Tuesday, February 2, 2010




Dear Doris: When I visited Rough Point, your mansion in Newport, Rhode Island a few years ago, I was struck by the massive life-depicting painting that hangs in a stairwell, where a beautiful, blonde young girl stares out of the picture with a poignant gaze into the unknown future. Commissioned by your father James Buchanan Duke, who founded the American Tobacco Company and endowed Duke University, this is a portrait of You, Doris Duke, that young girl who would become an heiress, a philanthropist and benefactor of artists, medical research, and charities that support the environment and work to prevent child abuse. As founder of the Newport Restoration Foundation (1968) you may not have wielded the hammer and nails yourself but much of your fortune and time was spent on restoring over 80 Colonial buildings in Newport, Rhode Island, where you spent your summers at your mansion home, Rough Point. THE GOLDEN SWAN
Over the years you became a golden swan with a generous spirit and during your lifetime you gave away more than $400 million to various causes. You are an amazing art deco diva, brainy, athletic, cultured, a world traveler, but most of all you were not frivolous but had strong convictions about your humanitarian concern for giving back to society and by turning your wealth toward historical preservation and bettering the world through generous endowments to support numerous institutions. A lover of animals, particularly your dogs, and pet camels, in later years you became a wildlife refuge supporter. With amazing foresight when you were just 21 years old you established a foundation called “Independent Aid,” an organization which eventually became The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation,” an organization that still operates today. For all this we salute your integrity and prolific philanthropy, and honor your memory.
A great deal has been written about how you inherited an immense fortune, an estate estimated at $80 million, at your father’s death in 1925. You were a mere twelve years old and the media was quick to dub you the “Million Dollar Baby” and later “The Richest Woman in the World. On his deathbed, her father wisely cautioned his young daughter to “trust no one,” a piece of fatherly advice that would forever resonate in your impressionable mind. Doris’ mother on the other hand was only left a modest trust fund and inevitably it strained their already tenable relationship. Showing her mettle, when Duke was only 14 years old, she was forced to sue her mother, Nanaline Duke, in order to stop her from selling family assets. However, Mrs. Duke had considerable say in the matter of her daughter’s upbringing and when Doris wanted to attend college, her mother forbade it. Instead she took Doris on a grand tour of Europe, where she was presented as a debutante in London. Such travels may have forged Doris’ pleasure as a globetrotting enthusiast throughout her life. One thing was quite clear about Doris’ character. While other heiresses sought press coverage, Doris shunned it and was a reluctant celebrity avoiding the glare of publicity and refusing interviews. She had a private persona that forged an aura of mystery and speculation. ROMANCE AND THE HEIRESS
It is not surprising that upon entering the social world of continental society that the lovely, statuesque Miss Duke with her golden tresses and athletic good looks would attract suitors. In 1935 at the age of 22, she stunned everyone when she hastily married aspiring politician and semi-millionaire, James H.R. Cromwell (Jimmy), who was sixteen years her senior, the son of Palm Beach, Florida doyenne Eve Stotesbury. After a two-year around the world honeymoon, Doris and her husband arrived in Honolulu, Hawaii, where they built a house named Shangri-La (after the mythical land where no one grows old), in which she created her own decorating style filling it with Islamic art which she began collecting in the 1930s and a notable collection of Southeast Asian Art. A non-conformist, Doris was not bound by the usual rules of decorum and developed a rather magical oasis in Shangri-La, where she dressed in her version of Oriental splendor surrounded by world-class treasures. Cromwell meanwhile, a New Deal advocate, had ambition and used his wife’s fortune to enter the political arena, becoming U.S. Ambassador to Canada in 1940. The couple had a daughter, Arden, who lived only for one day. They divorced in 1943. While living in Hawaii, it is not surprising that Duke became the first woman to take up competition surfing. After all, she had been swimming in the ocean right off the coast of her Newport mansion, Rough Point, for quite some time and had developed the strength and stamina to withstand its rugged waters. Hawaii would be a similar challenge. Under the tutelage of surfing champion and Olympic swimmer Duke Kahanamoku and his brothers she tackled the sport like a true champion.
It seems to me that women of great wealth often become easy targets of marriages that make the headlines. According to reports Miss Duke was pretty happy most of the time, traveling, obtaining treasures from around the world and whatever delights she could not easily obtain, she bought. Over the course of her long life, she also acquired an impressive roster of lovers and a second husband, who cost her a fortune. While in Paris in 1947, Doris became the third wife of Porfirio Rubirosa, a diplomat from the Dominican Republic and a notorious playboy. 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 agendas in this alliance. Although a pre-nuptial agreement protected her financial interest, she still gave Rubirosa several million dollars in gifts, including a stable of polo ponies, sports cars, a convert B-25 bomber, and, a 17th-century house in Paris in the divorce settlement. After this debacle Duke never remarried.
Inside the sprawling Rough Point mansion, which was originally built by Frederick W. Vanderbilt in 1887, one can see the lifestyle of an heiress with a passion for collecting. Twenty years after Shangri La, Duke turned her attention to Rough Point, where she had grown up. Completely emptied several years before, after her mother stopped coming to Newport each summer, the house was a blank canvas for Doris to decorate with art and furnishings from Duke Farms, the family’s New York house, as well as the great art dealers and auction houses. Duke was ahead of her time in her taste for exotic décor, the floors were covered in Persian and Indian carpets and the house had object d’art throughout. Her art treasures include antique furniture, and everywhere hang paintings by masters like Gainsborough, Van Dyck and Renoir. When it came to creating a glamorous and luxurious bedroom Duke chose an entire bedroom set and accessories in glowing mother-of-pearl, which was made in Vienna around 1820, with the exception of the impressive secretary desk, which was made in Goa, a Portuguese colony in western India, circa 1800. Duke bought the mother-of-pearl furniture suite at Parke-Benet Galleries in New York in April 1966 for $18,500. The music room was the site of numerous musicales and a caretaker at Rough Point told me that Doris loved jazz music so much that she became an amateur jazz pianist and often performed with a jazz group. With such a passion for jazz, it is quite understandable why she frequently made anonymous gifts to starving musicians. In 1993 Rough Point was willed to the Newport Restoration Foundation, complete with all of its contents. It was her wish that it be opened to the public as a house museum. http://www.newportrestoration.org.
Among the great treasures in Rough Point is the reminder of a child’s Newport summer, which may surprise the visitor. One of the most charming items on display in the home of this heiress sits little trophies Doris won while making sandcastles on Newport Beach. Those are the halcyon days of her childhood but now the treasures from this house belong to the public, as he continuing gift of giving to a world made better by her philanthropy. She was a woman of considerable chic and was considered one of the best dressed in society. On any day, one might also get to see some of the custom-made couture fashions that she wore throughout her life, by designers such as Dior, Givenchy, Halston and Pucci, to name a few. We sadly say adieu to a woman whose life mantra, above all else, was philanthropy. We shall also remember her as a stalwart patron of historic preservation and environmental conservation.

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