Doris Duke: American heiress, philanthropist and billionaire (1912 - 1993) | Biography
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Doris Duke
American heiress, philanthropist and billionaire

Doris Duke

Doris Duke
The basics

Quick Facts

Intro American heiress, philanthropist and billionaire
Was Art collector Horticulturist Socialite
From United States of America
Field Arts Biology
Gender female
Birth 22 November 1912, New York City, New York, U.S.A.
Death 28 October 1993, Beverly Hills, Los Angeles County, California, U.S.A. (aged 80 years)
Star sign Sagittarius
Father: James Buchanan Duke
Spouse: Porfirio RubirosaJames H. R. Cromwell
Doris Duke
The details (from wikipedia)


Doris Duke (November 22, 1912 – October 28, 1993) was an American heiress, socialite, horticulturalist, art collector, and philanthropist.

The daughter of a wealthy tobacco tycoon, Duke was able to fund a life of global travel and wide-ranging interests. These extended across journalism, competition surfing, jazz piano, wildlife conservation, Oriental art and Hare Krishna.

Much of her work centered on her father's estate at Hillsborough Township, New Jersey, where she created many elaborately-themed gardens, furnished with artifacts acquired on her world travels, including one of America's largest indoor botanical displays. She was also active in preserving more than 80 historic buildings in Newport, Rhode Island.

Twice married and divorced, Duke enjoyed a colorful private life that was seldom out of the gossip columns.

Her philanthropic work continued into her old age, some of it unknown to the public during her lifetime, and her estimated $1.3 billion fortune was largely left to charity. After much legal challenging of the executors and trustees, Duke's legacy is now administered by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, dedicated to medical research, prevention of cruelty to children and animals, the performing arts, wildlife and ecology.

Family and early life

Duke was born in New York City, the only child of tobacco and hydroelectric power tycoon James Buchanan Duke and his second wife, Nanaline Holt Inman, widow of Dr. William Patterson Inman. At his death in 1925, the elder Duke's will bequeathed the majority of his estate to his wife and daughter, along with $17 million in two separate clauses of the will, to The Duke Endowment he had created in 1924. The total value of the estate was not disclosed, but was estimated variously at $60 million to $100 million (equivalent to $819 million to $1.366 billion in 2017).

Duke spent her early childhood at Duke Farms, her father's 2,700-acre (11 km2) estate in Hillsborough Township, New Jersey. Due to ambiguity in James Duke's will, a lawsuit was filed to prevent auctions and outright sales of real estate he had owned; in effect, Doris Duke successfully sued her mother and other executors to prevent the sales. One of the pieces of real estate in question was a Manhattan mansion at 1 East 78th Street which later became the home of the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University.

She was presented to society as a debutante in 1930, aged 18, at a ball at Rough Point, the family residence in Newport, Rhode Island. She received large bequests from her father's will when she turned 21, 25, and 30; she was sometimes referred to as the "world's richest girl." Her mother died in 1962, leaving her jewelry and a coat.

Adult life

When Duke came of age, she used her wealth to pursue a variety of interests, including extensive world travel and the arts. During World War II, she worked in a canteen for sailors in Egypt, taking a salary of one dollar a year. She spoke French fluently. In 1945, Duke began a short-lived career as 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 wrote for the magazine Harper's Bazaar.

While living in Hawaii, Duke became the first non-Hawaiian woman to take up competitive surfing under the tutelage of surfing champion and Olympic swimmer Duke Kahanamoku and his brothers. A lover of animals, in particular her dogs and pet camels, in her later years Duke became a wildlife refuge supporter, an environmental conservationist, and a patron of historic preservation.

Duke's interest in horticulture led to a friendship with Pulitzer Prize-winning author and scientific farmer Louis Bromfield, who operated Malabar Farm, his country home in Lucas, Ohio in Richland County. Today, his farm is part of Malabar Farm State Park, made possible by a donation from Duke that helped purchase the property after Bromfield's death. A section of woods there is dedicated to her and bears her name.

