American philanthropist and tobacco heiress Doris Duke (1912–1993) inherited a large family fortune that enabled her to pursue a variety of interests in a lifetime rife with controversy and rumor. Although she lived a lavish lifestyle and was sometimes self-indulgent and eccentric, she was also an astute businesswoman and supported a number of public causes. When she was 21, she established the Independent Aid foundation, which later became the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. It is estimated that she gave away more than $400 million during her lifetime, often as anonymous contributions. The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation continues to provide grants in programs supporting the arts, environment, medical research, and child welfare.
Doris Duke was born on November 22, 1912, in New York City, the only child of James and Nanaline Holt Inman Duke. Her father, James Buchanan "Buck" Duke, founded the American Tobacco Company and, with brother Newton Duke, the Southern Power Company, later known as Duke Power, a Duke Energy Company. A wealthy businessman and philanthropist, James Duke contributed his name and money to various institutions. When he donated $40 million to Trinity College in North Carolina, his native state, the institution changed its name to Duke University.
Duke's family had made its fortune in tobacco in North Carolina. At the end of the Civil War, Duke's grandfather, Washington Duke, formed a cartel of farmers that developed into a thriving business that was inherited by James Duke, who formed the American Tobacco Company in 1890. The company was the largest tobacco trust in the United States until the government forced it to dissolve in 1911. James Duke then invested in real estate and started the Southern Energy Company. By the time Doris Duke was born, her father had amassed a fortune of nearly $80 million, and newspapers called her "the richest little girl in the world" and "million dollar baby."
James Duke doted on his daughter, and Doris Duke led a fairy-tale existence in her early life. She grew up in residences described as "American castles." These included a home on the Upper East Side of Manhattan; the "Rough Point" summer home in Newport, Rhode Island; and the "Duke Farms" in Hillsborough, New Jersey. When she was a child, Duke's chauffer also served as her bodyguard and was with her all of the time, because her very protective father had an obsessive fear that she would be kidnapped.
As a young girl, Doris was physically awkward and emotionally shy. By the time she was 13, she was almost six feet tall. She also had a prominent chin. As a result, she was very self conscious and felt extremely uncomfortable by all of the public attention that the family name drew to her.
Inherited Bulk of Family Fortune
In the winter of 1925, when Doris was 12, James became ill with pneumonia and lingered until October. When he died, he reportedly told her, "Trust no one." It was advice she seemed to ignore often as she grew older.
When James Duke died, he left most of his fortune to his daughter. The family fortune had been significantly reduced by the stock market crash of 1929. Still, Doris inherited $30 million. Doris' mother, Nanaline, only received a modest trust fund, which strained the mother-daughter relationship. The rest went to the Duke Endowment, a foundation James established to serve the people of the Carolinas. When Doris Duke was 14, she sued her mother to stop her from selling family assets.
For years, rumors would circulate about the Duke family and, later, especially about Doris. One that gained currency around this time is that Nanaline, seeking to hasten James' death, left her ill husband locked in the bedroom for days with the windows opened.
Developed Philanthropic Purpose During Depression
Unlike the rest of the country, Duke was unaffected by the deprivations of the Great Depression. She was discomforted however, by the news coverage that families like hers' received. The press and the public developed a fascination for the lives of the rich and famous. The newspapers especially liked to report about the extravagant and frivolous lifestyles of wealthy young heiresses to readers who were both captivated and repulsed. Because of their large fortunes, Barbara Hutton ("the poor little rich girl") and Duke were nicknamed the "Gold Dust Twins." Hutton enjoyed the coverage, but Duke loathed it, and she retreated even farther from the spotlight.
But the economic climate did instill in her a sense of philanthropic purpose. As she got older, she kept close tabs on her father's endowment to Duke University, making sure that his wishes were being carried out. The Duke family contributed a great amount to public programs, and Duke later managed the donations. When she was just 21, she established a foundation called Independent Aid, which later became the Doris Duke Foundation. It is estimated that she gave away more than $400 million in anonymous contributions throughout her life.
Married Politician James Cromwell
By the early 1930s, Duke had begun to chafe under the control of her domineering mother. She had wanted to attend college, but her mother would not allow it. Instead, Nanaline took Doris on a grand tour of Europe. In London, she presented her socially withdrawn daughter as a debutante.
