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One night when Doris Duke was 10, her father leaned across the dinner table with a disturbing prediction that no child (honestly, no adult) should ever hear. James “Buck” Buchanan Duke bluntly informed his little girl that no one would ever truly love her. No matter what she did or where she moved, people would only love Doris for her money. It was a mantra he repeated constantly.
“Buck” Duke was the founder of the American Tobacco Company. Two years after delivering that horrible dinner table prediction, Buck was dead. He died on October 10, 1925 at the age of 68. Doris was 12 years old. She was just one month shy of her 13th birthday.
Upon Buck’s death, Doris inherited a $100 million trust fund. That inheritance instantly made Doris the second richest person in the world. She was 12. The only person on the planet with a larger fortune was John D. Rockefeller.
The media soon gave Dorris a nickname that stuck with her for life:
“The richest girl in the world”
And her inheritance didn’t stop with that $100 million. In 1962 Doris inherited an additional $250 million after her mother Nanaline died. In total, Doris was worth the equivalent of $3 billion before her 40th birthday.
And despite being hounded by reporters, suitors, and grifters, “the richest girl in the world” still managed to live a vibrant, wild, life. For better or worse, Doris spent a lifetime trying to disprove her father’s dour prediction about love and money.
Marriages and Affairs
Doris married twice. In 1935, she married a gold-digging social climber named James Cromwell. Cromwell would soon use his wife’s money to finance an unsuccessful run for the U.S. Senate.
While they were married, Doris became pregnant. She secretly confided to friends that Cromwell wasn’t the father. The child was actually the product of an affair she had while on a cross-country train trip. “There was nothing else to do,” she told one friend. A daughter, Arden, was born prematurely and lived for just 24 hours. Doris and James Cromwell divorced in 1943.
She married again in 1947 to a diplomat from the Dominican Republic named Porfirio Rubirosa. There was one tiny obstacle before they got married. Porfirio was already married. According to legend, Doris was so head over heels for him that she offered his current wife $1 million to divorce him quickly. The offer was accepted. That would have been like being offered $12 million in today’s dollars.
Unfortunately, even after a $1 million bribe, this marriage only lasted a year. Rubirosa turned out to be a world-class womanizer who had dalliances with a number of famous women including Marilyn Monroe, Ava Gardner, Rita Hayworth, Joan Crawford, Veronica Lake, Judy Garland, Eva Peron, and Zsa Zsa Gabor. Fortunately, Doris had an iron-clad prenup.
However, it wasn’t his extramarital affairs that really dulled her affection for Rubirosa – it was the fact that after they divorced he married her arch-nemesis, Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton. Doris and Hutton were both born into wealthy Manhattan families within a week of each other and spent their entire lives in an a heated battle. Doris could claim a victory over her rival with Rubirosa though – his marriage to Hutton only lasted 53 days.
Doris had a number of high-profile affairs as well. Her lovers included Duke Kahanamoku, Errol Flynn, British politician Alec Cunningham-Reid, and General George Patton.
Doris dabbled in a number of interests and careers. She studied singing with one of the most renowned voice coaches of her day. She became a member of a gospel choir.
During World War II, she worked in a canteen for soldiers in Egypt for $1 a year. She had a short-lived career as a foreign correspondent, even moving to Paris to write for Harper’s Bazaar.
While living in Hawaii, Doris became the first non-Hawaiian woman to take up competitive surfing after learning from the best of the best, Duke Kahanamoku.
She was an animal lover and supported animal rights and conservation long before it was fashionable.
She cultivated rare and exotic flowers after learning to do so from Louis Bromfield, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and horticulturist.
Doris had a priceless art collection. She was especially passionate about Southeast Asian and Islamic art. The collection is on public display at her former estate in Hawaii, which is now the Museum of Islamic Art, Culture, and Design.
Here’s a video tour of the Hawaiian estate today:
Tragedy and Controversy
Doris Duke lived a wild and exciting life but it wasn’t without tragedy and scandal. In 1966, Eduardo Tirella, the curator of her art collections, told Doris he was quitting to pursue a career as a production designer in the film industry. He flew to Rough Point, Doris’ Newport, Rhode Island estate to pack his things and give her formal notice. The two were overheard having a heated argument by the estate’s staff just before they got into a station wagon to leave. According to Doris, Tirella drove the car down the driveway and stopped to get out and open the gates. He left the engine running. Doris moved over to the driver’s seat so she could pick Tirella up as they left her estate. As she was moving into the driver’s seat, she released the parking brake and accidentally hit the accelerator. The car sped forward and pinned Tirella between the station wagon and the gates. The gates soon gave way sending the car into a tree across the road and killing Tirella. Newport police ruled the death an accident. Tirella’s family sued Doris for wrongful death. They were awarded $75,000 — which was far less than they were seeking.
Here’s a Drone video of Rough Point:
Doris never married again after her second marriage failed. She never had children. But she did have deep, personal relationships with two people that would change the course of all of their lives.
In 1984, Doris met a woman named Chandi Heffner in Hawaii. The two women developed a deep bond almost instantly.
For some reason, Doris actually came to believe that Chandi was the reincarnation of her daughter Arden. The two traveled the world together, enjoying Doris’ wealth. They spent time in Russia, went to Romania for “fountain of youth” treatments, shopped for a $25 million Boeing 737, and adopted two camels after Doris learned they were an endangered species. Chandi managed Doris’s staff and advised her on financial matters. They were inseparable and traveled between Doris’s huge New Jersey farm, her Newport, Rhode Island estate, and “Shangri-La,” her palatial property on Oahu, Hawaii.
Here’s where it gets weird: Doris adopted Chandi in 1988. Why is that weird? Chandi was 35 years old. She also reportedly promised to take care of Chandi in the manner she’d become accustomed to for the rest of her life and make her the executor of her will.
But something changed and Doris cut Chandi out of her life and her will in 1991.
Ironically, it was Chandi who brought the other significant relationship of Doris’ senior years into their lives when she recommended Bernard Lafferty as a butler. Bernard had formerly worked for Chandi’s sister Charlene who had recently married billionaire Nelson Peltz. Bernard was Irish and an orphan who emigrated to the U.S. when he was 35. Doris hired him as her butler in 1987. He endeared himself to Doris and became her closest confidant and constant companion.
Doris Duke died on October 28, 1993 at the age of 80. Upon her death Bernard was put in charge of the estate.
At the time of her death, Doris had a total net worth of $5.3 billion. This included her cash and investments, homes in New Jersey, Hawaii, Rhode Island, and Beverly Hills, her jewelry, and her art collection, which in addition to her Southeast Asian and Islamic holdings, included works by Picasso, Monet, Van Gogh, and Rembrandt. She had a collection of rare wine –more than 2,000 bottles valued at over $5 million.
According to the terms of her will, the vast majority of Doris’ fortune went to charity. Today the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation controls assets worth approximately $2 billion. The Foundation has already given away $1.84 billion in its roughly 30 years of existence.
Chandi was left $0.
Chandi sued the estate claiming she was owed a large amount of money as Doris’ legal daughter. Amazingly, a jury agreed. Chandi was awarded $65 million in 1995. Today, Chandi lives on a ranch Doris purchased for her in Hawaii. Bernard died in 1996 of a heart attack in his sleep in his $2.1 million Bel-Air home.
It’s not totally clear if Doris’ father was right or wrong when he predicted people would only love her for her money. Or at the very least, she never stopped trying to prove him wrong.