Ahead of Her Time

The archives of Doris Duke, the enigmatic only child of James B. Duke, promise to paint a fuller portrait of a multifaceted, intellectually curious woman who too often was perceived in her lifetime as simply an eccentric recluse.

Photos courtesy Doris Duke Photograph Collection, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation HIstorical Archives; Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library.
Doris Duke and JB Duke

Apple of his eye: As James B. Duke’s only child, Doris inherited her father’s appreciation for arts and education, his progressive views on race and ethnicity, and his business acumen—as well as a sizable part of his fortune.

The father-daughter portrait is among the vast assortment of materials in the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation Historical Archives, donated to Duke University in 2009. The 800 linear feet of materials—an amount that, stacked vertically, would be nearly four times as tall as Duke Chapel—include household inventories, architectural drawings, invoices, recipes, travel itineraries, photographs, legal documents, correspondence, maps, memorabilia, photographs, and home movies.

So far, only a fraction of the collection is available for researchers to explore—processing will continue through 2011. But its contents promise to provide a more comprehensive and better-balanced portrait of a multifaceted, intellectually curious woman who in her lifetime too often was perceived as an eccentric recluse. In fact, Doris Duke embraced a wide range of pursuits and was a committed philanthropist, supporting, among other things, historic restoration projects, the arts, the environment, child welfare programs (both through her own foundations and as a trustee for The Duke Endowment), animal welfare, and medical research, including support of Duke Medical Center and its founding dean, Wilburt Davison, one of a small number of Duke administrators she counted as a close friend. She established her first foundation when she was only twenty-one and, during her lifetime, gave away the equivalent of more than $400 million in today’s dollars.

Yet her legacy, like that of other wealthy, enigmatic figures, has been eclipsed by her celebrity and splashy aspects of her personal life, including two marriages that ended in divorce. She made her debut before King George V and Queen Mary at Buckingham Palace, traveled in the same circles as Elizabeth Taylor and Jacqueline Onassis, and kept two camels as pets. But other things that appeared eccentric or outré in the middle of the last century are things she would be admired or envied for today: becoming a competitive paddleboard surfer and avid ocean swimmer, traveling the world, and collecting museum-quality art.

Her wealth gave her the freedom to disdain convention and embrace what interested her, from taking jazz piano lessons and hanging out with musicians in Eugene Smith’s New York loft to exploring the teachings and principles of the Self-Realization Fellowship Church and its founder, Paramahansa Yogananda. “Doris Duke was a woman ahead of her time,” says Tim Pyatt ’81, head of Duke University Archives. “Even though we don’t think of her as a feminist in the current understanding of that term, she was a trailblazer who did things her own way. She was a complex woman, and this collection will help contribute to a deeper understanding of who she was.”

World traveler: Duke and her first husband, James Cromwell, on their nearly yearlong international honeymoon trip.

World traveler: Duke and her first husband, James Cromwell, on their nearly yearlong international honeymoon trip.

Doris Duke was born November 22, 1912, to James B. Duke and his second wife, Nanaline Holt Inman. By then, her father had turned the family’s modest tobacco venture into the multinational American Tobacco Company and established the hydroelectric energy enterprise that became Duke Power (now Duke Energy). Trinity College in Durham was thriving, thanks to substantial endowment gifts from Doris’ grandfather, Washington Duke, in whose honor the in-stitution would be renamed in 1924, and her uncle Benjamin N. Duke.

Only one generation separated Doris from the family’s humble beginnings as rural tobacco farmers, but her childhood was worlds away from the hardships her forebears endured. Born in New York in her parents’ granite-and-limestone mansion at Fifth Avenue and East 78th Street, Doris enjoyed a privileged childhood of music and language lessons, exposure to the arts, and world travel. Yet “the richest girl in the world,” as the press dubbed her, received kidnapping and death threats as a child and unwanted attention from fortune hunters and tabloid reporters throughout her life. As a result, she fiercely guarded her privacy, while seizing opportunities to explore the world.

Doris was only twelve when her father died. In addition to the bulk of his estate, James B. Duke left his daughter with values that built on the legacy of the Duke family and that she supported throughout her life: faith in the importance of education, a captivation with the arts, a progressive view of race and ethnicity (the Duke family established Lincoln Hospital for blacks in Durham, among other things), and a shrewd business sense. She oversaw the management of seven residences, including Shangri La, the oceanfront estate with a view of Diamond Head that she had designed and built in Honolulu, and Duke Farms in Hillsborough, New Jersey, a 2,000-acre working farm and retreat that her father had assembled by buying forty adjoining farms, beginning in 1893. Doris added another 700 acres to the property in the 1960s and 1970s. (The collection shows that she paid meticulous attention to detail, even to the point of reviewing invoices and disputing charges she found unreasonable.)