In 1935, to free herself from the maternal domination, Duke married James H.R. Cromwell, an aspiring politician. She was 23 years old. News of the hasty marriage shocked everyone. The 39-year-old Cromwell, who was rich, but not as rich as Duke, reputedly was a socialite who had a taste for wealthy women. His ex-wife was Delphine Dodge, heiress to an automobile fortune.
The couple took a two-year honeymoon around the world and then settled in Hawaii, where they built a house that they called Shangri-La, after the mythical paradise made famous in James Hilton's 1933 novel Lost Horizon. When Cromwell ran for public office, Duke tried to campaign for him, but the press was more interested in her. This would strain their marriage. Eventually, Cromwell was appointed Minister to Canada, but Duke went back to Hawaii, to the privacy that she cherished so much.
Lost Her Only Child
In 1940, the couple had a child, Arden, who died only 24 hours after being born. Duke would mourn the loss the rest of her life. When doctors told her that she would not be able to have any more children, Duke was so distraught that she consulted with psychics in an attempt to contact the deceased daughter. The death of Arden further weakened her marriage. In three years, Duke and Cromwell would be divorced.
Meanwhile, rumors and speculation about Duke's behaviors and affairs, which would plague her all of her life, had began circulating in the press and high society. When Duke had become pregnant, it was suggested that any number of men besides Cromwell could have been the father.
Went to Work in World War II
During World War II, Doris worked in a canteen for sailors in Egypt. True to her philanthropic instincts, she only took a salary of one dollar a year. Pampered as a child, Duke now found that working was fun. She would later say that she felt that this was the most useful period of her life.
In 1945, she began a short-lived writing career when she became a foreign correspondent for the International News Service, reporting from different cities across the war-ravaged Europe. After the war, she moved to Paris and continued to work, writing for the magazine Harper's Bazaar.
By this time, Duke had outgrown her physical awkwardness and was an attractive women. She had relationships with some well-known men. Among them were writer Louis Bromfield, British Parliament member Alec Cunningham-Reid, actor Errol Flynn, United States Army General George Patton, and surfing champion Duke Kahanamoku.
In Europe, she met the man who would become her second husband, Porfirio Rubirosa, a Dominican diplomat and reputed playboy and fortune hunter. Duke was fascinated by his reputation as a great lover. They had an affair that quickly led to a marriage proposal. Before the wedding, the U.S. Government drew up a reportedly iron-clad pre-nuptial agreement for Duke. Not surprisingly, the marriage lasted only a year. Duke would never marry again.
Pursued Varied Interests
Leaving her bad marriages behind, Duke entered a period in her life when she traveled around the world, pursuing a variety of interests. She traveled to exotic places and mixed with different cultures. She met with Indian mystics and African witch doctors, and wandered with Massai warriors in Africa.
Art became one of her passions and, throughout her travels, she collected treasures from all parts of the world. She acquired priceless collections of Islamic and Southeast Asian art. Her tastes could be rather eccentric. She built a complete Thai village at her 2700-acre New Jersey farm.
She also became interested in the performing arts. She liked music and became an accomplished jazz pianist and wrote songs. Also, she took up belly dancing and even spent weekends singing in a black gospel choir at Southern Baptist meetings in the United States.
While Duke globe trotted, she employed a permanent staff of over 200 to oversee her five homes, which now also included a hillside mansion in Beverly Hills called "Falcon Lair" (the former home of silent movie star Rudolph Valentino).
Although her lifestyle was unconventional and her behavior sometimes eccentric, Duke was very responsible when it came to her inheritance. She had good business sense and, during her lifetime, Duke quadrupled her father's fortune.
In addition to her artistic pursuits, she developed a passion for restoration. Also she became an environmentalist and had a keen interest in conservation and horticulture.
Her homes reflected her interests. At the Jersey farm, she designed elaborate indoor display gardens that reflected various regions of the world. In 1964, she opened them to the public. She also became involved in restoration projects in Newport, one of America's oldest towns.
In 1968, Duke founded the Newport Restoration Foundation to restore some of Newport's oldest structures and to revitalize tourism. It was speculated that this was an appeasement for something that had happened in that town two years before. In October 1966, Duke ran over and killed her interior decorator, Edward Tirella, with her car as he was trying to open the gate to her mansion. Duke claimed her foot accidentally slipped to the accelerator. Tirella was dragged across the street and crushed against a tree. The circumstances were suspicious and the rumors started to fly. According to stories, Duke and Tirella were lovers, and Tirella had planned on leaving her. An investigation into the incident was dropped a week later. Police called it an "unfortunate accident." Fueling more rumors and speculation, the Chief of Police retired a month later and Tirella's family received a large sum of money after a civil suit.
