Duke was 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 $17,000,000, 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 $60,000,000 and $100,000,000. (In 2013 dollars: $800 million to $1.3 billion.)
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.
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 competition 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 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.
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 wife, 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 agendas. Further, there was concern that in case of her death, a foreign government could gain too much leverage. Thus, 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.
When J. B. died, he left a fortune valued at $100 million, with the lion’s share going to Duke and her mother. Nanaline was a shrewd business woman, often compared to the “Witch of Wall Street” Hetty Green, and when she died in 1962, she left her daughter, then estimated to be worth $250 million, a fortune tripled what J. B. had left her.[clarification needed] This, added with the many stocks and investments J. B. had left to her, added to Duke’s fortune considerably. With a base annual income of $35 million, Duke also earned interest from her numerous bank accounts, which totaled around $20 million and could not be touched by taxes. 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). What many forget to include in Duke’s holding was her priceless 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, which was also said to be priceless. 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. Duke also collected homes, and in addition to the family’s 7,000 acres in Somerville, New Jersey, known as Duke Farms, which she controlled sole ownership of, Duke also owned properties in Newport, Rhode Island; Hawaii; New York City; Chicago; and Hollywood. 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.
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 for Bernard Lafferty, the executor named by Duke’s last will, who was with her at her death.
Although Duke was cremated 24 hours after her death and her ashes scattered over the Pacific Ocean as her last will specified, her executor, Lafferty, also sent a small container of the ashes to Marshfield, Missouri, a town that Duke had grown to admire during her years as a world traveler. Duke had visited Marshfield during a large tent revival, where she enjoyed the music. Duke’s ashes were buried in a local cemetery and a stone was placed to honor her memory. She was locally known as a philanthropist, since she often sent large sums of money for various projects, typically without publicity.
- November, 22, 1912
- New York, New York
- October, 28, 1993
- Beverly Hills, California
Cause of Death
- Cardiac arrest from progressive pulmonary edema
- Cremated. Ashes were scattered into the Pacific Ocean off Hawaii.