At age 46, Duke started to create Duke Gardens, an exotic public-display garden, to honor her father James Buchanan Duke. She extended new greenhouses from the Horace Trumbauer conservatory at her home in Duke Farms, New Jersey. Each of the eleven interconnected gardens was a full-scale re-creation of a garden theme, country or period, inspired by DuPont's Longwood Gardens. She designed the architectural, artistic and botanical elements of the displays based on observations from her extensive international travels. She also labored on their installation, sometimes working 16-hour days. Display construction began in 1958.

Duke had learned to play the piano at an early age and developed a lifelong appreciation of jazz and befriended jazz musicians. She also liked gospel music and sang in a gospel choir.

In 1966, Duke was behind the wheel of a rented car when it lurched forward and crushed interior designer Eduardo Tirella as he was opening the gates of the mansion they were restoring in Newport, Rhode Island. While it was ruled a freak accident by the police, Tirella's family sued and won $75,000 when Duke was found negligent.


Duke created the Italian Garden to showcase sculptures that her father had collected, such as this replica of Canova's Three Graces

Duke acquired a number of homes. Her principal residence and official domicile was Duke Farms, her father's 2,700 acre (11 km²) estate in Hillsborough Township, New Jersey. Here she created Duke Gardens, 60,000-square-foot (5,600 m2) public indoor botanical display that were among the largest in America.

Duke's other residences were private during her lifetime: she spent summer weekends working on her Newport Restoration Foundation projects while staying at Rough Point, the 49-room English manor-style mansion that she inherited in Newport, Rhode Island.

Winters were spent at an estate she built in the 1930s and named "Shangri La" in Honolulu, Hawaii; and at "Falcon's Lair" in Beverly Hills, California, once the home of Rudolph Valentino. She also maintained two apartments in Manhattan: a 9-room penthouse with a 1,000-square-foot (93 m2) veranda at 475 Park Avenue that is currently owned by journalist Cindy Adams; and another apartment near Times Square that she used exclusively as an office for the management of her financial affairs.

She purchased her own Boeing 737 jet and redecorated the interior to travel between homes and on her trips to collect art and plants. The plane included a bedroom decorated to resemble a bedroom in a real house. Doris Duke had difficulty remaining in one place, and whenever she arrived somewhere, she had the desire to go somewhere else.

Duke was a hands-on homeowner, climbing a ladder to a three-story scaffolding to clean tile murals in the courtyard of Shangri La, and working side by side with her gardeners at Duke Farms.

Three of Duke's residences are currently managed by subsidiaries of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and allow limited public access. Duke Farms in New Jersey is managed by the Duke Farms Foundation; a video tour of former Duke Gardens is available. Rough Point was deeded to the Newport Restoration Foundation in 1999 and opened to the public in 2000. Tours are limited to 12 people. Shangri-La is operated by the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art; small personal tours and an online virtual tour are available.

Personal life

Duke with then husband James H. R. Cromwell in January 1940

Duke married twice, the first time in 1935 to James H. R. Cromwell, the son of Palm Beach society doyenne Eva Stotesbury. Cromwell, a New Deal advocate like his wife, used her fortune to finance his political career. In 1940 he served several months as U.S. Ambassador to Canada and ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate. The couple had a daughter, Arden, who lived for only one day. They divorced in 1943.

On September 1, 1947, while in Paris, Duke became the third wife of Porfirio Rubirosa, a diplomat from the Dominican Republic. She reportedly paid his second wife, actress Danielle Darrieux, $1 million to agree to an uncontested divorce. Because of her great wealth, Duke's marriage to Rubirosa attracted the attention of the U.S. State Department, which cautioned her against using her money to promote political agenda. Further, there was concern that in the event of her death, a foreign government could gain too much leverage. Therefore, Rubirosa had to sign a pre-nuptial agreement; during the marriage, though, she gave Rubirosa several million dollars in gifts, including a stable of polo ponies, sports cars, a converted B-25 bomber, and, in the divorce settlement, a 17th-century house in Paris. She had a number of relationships, but never remarried. One of Doris Duke's best friends was Brazilian socialite and "jetsetter" Aimée de Heeren.

