirosa with the document, he fainted upon the realization of her net worth. Their union lasted only a year, and Duke never married again.
Duke used her money to travel the world, communing with the likes of Indian mystics and African witch doctors. She employed a permanent staff of over 200 to look after her and manage her five homes — a 2,000-acre farm in New Jersey, a Park Avenue penthouse, a hillside mansion in Beverly Hills, a palace in Hawaii, and a summer home in Newport, Rhode Island. Although her lifestyle was unconventional, her attitude toward her father’s fortune was not. During her lifetime, Duke was to increase her father’s fortune fourfold.
In spite of her astute sense of business, Duke’s real passion was for the arts. Her eclectic taste ranged from collecting priceless Oriental treasures in Shangri-La to housing a complete Thai village in her New Jersey home. She also took an interest in belly dancing, and spent her weekends singing in a black gospel choir.
In her golden years, Duke surrounded herself with a menagerie of characters. In 1985, she met Chandi Heffner, a 32-year-old Hari Krishna devotee. Believing that Heffner was the reincarnation of her daughter, Arden, Duke bought her a million-dollar ranch in Hawaii, and legally adopted her in 1988. Around the same time, Heffner unwittingly introduced Bernard Lafferty into the Duke household. The poor Irishman became Duke’s butler, and soon developed a fixation on his employer. Heffner’s boyfriend, James Burns, assumed the role of Duke’s bodyguard.
During the winter of 1990, Duke became mysteriously ill at her home in Hawaii. When she later took a fall and was knocked unconscious, Lafferty saw an opportunity to muddy the waters by promoting the idea that Heffner and Burns were conspiring against Duke. Although the allegations went unproven, Duke fled with Lafferty to her Beverly Hills home, where she sank into a deep depression. At this point, she severed relations with Heffner, giving Lafferty total control over her household.
At 79, Duke was encouraged by Lafferty to have a series of operations, including a face-lift and knee replacement surgery. The latter operation was unsuccessful, leaving Duke indefinitely confined to a wheelchair. Increasingly frail and disoriented, she signed a will relinquishing her fortune to Lafferty in April 1993.
Shortly after, Lafferty’s actions took a sinister turn when he refused to call an ambulance as Duke was choking on a piece of food. After a summer in and out of the hospital, Duke returned home, where she was heavily sedated with painkillers. These high doses of morphine culminated in her death on October 28, 1993, a few weeks short of her 81st birthday. An autopsy was not performed, and she was cremated within 24 hours, after which her ashes were scattered into the Pacific Ocean.
Lafferty’s reign came to an end after Duke’s lawyers accused him of manipulating her fortune. After a wealth of speculation surrounding Duke’s death, a California court deemed Lafferty unfit to handle such an important charity (upon her death, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation was worth an estimated $1.2 billion). He relinquished his position and retreated to Los Angeles, where he died three years later.
In 1996, after an 18-month investigation, the Los Angeles district attorney’s office concluded there was not any credible evidence to suggest that Duke was murdered.
The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation continues its philanthropic efforts, recently awarding grants to performing arts centers in New Jersey and Massachusetts.
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