Doris Duke: An American Heiress, Socialite and Philanthropist

Doris Duke, an American heiress, socialite, horticulturalist, art collector and philanthropist. She was the sole daughter of wealthy tobacco tycoon, James Buchanan (J.B.) Duke and was able to fund a life of global travel and wide-ranging interests.

Doris Duke, once considered the richest woman in the world, died in 1993. At the time of her death, she left a considerable number of diamonds and precious stones in their purest state, French and English antiques from the 18th century, an impressive collection of Asian and Islamic art, an immense fortune scattered in bank accounts around the world; and residences in the most exclusive zip codes, a penthouse in Manhattan’s Park Avenue, a 105-room estate in Newport, where she organized parties and met with friends like Jackie O. and Liz Taylor, and her Beverly Hills mansion. But these are not all the properties that belonged to the renowned tobacco heiress. Her last will was more than 45 pages long.When it came to fashion, she owned one of the most coveted wardrobes. Couture gowns made by Dior, Balenciaga, Givenchy… in clear contrast with her modest shoe collection, because unlike her friend Imelda Marcos, Duke only had a few pairs she wore all the time. A favorite were her iconic flats custom made by the Taj of India, a country she particularly admired not only for its culture, but also for its jewels and precious stones.

Her obsession with the flat, bohemian silk shoes was in reality a reflection of her personality and childhood. Doris Duke was born in 1912. Her father, James Buchanan Duke, one of the great tobacco magnates bequeathed his only daughter more than $80 million after his death in 1925. Doris, at that time only 12 years old, became the richest little girl in the world. She had private tutors and a driver who took her in her Rolls Royce along Fifth Avenue, where she had a five-floor mansion. Her childhood was lonely and deprived of love. Doris once declared that her mother, Nanaline Duke, was indifferent towards her, and focused all her love and attention on her collection of furs and diamonds.

All that contributed to harden the child´s disposition. At the tender age of 14, she took her mother to court and won a lawsuit that made her sole owner of the family mansion in Manhattan, an event that made the front page of the New York Times, and was covered by the national press.

Her biographers agree that the lack of attention and stability during childhood foreshadowed her future behavior, especially reflected in her popular romances and compulsive shopping. Much has been said about her affair with the Hawaiian surfing brothers Kahanamoku, while honeymooning with husband James Cromwell, an aspiring politician from Palm Beach who loved the good life. It was during that honeymoon that Duke fell in love with Hawaii. She would later buy five acres of land facing the Pacific Ocean in Diamond Head, where she built her idyllic home, Shangri La.

But her infidelities were not limited to the Hawaiian brothers. Still married, she had romances with Errol Flynn and more than one London aristocrat. Once divorced, she had another scandalous affair with Porfirio Rubirosa, who was living in Switzerland with his second wife, French actress Danielle Darrieux. It is said that Duke paid Darrieux one million dollars to divorce the Dominican playboy. The romance ended in marriage in 1947, and in divorce only a year later. Rubirosa made sure to greatly benefit from the union: he got a coffee plantation, race cars, horses, a mansion in Paris… and a considerable amount of money.

The heiress’s whims and scandals increased as years passed: she bought properties in the strangest places, and surrounded herself with artists like Andy Warhol and people from the fashion industry.

Luck was never on her side, and some argue she never found happiness. Her only daughter, Arden, died a day after birth, and her friend, interior designer Eduardo Tirella, was accidentally killed by Duke herself in a freak accident at the gate of Rough Point, her mansion in Newport.

She tried to find love in people outside her social circle, like her butler Bernard Lafferty, to whom she left millions in her will, or Chandi Heffner, a former Hare Krishna, whom she adopted, convinced that she was the reincarnation of her deceased daughter. That relationship did not last. Searching for the love she never received from her mother, she turned to people and tasks outside her moneyed circle, like working as a fashion editor for Harper’s Bazaar with a salary of $50 per week. She sought refuge in Shangri La, her Hawaiian paradise and solace in her love of art. To date the Doris Duke Foundation is one of the most generous supporters of art, medical research and environmental causes.

Doris Duke’s legacy is still so prevalent that many books have been written about the heiress, resulting in a book and exhibition  titled Shangri La, which was on display in New York and six other institutions in 2013.

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