The Silver Swan: In Search of Doris Duke by Sallie Bingham

Doris Duke, her “blue Siamese cat eyes sparkling,” executes a “remarkably fine” hula at Shangri La, the authentic, Islamic-inspired riad she has painstakingly created on a promontory at Diamond Head, Honolulu. She leaps off the steep bluff into the ocean near Rough Point, the historic Newport, Rhode Island, family “cottage,” in her two-piece Schiaparelli-pink bathing suit, battling the rugged surf. She rolls up her sleeves atop blue jeans and gets to work alongside the gardeners to hybridize orchids at Duke Farms, the 2,700-acre New Jersey property her father, Buck Duke, the tobacco farmer turned industrialist, had developed as a ranch-cum-parkland.

Born in 1912, the only child and principal heiress to Buck’s fortune at his death when she was just 12, a lifelong subject of relentless press scrutiny and target of sycophants and scoundrels, Doris struggled to have a meaningful existence outside her day job as “the richest girl in the world.”

Tabloids Aside …

Sallie Bingham, author of a new biography, The Silver Swan, and herself hailing from a moneyed, tortured American family—Bingham’s grandfather built the successful Kentucky news-media empire that would later be marked by tragedy and feuds—met the older woman in Paris when she was 21 and was taken by her “power, authority and dignity.” Here, Bingham tries to extricate Doris from her tabloid-laden history and somehow match her singular first impression with the facts. Doris was not a letter writer nor a journal keeper; Bingham draws instead from her papers, released for the first time in 2012.

We are introduced to Doris, already an infamous young divorcée with ample funds and an abundant sense of privilege, as World War II is ending. Still, she was desperate to make something of herself and envisioned becoming a foreign correspondent or an undercover agent despite her scant education. Even with connections such as J. Edgar Hoover, General Patton, and Carmel Snow, Doris was stymied, but she eventually got a few assignments from the O.S.S., Hearst International News Service, and Harper’s Bazaar. She already understood how quid pro quo “deposits” to these organizations worked; in the case of Patton, two polo ponies—and perhaps more—were required.

Doris struggled to have a meaningful existence outside her day job as “the richest girl in the world.”

Her father left Doris with a weakness for heroes and risk-takers and a countervailing obsession with privacy. It was a bumpy journey from the sheltered care of nannies and a tradition-bound mother to marriage to the pedigreed but ne’er-do-well suitor Jimmy Cromwell and, then, to international playboy Porfirio Rubirosa—two charming husbands, quickly exes, who made a habit of wedding heiresses.

Sallie Bingham casts Duke as a victim of the hyper-scrutiny many celebrated women continue to face.

Doris acquired the first tranche of her vast wealth at 21, but commensurate wisdom didn’t necessarily come with it. She was a sexually uninhibited free spirit, but the many affairs she went on to have were often emotionally intense, lopsided relationships which ended in economic dependency or litigation. Doris often dumped her suitors with little warning; it became clear that she wanted men to take control as her father had, but was unable to relinquish the power she owned.

Bright Young Thing

As she matured, Doris found ways to connect with her more bohemian, cultured side. “Beauty, in its creation and enjoyment, is my life’s goal,” she said. A striking blonde of six foot one, Doris was ultra-fashionable and prided herself on keeping physically fit with swimming, surfing, and alternate deep dives into tap, tango, hula, and modern dance; her serious study of music also sustained her. Her very different residences (besides Shangri La, Duke Farms, and Rough Point, she owned Falcon’s Lair in Bel Air and an apartment in New York) encompassed important projects in Islamic arts, horticulture, and historic preservation that she approached intuitively, armed only with a discerning eye and advisers such as Tony Duquette who became collaborators and trusted companions.

Imbued with her father’s expansive definition of philanthropy and also his business acumen, Doris gave away more than $400 million that she had grown from her inheritance during her lifetime. Personal bequests to widows, divorcées, and indigent children quickly grew into a broad support of women and artists whom she admired, such as dancers Katherine Dunham, Alvin Ailey, and Martha Graham, and birth-control advocate Margaret Sanger. This largesse eventually extended to substantial ongoing donations to scores of foundations including Planned Parenthood and those devoted to AIDS research and animal welfare, along with gifts to the “family” university she had not been allowed to attend.

Her father left Doris with a weakness for heroes and risk-takers, but also with an expansive definition of philanthropy.

Doris often raised eyebrows for her “dark-skinned” friends and lovers. She was resolutely egalitarian, seating friends such as Jackie Kennedy next to her favorite black musicians from the Newport Jazz Festival, or becoming close with a Native American tribal chief. Her frequent trouble distinguishing the personal from the professional made her susceptible to anyone who was attentive, so the serious engagement with philanthropy was offset by improvisational donations to her staff and hangers-on who sat at her ornate wood-and-tile tables—a very diverse list including Imelda Marcos and Pee-wee Herman. Rooms full of clothing and gradually larger retinues at every residence; fleets of lawyers, bankers, and accountants who looked after her myriad enterprises; and her boon companions—no children, but instead horses, dogs, and camels—as well as a private 737 before it was common meant a considerable remove from reality.

Ultimately Doris, who was partially disabled from a series of surgeries and a stroke, became vulnerable and lonely, co-dependent on an odd bunch including an adopted adult daughter, Chandi Heffner, and an eccentric butler, Bernard Lafferty, often feeding the very mouths that bit her. Her estate was eventually mired in litigation over their competing claims. Hounded by the press with everything from serious accusations of murder, when she allegedly lost control of a rental car and killed a decorator friend, to minor indiscretions, like going barefoot in a restaurant, Doris initiated many long-term lawsuits to try to reclaim her reputation—all of which only kept her front and center in the tabloids. Her religious and spiritual pursuits, even seeking out Gandhi, could not compensate for her aching quest for legitimacy.

In her last decade, Doris was still carefully stowing her silver swan—a treasured totem—her pair of camels, and an undiminished feeling of emptiness into her jet as she traveled between her opulent homes and other exotic destinations, serially embracing—and abandoning—a diverse column of people and passions until her death, in 1993, at age 80.

Does Bingham find the dynamic woman who so intrigued her long ago? She does excavate substantive accomplishments that demonstrate Doris’s success in transcending her inheritance—after her death, Shangri La, Duke Farms, and Rough Point were all opened to the public—and defends her as a victim of the hyper-scrutiny many celebrated women continue to face. But empathy for Doris is at times hard-won as the houses, animals, and freeloaders pile up.

In a welcome epilogue, Bingham addresses a fundamental question with powerful, contemporary resonance: Is there any validity for this kind of epic wealth, especially when derived from a toxic product that shortens so many lives?

Patricia Zohn is an Editor at Large for Air Mail