Doris Duke's Passport

Adventurous and independent, Doris worked as a correspondent for the International News Service in Europe during World War II; became an avid collector of Islamic and Southeast Asian art; studied modern dance with Martha Graham; and engaged in projects involving wildlife and horticulture, including designing the extensive display gardens at Duke Farms and cultivating orchids (the cultivation of Phalaenopsis Doris, registered by Duke Farms in 1940, led to hardier plants that were easier to grow).

When Doris died in 1993, the volumes of documentation and ephemera generated in her lifetime, as well as ancestral materials handed down to her, were spread among her various houses and offices. Before the collection arrived at Duke in August 2009,archivists at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation (DDCF) had collated and sequenced the holdings into three overarching categories. The first category includes information related to the Dukes, to their various houses, and to foundations associated with the Duke family in general (e.g., The Duke Endowment, established by her father) and Doris in particular. The second category consists of personal papers, and the third comprises a multitude of materials in different formats, including photographs, books, vinyl records, and other ephemera, as well as oral-history interviews with friends and former staff members.

At Duke, Mary Samouelian, archivist for the Doris Duke Collection, has been further refining materials into subcategories. She explains that historically, the processing of archival materials of any sort was quite detailed; each specific item was described. Now, however, many archival repositories follow the practice of what’s called processing light, which involves describing the materials at much broader levels.

“One of the primary responsibilities of an archivist is to arrange and describe the materials and then open them up for researchers,” she says. Yet even if there were a whole team of archivists, it wouldn’t make sense to archive each item in the Doris Duke Collection because it contains reams of seemingly unremarkable documents—back-and-forth letters about repairs to a sea wall, for example, or dated insurance-company pamphlets describing options for employee health plans.

Still, Samouelian can’t help getting caught up in even the everyday minutiae of Doris Duke’s life—and speculate on how all the pieces fit together. “All that we have is what she chose to leave behind,” she says. “Imagine if someone came into your home after you died, and what’s left behind is what there is to learn from. We know that she loved music, and in the Falcon Lair materials, I came across a music composition book with notations in her handwriting. Did she write this music? Maybe she did, but maybe not. Even with a detailed collection of this size, researchers may have to fit all the pieces together and draw their own conclusions. There isn’t always that silver bullet.”

Pyatt, the university archivist, says he is intrigued by the connection between the Philadelphia-based architectural firm of Horace Trumbauer and James B. Duke, who commissioned the firm for many campus buildings as well as some Duke family properties, including the New York mansion where Doris Duke was born. “There are a number of Trumbauer drawings in the Doris Duke collection, so we know there is more to be discovered about the building of the campus and the relationship between the firm and the Duke family,” Pyatt says. (So far, there is scant primary-source documentation anywhere about the role of Julian Abele, an African-American architect and chief designer in Trumbauer’s firm who is credited with designing many iconic campus buildings, including the chapel. “I keep waiting for a letter from Abele to turn up,” says Pyatt.)

He’s also curious to learn whether a rumor he’s heard about Doris Duke bears any truth. “We know she loved African- American gospel music and actually sang in a gospel choir,” he says. “I’d heard that she had anonymously donated pipe organs to African-American churches throughout the South, and I’d like to find out if that story is true.”

Duke president emerita Nannerl O. Keohane, who now teaches at Princeton University, is the chair of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation board of trustees. She concurs with Pyatt’s observation that the archives can enhance what is already known about the Duke family—one segment of the collection, the Duke Family Papers, dates from 1885—while helping researchers and archivists fill in some of the missing pieces of Doris’ philanthropic track record. From a research perspective, how people spend their money—or decline requests for financial support—can reveal a lot about them and their motivations, she says.

“These materials help show the temporal progression of her interests, which range from causes that her father supported, including Duke University and Duke Farms, to pursuits where her father was completely uninvolved,” says Keohane. For example, one of the houses that Doris inherited when her father died was Rough Point, an 1887 oceanfront Gothic mansion in Newport, Rhode Island.

“James B. Duke had no particular interest in the town of Newport,” says Keohane, “but Doris took the community under her wing and renovated its historic properties. She saved Newport—not singlehandedly, but almost.” In 1968, when Doris Duke founded the Newport Restoration Foundation, many of Newport’s colonial buildings were in disrepair. The NRF rescued and restored eighty-three historic buildings, seventy of which it owns and rents to private tenant-stewards today.