Afterward, Duke became even more reclusive, tending to her charities and supporting the performing arts. She continued buying more art, and her collection became increasingly odd. She bought an old airplane from a Middle Eastern businessman. As part of the deal, Duke had to adopt two camels. She named them "Baby" and "Princess," and the animals lived at Rough Point, where they were free to eat all the vegetation on the grounds.
Adopted Chandi Heffner
As Duke aged, her life became even more bizarre. Her close circle of friends would include a strange cast of characters. In 1985, she met Chandi Heffner, a 32-year-old Hari Krishna devotee. Duke believed that Heffner was the reincarnation of her daughter, Arden. In a peculiar arrangement, in 1988, the 76-year-old Duke legally adopted the 35-year-old Heffner and bought her a $1 million ranch in Hawaii, where the two lived together as mother and daughter. For three years, Duke doted on her "daughter." She even named Heffner in her will. However, the two often fought.
During this period, Heffner's boyfriend, James Burns, became Duke's bodyguard. Also, Heffner introduced Duke to Bernard Lafferty who, according to accounts, was a poor and unintelligent Irishman who liked to drink. Previously, he had worked as a butler for singer Peggy Lee. Now, he became very close to Duke, and he became her butler.
Suffered Declining Health
Duke's friends, family, and acquaintances viewed this as a very disturbing development. Lafferty became very fixated on his new employer and began to isolate her. As Duke's health grew worse in her later years, Lafferty would prevent visitors from seeing her. He also interfered with her staff, preventing them from performing basic functions as he watchfully hovered over Duke.
In 1991, Duke, who was now 79 years old, ended her relationship with Heffner and reversed the adoption. The year before, in a suspicious incident, Duke suffered a fall and was knocked unconscious in her Hawaii home. Lafferty claimed the Heffner and Burns were plotting against Duke. He took his employer to her home in Beverly Hills. At this point, Duke suffered from severe depression.
Back in California, Lafferty encouraged Duke to have several operations, including a face lift and knee replacement surgery. The knee surgery was unsuccessful. Duke suffered constant pain and was confined to a wheelchair. In the months before she died, Duke was in and out of hospitals and was heavily sedated with morphine pain killers.
She died in her bed at Falcon Lair on October 28, 1993, a few weeks short of her 81st birthday. She died without family or friends nearby. Only Lafferty was at her side. Those who knew Duke believed her death came as a result of overmedication. Suspicion was cast on Lafferty, as he had previously dismissed and replaced Duke's physicians. However, no autopsy was performed. Duke was cremated within 24 hours and her ashes scattered into the Pacific Ocean.
At the time she died, Duke's estate was worth over one billion dollars. In her will, she left the majority of her estate to the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. To everyone's astonishment and displeasure, Lafferty was named trustee of the Foundation. He also was given a payment of over $4 million dollars and a lifetime annuity of $500,000. Although the Foundation's directors carefully gave out the monies as stipulated in Duke's will, Lafferty began to spend money lavishly.
Eventually, he was ousted from control after Duke's lawyers accused him of mishandling her fortune. A California court deemed Lafferty unfit to handle such an important charity. Lafferty died in November 1996, reportedly depressed and bitter.
Suspicions about Duke's death lingered, but, in 1996, after an 18-month investigation, the Los Angeles district attorney's office concluded there was no credible evidence to suggest that Duke had been murdered.
The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation continues to support social, cultural, and health-related programs today. Headquartered in New York and governed by an eight-member Board of Trustees, its mission is "to improve the quality of people's lives through grants supporting the performing arts, wildlife conservation, medical research and the prevention of child maltreatment, and through preservation of the cultural and environmental legacy of Doris Duke's properties." Specifically, it awards grants in four programs: arts, environment, medical research, and child abuse prevention.
By the end of 2002, DDCF had approved 363 grants totaling more than $335 million to nonprofit organizations throughout the United States. The foundation expected to approve approximately $14 million in new grants in 2003. The foundation also oversees Duke's properties, parts of which are open to the public.
The Associated Press, February 28, 1996.
Rhode Island Roads Magazine, January 2003.
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