Obituary: Doris Duke
Wednesday 10 November 1993
WHEN Andy Warhol took Doris Duke to Studio 54 in New York, a South American television crew turned the lights on her and began to announce her in Spanish as 'The Richest Woman in the World'. Hardly had they started than she fled to the safety of her chauffeur- driven pick-up truck. This was Doris Duke, a rich girl always on the run. Much of her later life was spent at Shangri-La in Honolulu, a house described by Cecil Beaton as a 'really fabulous Arabian Nights Dream Persian House', where, he believed, she was more successful than most heiresses in her attempt to flee conventional life.
Doris Duke was the lantern- jawed heiress to the Lucky Strike fortune of her father, James Buchanan Duke. Duke began life with two blind mules and a plug of tobacco and ended up with the vast American Tobacco Company. He died worth many millions in 1925, when Doris was 12. Her father held the usual muddled views about inheritance, its dangers and benefits, but did take the precaution of splitting the fortune into three parts. Doris received the first chunk at 21, the next at 25, and the last at 30.
From her earliest days Doris was plagued by dashing fortune-
hunters. Privately tutored, she came out (in the same season as the the Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton) in Newport in 1930. In Italy in 1932, the youthful Yorkshire baronet Sir Richard Sykes made a pass at her in a car and found that the chauffeur stopped, as did the car behind. A detective approached and decanted him into the street. Shortly afterwards, at Lady Diana Cooper's 40th-birthday party in Venice, Sir Richard applied a lit Lucky Strike cigarette to Miss Duke's hand, as a result of which he found himself wrestling with Randolph Churchill, another admirer, and a full-scale brawl out amongst the guests.
In 1934 she married James Cromwell (son of the Philadelphia and Palm Beach squillionairess Mrs Edward Stotesbury, and lately divorced from Delphine Dodge, of the automobile family). Together they built Shangri-La, where the Pacific Ocean lapped against a flight of Moorish steps and two stone camels stood by the front door. Doris became pregnant in 1940, but lost her premature daughter a day after the birth. Cromwell became politically ambitious and was appointed Roosevelt's Minister to Canada. The marriage soured and a long battle for divorce began. The outcome was that Doris was successfully divorced from him in 47 states, but apparently not in New Jersey. Cromwell sued for dollars 7m, but reputedly received nothing.
Unwisely, Doris then married Porfirio Rubirosa, one of the world's great playboys and fortune- hunters, already twice divorced (from Flor de Ora Trujillo, the 16- year-old daughter of the Dominican dictator, and from the French actress Danielle Darrieux). In a celebrated pre-marital agreement conditional to the wedding, 'Rubi' was horrified to find he would only get dollars 25,000, but nevertheless signed meekly. A year later, Doris accused him of extreme mental cruelty and they were divorced. (He later married another heiress, Barbara Hutton, and then Odile Rodin, a sizzling bombshell pulsating with sexuality, before accidentally killing himself in traditional playboy manner by wrapping his car round a tree.)
Thereafter Doris did not remarry (though a jazz musician, Joseph Castro, pushed his luck by suing for divorce in 1964). She became something of a recluse, involved in artistic and intellectual endeavours, spending millions of dollars - and raising millions more - to restore old Palm Beach mansions, studying jazz with Jimmy Gomez, and enjoying a correspondence with Einstein. She gave much to Aids charities and she put up surety of several million dollars for Imelda Marcos's bail in 1988. Admirers came, spent some of her money, and went. But she managed her business affairs well, if not her personal ones, and died with the considerable fortune intact. That she went through the world without becoming the victim of too many of the crises that beset Barbara Hutton, and yet without taking credit for any great endeavours, shows a certain dexterity.
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