Keohane says that archival materials related to Doris’ homes—Rough Point, Shangri La, Duke Farms, Falcon Lair in California, and, to a lesser degree, the three New York properties, one of which Doris and her mother donated in 1958 to New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts—can furnish insights into different dimensions of Doris’ personality.

“It would be interesting to look at how she decided where to live at any given time,” says Keohane. “Some of that was seasonally related, but my hunch is that her life was very different in Shangri La than it was in Newport, for example. In Hawaii, she seemed freer to relax, spend time with people who might not be accepted in Newport society, and do things she loved, like surfing.”

One of Doris Duke’s lifelong passions was Islamic art, a fascination that most likely began during her 1935 honeymoon trip that took nearly a year and included stops in Europe, India, Asia, and Hawaii. Over time, she would return repeatedly to Muslim countries and become an avid and sophisticated collector. She amassed hundreds of crafts and artworks from the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries, including decorative art made during the Ottoman, Mughal, Safavid, and Qajar dynasties. She also commissioned native artisans to create custom architectural pieces for Shangri La.

An exhibition, “Philanthropist, Environmentalist, Collector: Doris Duke and Her Estates,” which uses photographs, architectural plans, letters, and film clips drawn from the collection to explore Shangri La and Duke’s various other properties, will be on display in the gallery of Perkins Library through April 3.

An online supplement to the exhibition will feature, among other things, a re-creation of a six-week trip to Persia that Doris and her first husband, James Cromwell, took in 1938 to purchase works of art for Shangri La. An interactive tool will overlay a current map with the Bartholomew’s General World Series map that was used to plan the trip and provide archival materials associated with different locations. The goal is not only to illustrate how unusual it was for a young American woman to travel to the Middle East in the 1930s but also Doris’ single-mindedness in seeking out Islamic art and architecture for her Hawaii estate. That original map contains hand-drawn lines between, and circles around, proposed destinations: Damascus, Baghdad, Shiraz, Tehran, Isfahan, Yezd, Kashan, Meshed, Tabas, Tabrik. Samouelian collaborated with Christof Galli, Duke University’s Middle East and Islamic studies librarian, to help identify where some of the Persia photographs were taken.

Pyatt says that the collection offers tantalizing research possibilities for scholars who might care nothing about other facets of Doris’ life. There already have been a few inquiries related to the expansive gardens on Duke Farms that Doris personally oversaw. The eleven indoor, interconnected gardens ranged from a formal French parterre to a Japanese plot with bonsai and a tea house and were open for public tours from 1964 until they were closed and the plant material donated to other gardens and arboretums in 2008.

Doris Duke at Shangri-La

Island life: Duke relished the relaxed pace and natural beauty at Shangri La, the Honolulu estate that she had designed and built beginning in 1937, which she filled with Islamic art and architecture acquired during from her travels throughout Persia.

Although she treasured her privacy while she was alive, Doris Duke made certain that her public works would continue to thrive after her death, through the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. Today, Shangri La is a center for Islamic arts and culture that offers public tours, educational programming, and ongoing collaborations with the Honolulu Academy of Arts. It is administered through the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, one of the affiliated foundations of the DDCF. Duke Farms promotes and expands on Doris’ lifelong commitment to environmental issues, offering nature presentations and classes in sustainable horticulture and organic gardening, as well as a certificate program in environmental stewardship. And Rough Point, which Doris bequeathed to the Newport Restoration Foundation, offers small-group tours of the home, still furnished as it was during her lifetime.

Every year, the DDCF also awards dozens of grants that typically range from $125,000 to $2 million each and focus on areas Doris embraced: arts, the environment, child-abuse prevention, and medical research (in keeping with her wishes, grants are not made to fund research that uses animals). As of September 30, 2010, the DDCF had awarded hundreds of grants totaling nearly $1 billion.

While Doris’ enduring commitment to causes like medical research and wildlife conservation during her lifetime did not catch the public’s imagination in the way that the more glamorous or controversial aspects of her life did, Duke University and foundation officials are confident that the opening of archival records can reveal as-yet unexplored dimensions of the enigmatic heiress.

“We at the foundation feel that Doris never really got a fair reading,” says Keohane, the chair of DDCF’s trustees. “We’re delighted that having her archives at Duke will bring renewed interest in her life.


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