Reconsidering Doris Duke, the Debutante Who Broke All the Rules

Reconsidering Doris Duke, the Debutante Who Broke All the Rules

In Search of Doris Duke
By Sallie Bingham

Declared “the richest little girl in the world” in 1925, when she inherited more than $50 million at age 12, the tobacco heiress Doris Duke has remained the subject of tremendous public fascination long after her death in 1993.

She was the debutante who broke all the rules. Her adventures and misadventures are the stuff of legend: barrier-breaking romances; escapes from the society straitjacket (from serving with an intelligence agency during World War II to playing jazz piano in nightclubs); religious dabbling and soul-searching séances; out-of-control spending and weird penny-pinching; and friendships with everyone from Elvis Presley to Pee-wee Herman to Albert Einstein to Imelda Marcos. She starred in endless legal dramas: a murder investigation after she ran over her decorator with her car, and her bizarre, late-in-life adoption — and rejection — of a young female charge, Chandi Heffner Duke.

This extraordinary life has been examined from many angles. The Doris Duke bookshelf includes a tell-all from two ex-employees (“Daddy’s Duchess”) and an inside-the-family portrait by Duke’s cousin-godson (“Too Rich: The Family Secrets of Doris Duke”). There’s also the exhaustive and authoritative biography “The Richest Girl in the World,” by the former Washington Post reporter Stephanie Mansfield, who interviewed 400 intimates including Duke’s first husband, several former lovers, multiple employees and the society figures of the day. Those who prefer a screen version have two to choose from — a TV mini-series and an HBO film, with Lauren Bacall and Susan Sarandon portraying the impetuous and imperious Duke.

Now comes the writer Sallie Bingham with “The Silver Swan: In Search of Doris Duke,” a more sober assessment of Duke’s life and accomplishments. Back in 1958, Bingham met the mysterious Duke at a dinner party in Paris and her curiosity lingered. A member of the wealthy family that owned The Louisville Courier-Journal, Bingham brings firsthand knowledge of dysfunctional Southern family dynamics and the fight for women to be taken seriously: A bitter power struggle between Bingham and her brother ultimately prompted the sale of The Courier-Journal, which netted her more than $55 million.

Doris Duke’s papers are stored at Duke University (formerly Trinity College but renamed in 1924 after a substantial endowment from Doris’s father, James Buchanan Duke) and have been off-limits to researchers. But Bingham, who decades ago established a women’s history archive at the university, persuaded the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation to give her access to the files.

Bingham adds a trove of new material to the Duke oeuvre, including revealing quotations from letters and details of daily life on Duke’s many estates. But she is allergic to telling the story in chronological order. The book jumps back and forth in time so often that there’s no coherent narrative or character development. The biography is also weakened by Bingham’s hedged presumptions of what Duke was thinking or knew — “she must have” or “she may have” appear multiple times on some pages — along with the frequent use of “probably” and “perhaps.” Again and again, I had to go back to Mansfield’s book for context.

Duke never had the chance for anything resembling a normal life. Born in 1912 to James and his social-climbing second wife, Nanaline Inman, Doris was protected by private detectives from infancy. Whisked from one palatial home to another (the marble Greek Revival mansion on Fifth Avenue, the 2,700-acre New Jersey estate with artificial lakes and imported fountains, the summer “cottage” on the Rhode Island coast), Doris was a lonely, gawky girl, isolated by her family’s wealth.

Her swashbuckling father, along with his father and brothers, turned their small tobacco-growing farm in Durham into the colossal American Tobacco Company and then started the lucrative Duke Power Company, building hydroelectric power plants. Known as Buck, Doris’s father adored her, showering her with attention and encouraging her to sit in on business meetings, while her mother, who doted on a ne’er-do-well son from her first marriage, was forever finding fault and delegated Doris’s upbringing to the help.

The death of her father was devastating to Doris, leaving her without a guiding parental figure and propelling her into the newspaper headlines that would dog her for the rest of her life. She came into the first installment of her inheritance at 21, an athletic and stylish woman with blue eyes, a striking 6-foot-1 figure and a ferocious desire to break loose of social constraints.

Bingham recasts Duke’s life — often portrayed as a miserable and frantic search for love and acceptance — into a more exuberant account of the experiences and opportunities of her era, as well as her serious quest to be useful and recognized for her artistic talents and eye. Taking tap dance and piano lessons as a teenager and modern dance and voice lessons as an adult, Duke strove for a career as a performer. “Her seriousness as a pianist has never been credited,” Bingham writes, noting that Duke practiced several hours a day. She was also passionate about dance. After taking lessons from the modern dance choreographer Katherine Dunham and underwriting her work, Duke asked to join the company but Dunham turned her down.

Her youthful marriage in 1935 to the older, divorced fortune hunter James Cromwell was disastrous from the start. But on their nine-month round-the-globe honeymoon, Duke embraced other cultures. The couple met with Gandhi in India, and on the last stop, Duke fell in love with Hawaii. Lingering on while her husband returned to the mainland, she took up surfing with the Kahanamoku brothers, Sam and the Olympian gold medalist Duke, and snapped up land to build a spectacular retreat, Shangri La, which she would go on to adorn with Islamic treasures dating back to the 12th century.

Duke’s love life was famously star-crossed: a brief and stormy second marriage to the Dominican playboy Porfirio Rubirosa, a fling with a Beirut antiquities dealer, a tryst with the writer and farmer Louis Bromfield, a lengthy involvement with a younger jazz musician — the list goes on and on. She crossed color lines in her choice of companions. An original supporter of the Newport Jazz Festival, Duke scandalized local society when she befriended black musicians and brought them home for jam sessions. “The buried bone of racism,” Bingham writes, was reflected in the gossip and news coverage about Duke.

As a philanthropist, Duke supported an eclectic range of causes. Bingham makes the case that her money mattered. “Doris was crucial to the cause of birth control, although her role is seldom recognized,” she writes, noting that Duke gave substantial funds to Margaret Sanger and her National Committee for Birth Control in 1935. The heiress also left a very tangible legacy: She founded the Newport Restoration Foundation, which rescued 72 historic colonial houses in Newport, R.I., from the wrecking ball and fixed them up. She donated her grand estate as well.

Duke’s beloved Shangri La is now a museum renowned for its world-class Islamic art collection, and her New Jersey estate, Duke Farms, is a nature preserve open to the public. In life, Duke achieved notoriety as something of a soap opera character, but in death she has won respect for her forward-thinking taste and sympathy for her frustrated feminism.

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