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Doris Duke: Money, Mansions and Men

Published: 10/28/2013
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Doris Duke (Photo by Ron Galella / WireImage / Getty Images)

Extravagant and eccentric heiress Doris Duke may not have left any immediate heirs, but she enhanced many people’s lives through the reported $1.3 billion she left to foundations that perpetuate some of her passions: horticulture, art, medical research, and the environment.

During her long and privileged life Duke enjoyed journalism, wildlife conservation –– and competitive surfing. She died 20 years ago today, Oct. 28, 1993, of cardiac arrest at the age of 80. Most of her ashes were scattered over the Pacific Ocean; others were buried in a cemetery in Marshfield, Mo., a town she had become attached to during a tent revival.

According to Harper’s Bazaar, Duke left behind 9,000 articles of clothing and piles of rough diamonds.

Often called "the richest girl in the world," Duke, born in 1912, was the only child of multimillionaire James Buchanan Duke, who made fortunes in tobacco and hydroelectric power, and his second wife, Nanaline Holt Inman. According to a story in Harper’s Bazaar, Duke once said of her mother, "I would look at the way she caressed her furs and diamonds, and wish she felt the same way about me."

Duke married and divorced twice and had one child born prematurely who, sadly, lived for only a day. She reportedly paid the wife of Porfirio Rubirosa, a Dominican Don Juan, $1 million to divorce him so they could wed. She was known to have had many affairs and was often the topic of juicy gossip items in the newspapers. There are at least a half dozen biographies written about her including scandalous details about lawsuits, allegations, and affairs.

Despite her great wealth, Duke was not afraid to work. She worked for the United Seaman's Service, which operated canteens for American merchant seamen, in Egypt for $1 a year during World War II and later worked briefly as a foreign correspondent for the International News Service and for Harper’s Bazaar.

In the United States, Duke had multiple houses for seasonal use:


Doris Duke's Shangri La on Oahu
(Flickr Creative Commons / karendesuyo)

• Summer weekends at Rough Point, a 49-room mansion in Newport, R.I. that Duke inherited and that is now open to the public under the auspices of her Newport Restoration Foundation (Duke is said to have saved 80 historic buildings in Newport);

• Winters at Shangri La, an estate she built in Hawaii, now operated by the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art and open for small tours;

• Falcon’s Lair, once the home of Rudolph Valentino, another winter haven in Beverly Hills;

• Two apartments in Manhattan, one of which Duke used as an office;

• Duke Farms in New Jersey, a 2,700-acre property which Duke made her main residence for many years and is now open to the public;

• And though not actually a house, her Boeing 737 jet included a bedroom decorated to look like a bedroom in a home so she would be comfortable whisking from one house to another.

Duke was a girl on the go and never seemed satisfied to stay in one place too long. She sometimes traveled under an assumed name for fear of kidnapping. Walker Patterson Inman, Duke’s half-brother who sometimes traveled with her, once said, "Everywhere we go, it's the same. She gets to see a few of the sights, goes out to dinner a few times, and then her identity becomes known and we have to rush off somewhere else. We can't take any chances. When word gets out that she's in town, it's like telling gangsters: 'Here's a lot of money. Come and get it.'"

Susan Soper is the author of ObitKit®, A Guide to Celebrating Your Life. A lifelong journalist, she has written for Newsday and CNN, and was Features Editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she launched a series called "Living with Grief."

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