She reportedly had numerous affairs, with, among others, Duke Kahanamoku, Errol Flynn, Alec Cunningham-Reid, General George S. Patton, Joe Castro, and Louis Bromfield.

Duke posted a bail of $5,000,000 for her friend, former Philippine First Lady Imelda Marcos after the latter was arrested for racketeering.


In 1992, at the age of 79, Duke had a facelift. She began trying to walk while she was still heavily medicated and fell, breaking her hip. In January 1993, she underwent surgery for a knee replacement. She was hospitalized from February 2 to April 15. She underwent a second knee surgery in July of that year.

A day after returning home from this second surgery, she suffered a severe stroke. Doris Duke died at her Falcon's Lair home on October 28, 1993, at the age of 80. The cause was progressive pulmonary edema resulting in cardiac arrest, according to a spokesman.

Duke was cremated 24 hours after her death and her executor, Bernard Lafferty, scattered her ashes into the Pacific Ocean as her last will specified.

Net worth

When Doris' father died, he left a fortune valued at $100 million, with the lion's share going to Duke and her mother. Nanaline was a shrewd businesswoman, often compared to Hetty Green, and when she died in 1962, she left her daughter, then estimated to be worth $250 million, a fortune triple what J. B. had left her.

In addition, Duke also owned numerous shares in big-name companies, such as General Motors, and had a large financial team of bankers and accountants to manage her holdings (since, despite rumors, Duke had little to no interest in money matters). Not to mention her collection of artwork, which was said to include works by Picasso, Van Gogh, Rembrandt and Monet, as well as her valuable collection of Islamic and Southeast Asia art and furniture. Also in Duke's collection were over 2,000 bottles of rare wine (worth over $5 million) and the extraordinary Duke collection of fine jewels. Her total net worth, including all property, was valued at $5.3 billion.


Duke’s first major philanthropic act was to establish Independent Aid, Inc., in 1934, when she was 21 years old, in order to manage the many requests for financial assistance addressed to her. In 1958, she established the Duke Gardens Foundation to endow the public display gardens she started to create at Duke Farms. Her Foundation intended that Duke Gardens "reveal the interests and philanthropic aspirations of the Duke family, as well as an appreciation for other cultures and a yearning for global understanding.". Duke Gardens were the center of a controversy over the decision by the trustees of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation to close them on May 25, 2008.

In 1968, Duke created the Newport Restoration Foundation with the goal of preserving more than eighty colonial buildings in the town. Historic properties include Rough Point, Samuel Whitehorne House, Prescott Farm, the Buloid-Perry House, the King's Arms Tavern, the Baptist Meetinghouse, and the Cotton House. Seventy-one buildings are rented to tenants. Only five function as museums. She also funded the construction of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's ashram in India, visited by the Beatles in 1968.

Duke's extensive travels led to an interest in a variety of cultures, and during her lifetime she amassed a considerable collection of Islamic and Southeast Asian art. After her death, numerous pieces were donated to The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco and the Walters Art Museum of Baltimore.

Duke did much additional philanthropic work and was a major benefactor of medical research and child welfare programs. Her foundation, Independent Aid, became the Doris Duke Foundation, which still exists as a private grant-making entity. After her death, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation was established in 1996, supporting four national grant making programs and Doris Duke's three estates, Shangri La, Rough Point, and Duke Farms.

