When Duke's first humor magazine had its last laugh

Duke 'n' Duchess magazine cover

Duke has always been a place with a sense of humor. From student pranks to improv groups, we like to laugh. Not everyone’s taste in comedy is the same, though, and in 1951, a difference in opinion between students and administrators led to the shuttering of Duke’s first humor magazine.

The board of trustees authorized student publications back in the 1930s. The title Duke ‘n’ Duchess was approved on February 2, 1938, with a caution in the minutes: “the Board of Publications to understand that the approval will be withdrawn at any time when this publication seems to fall below the standard it should maintain, in the opinion of the appropriate authorities of the University, and the Board of Publications to be under obligation each year to make this clear to the editors and business managers of the Duke ‘n’ Duchess before they assume office.”

The publication had been independently and sporadically published since 1933, but with board approval, the September 1938 issue proudly proclaimed “for the first time in Duke’s one hundred years’ existence, there is an official Duke university humor magazine.”

The magazine, with mostly but not all male contributors, was a mix of features, cartoons, and photographs—and jokes. Here is one joke, which today would be classified as a “dad joke,” from the October 1940 issue.

“Say, are you a toe dancer?”

“No.”

“Then, get off my toes.”

FOLLOWING A BREAK during World War II, the magazine returned in 1947 with the “Duke Alumni Rehasher,” satirizing the Duke Alumni Register, predecessor to Duke Magazine.

In 1950, senior Walt Wadlington was named editor. By this time, the magazine was pushing boundaries, with full-page photographs of campus “co-eds” who were especially lovely, as well as articles that referenced drinking and sex—the poem “Tight Sweater Tragedy” accompanied by a nude female figure, for example—and drinking more blatantly than they had before.

In January 1951, the entire issue was devoted to tracing the family history of the “Littleworths,” an undisguised satire of the Duke family. While some of the profiles covered ancient European family members thinly disguised as British royalty, the latter section covered the Littleworths in America. It did not take much to see that Colonel Jefferson Littleworth, who discovered “that heavy, lardaceious delicacy, the old-fashioned Southern hush-puppy,” was fashioned after Washington Duke, who, of course, capitalized on another Southern delicacy, brightleaf tobacco. “Buchanan Littleworth” was even more obviously poking fun at James Buchanan Duke, although the humor was at times gentle: “Buck Littleworth’s greatest and most worthwhile endeavor was the building of Littleworth University. The world’s architects fought for the job, but Buck demanded good taste in his buildings. Fountains, lakes, pools and gardens he had built.”

The last profile in the magazine was the one that caused real trouble. “Diane Littleworth” was clearly Doris Duke, then the only living family member the magazine poked fun at. The article was accompanied by a nude cartoon drawing. It traced Diane’s travels around the world, with houses in Hawaii and New Jersey, and mentioned that she occasionally visited Littleworth University for “functions of importance”—all things the real Doris did. Most shockingly, it crudely suggested that she had worked briefly as a call girl—not something the real Doris did.

The masthead claimed that “The names, descriptions of all characters in the fiction, fictional articles, cartoons, and other humorous features herein are fictitious. Any resemblance in name or description to any one person or persona is not intended and is purely coincidental.” Duke President Hollis Edens felt differently and wrote a rather terse note to Dean Herbert Herring, chair of the Publications Board: “You will please call the Publications Board to meet and inform the membership that further publication of [t]he Duke and Duchess is forbidden. I shall be glad to discuss the matter with you at your convenience, and will be glad to meet with the Board if that is necessary. This directive arises from the indecent issue of the Duke and Duchess which appeared yesterday.” Unclaimed copies were removed from circulation.

The Daily Tar Heel, which covered the incident while The Chronicle (which also answered to the Publications Board) remained conspicuously silent, reported that “Wadlington put on the squeeze and said he would blow the whole mess sky-high in the press if he or anyone else involved in the publication were tossed out of school. His bluff wasn’t called but he didn’t keep his job long. The Publications Board met on Tuesday, January 23, voted to ‘accept his resignation,’ then approved suspension of the magazine.” The Duke ‘n’ Duchess was never again published. Wadlington graduated later that year and went on to have a distinguished career as a professor of law at the University of Virginia.

At the end of the school year, fellow student Art Stauer wrote a plea in The Chronicle under the headline “Father Pleas for Baby to Continue on Campus.” He mourns that the cancelation of the magazine was due only to “[o]ne terrible, regrettable, but still forgivable mistake.” He ends his column with a challenge: “[W]e who built it will soon be gone. It is not in our power to fight for its life. And it will be a fight. Pub Board has suspended the magazine indefinitely. But I feel there must be one of you who is willing to take up such a fight. We who have lived and loved in the exhaltation (sic) of making people laugh by little black words on white paper…charge you not to forget. ...”

Duke ‘n’ Duchess was never to be revived, but numerous other humor magazines have come (and gone) from the university. Our senses of humor have changed over time, but publications like Duke ‘n’ Duchess give us a window into the concerns, interests, and even vices of Duke students in previous generations. 

Gillispie is the university archivist.

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