Trusts and wills

Duke was the life beneficiary of two trusts created by her father, James Buchanan Duke, in 1917 and 1924. The income from the trusts was payable to any children after her death. In 1988, at the age of 75, Duke legally adopted a woman named Chandi Heffner, then a 35-year-old Hare Krishna devotee and sister of the third wife of billionaire Nelson Peltz. Duke initially maintained that Heffner was the reincarnation of her only biological child Arden, who died soon after birth in 1940.

The two women had a falling out, and the final version of Duke's will specified that she did not wish Heffner to benefit from her father's trusts; she also negated the adoption. Despite the negation, after Duke's death, the estate's trustees settled a lawsuit brought by Heffner for $65 million.

In her final will, Duke left virtually all of her fortune to several existing and new charitable foundations. She appointed her Irish-born butler, Lafferty as executor, who then appointed, as corporate co-executor, US Trust company. Lafferty and Duke's friend Marion Oates Charles were named as her trustees.

However a number of lawsuits were filed against the will. At death, Duke's fortune was estimated at $1.3 billion. The best-known lawsuit was initiated by Harry Demopoulos. In an earlier will, Demopoulos had been named executor and challenged Lafferty's appointment. Demopolous argued that Lafferty and his lawyers had cajoled a sick, sedated old woman into giving him control of her estate.

Even more sensational accusations were made by a nurse, Tammy Payette, who contended that Lafferty and a prominent Beverly Hills physician, Dr. Charles Kivowitz, had conspired to hasten Duke's death with morphine and Demerol. In 1996, the year Lafferty died, the Los Angeles District Attorney's office ruled there was no firm evidence of foul play.

Duke University also filed suit, claiming entitlement to a larger share of the Duke assets than the $10 million provided in the will (although Duke's will also stated that any beneficiary who disputed its provisions should receive nothing).

Litigation involving 40 lawyers at 10 different law firms tied up the Duke estate for nearly three years. New York courts ultimately removed Lafferty for using estate funds for his own support and US Trust for failing "to do anything to stop him." The Surrogate Court of Manhattan overrode Duke's will and appointed new trustees from among those who had challenged it: Harry Demopoulos; J. Carter Brown (later also involved in overturning the will of Albert C. Barnes); Marion Oates Charles, the sole trustee from Duke's last will; James Gill, a lawyer; Nannerl O. Keohane, president of Duke University; and John J. Mack, president of Morgan Stanley. The fees for their lawsuits exceeded $10 million, and were paid by the Duke estate. These trustees now control all assets of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, which Doris Duke directed should support medical research, anti-vivisectionism, prevention of cruelty to children and animals, performance arts, wildlife, and ecology.

The DDCF also controls funding for the three separate foundations created to operate Duke's former homes: the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Duke Farms and Newport Restoration Foundation. The trustees have progressively reduced funding for these foundations, stating that Doris Duke's own works are "perpetuating the Duke family history of personal passions and conspicuous consumption." Recently, these foundations have sold some assets and have closed Duke Gardens. Christie's, New York, published a heavily-illustrated catalog of over 600 pages for its auction of "The Doris Duke Collection, sold to benefit the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation" which was held in New York City over three days in 2004.

In popular culture

Several biographies of Duke have been published, notably:

  • Stephanie Mansfield's The Richest Girl in The World (Putnam 1994).
  • Pony Duke, her disinherited nephew, and Jason Thomas published Too Rich: The Family Secrets of Doris Duke (1996).
  • Ted Schwarz with Tom Rybak, co-authored by one of Duke's staff, Trust No One (1997)

Several films/television shows has been made about her life, including:

  • A four-hour made-for-television mini-series, based on Mansfield's book, (starring Lauren Bacall as Duke and Richard Chamberlain as Lafferty) was aired with the title, Too Rich: The Secret Life of Doris Duke (1999)
  • Her life is also the subject of the HBO film Bernard and Doris, starring Susan Sarandon as Duke and Ralph Fiennes as the butler Lafferty (2007)
The contents of this page are sourced from Wikipedia article. The contents are available under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license.
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