Doris Duke; ‘Richest Girl in World’ Is Remembered as Philanthropist

From a Times Staff Writer

Doris Duke, who as a youngster was dubbed “the richest girl in the world” and as an adult took pride in overseeing where every dollar of those riches was invested and donated, died Thursday at her home in Beverly Hills after a long illness. She was 80.

Miss Duke, whose fortune was estimated at $750 million this year by Forbes magazine, was the only child and lone heir of tycoon James Buchanan Duke, founder of the American Tobacco Co. The multimillion-dollar firm, whose touchstone was the best-selling Lucky Strike cigarette, is now a part of American Brands Inc., a liquor-tobacco-food-office equipment conglomerate.

Her father founded Duke Power Co. and invested heavily in real estate.


When he donated more than $100 million through the Duke Endowment to Trinity College in Durham, N.C., Duke convinced its trustees to rename the school Duke University in honor of his father, Washington Duke. His gift made his daughter a lifetime trustee of the university, and she continued his philanthropy, recently contributing $2 million to Duke for AIDS research.


Doris Duke’s life was a series of quiet but colorful incidents punctuated by at least two marriages that ended in sour divorces. Through it all ran the endless publicity occasioned by her wealth.

James Duke died when Doris, or Dee-Dee, as she was called, was 13. He took care that his $300-million fortune would be doled out slowly. His daughter received one-third of her estimated $30-million inheritance at age 21, another third when she became 25 and the final $10 million when she was 30.

She received additional millions in a trust her father established; a New York Tudor castle on Fifth Avenue in New York City (which she later donated to New York University for art classes); family estates in Rhode Island, North Carolina and New Jersey, and a railroad car dubbed “Doris.”

Miss Duke later added a $1-million “honeymoon cottage” in Hawaii, and Rudolph Valentino’s Falcon’s Lair estate in Beverly Hills, where she died.

Resolving litigation with her mother, Nanaline, by allowing her lifetime residency in the Newport and New York mansions, Miss Duke devoted herself to expanding the Duke home in Somerville, N.J. She made it into a 2,500-acre estate with 42 miles of roads and woods surrounding a 30-room stone house.

Behind its iron gate were 13 gardens, all landscaped to reflect themes from France, England, Italy, China, Japan, India and Persia. Eventually, she established the Duke Gardens Foundation, opening the fabled grounds with its world-class collection of rare orchids to the public from October through May.

Outside the estate, with its swimming pools and indoor tennis court, was a stable she converted into a museum in which the public could view selections from the paintings and sculpture she had accumulated over the years.

To the iron sculptures that ringed the home and gardens she added a bronze of a bull, an incarnate tribute to James Duke’s Bull of Durham, symbol of her tobacco heritage.

And if the credits were legion, so were the debits--almost all of them personal.

A tall, slim and essentially shy young woman with honey-blonde hair and a jutting, determined jaw, she made her debut in Rough Point, the family estate at Newport, at age 18, after the customary courses at fashionable Fermata School for Girls in Aiken, S.C. She was one of only a few American debutantes presented to the king and queen of England at the Court of St. James.

Four years later, at age 22, Miss Duke married James Henry Roberts Cromwell. He was, at 38, 16 years her senior and a millionaire in his own right. He had been married once before, to Delphine Dodge, daughter and heir to the automobile fortune.

The marriage, which relatives said occurred after Miss Duke fell in “love at first sight,” lasted eight years. It broke up shortly after the death of their first child, a daughter named Arden who was born prematurely.

In the interim, the Cromwells had, with her money, built a $1-million home at Diamond Head on Oahu, which they called Shangri-La, after the mythical kingdom in the novel “Lost Horizon.”

Vogue’s “Book of Houses, Gardens and Peoples” described jade-laden bathrooms, silk-carpeted divans, painted Persian closets and cushions stitched with mirror glass on the inside and an exterior of Moroccan, Egyptian, Turkish, Syrian and Persian influences. Shangri-La also featured a yacht harbor surrounded by glistening lava breakwaters. Two life-size stone camels guarded the entrance.

Cromwell was named minister to Canada in 1940, the beginning of a political career that soon found him campaigning for a U.S. Senate seat in New Jersey.

They separated in 1943, with Cromwell charging desertion and demanding a $7-million trust fund. Doris Duke countered with her own lawsuit, charging “extreme cruelty” and a “constant” demand for money.

Miss Duke went to work in a merchant seamen’s canteen and as a reporter for the International News Service in wartime Rome--work she told an interviewer she found “useful and interesting.”

In 1947 she married Porfirio Rubirosa, an international playboy and unofficial Dominican Republic ambassador, whose wealth reportedly came from the women he wooed or wed.

But she had learned well from the demands of her first husband and Rubirosa was forced to sign an agreement under which his only claim to her fortune would be a yearly payment of $25,000 should they separate.

Within a year the agreement was invoked when Miss Duke cited “extreme cruelty” in a 1948 divorce suit filed in Reno.

(Rubirosa went on to wed the late Barbara Hutton, heir to the Woolworth fortune and then Doris Duke’s only rival as world’s richest woman.)

But Miss Duke’s publicized troubles with men continued beyond that divorce. In 1954, French singer Charles Trenet announced their engagement. But Miss Duke told reporters she did not even know him. Attorneys resolved whatever dispute was involved.

Then, in 1964, band leader Joseph Armand Castro filed a divorce action, claiming that he and Miss Duke had been married secretly in 1956 and again in 1960. He asked for the Beverly Hills home, Falcon’s Lair.


News accounts some months later said Castro dropped the action in exchange for an undisclosed cash settlement and the right to live in Shangri-La in Hawaii.

Miss Duke spent most of the rest of her life in seclusion, even avoiding personal discussion of her 1992 biography, “The Richest Girl in the World.”

She was president and director of the Doris Duke Foundation Inc., which made $775,000 in charitable contributions in fiscal 1992, primarily to benefit animals. In addition to the $2-million gift to Duke, this year she gave $1 million to the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation.

Miss Duke was also founder and president of the Newport Restoration Foundation to preserve the wealthy Rhode Island community’s historic buildings.

In 1988, she was back in the headlines when she posted $5-million bail for her friend Imelda Marcos, wife of the late Philippine President Ferdinand E. Marcos, when Mrs. Marcos was indicted in New York on federal racketeering charges.

The reclusive multimillionaire was in the news again a month later when she adopted a 35-year-old Hare Krishna devotee, Charlene Gail (Chandi) Heffner. Miss Duke later called the move “the greatest mistake I ever made in my life” and banned the young woman from her estates. A breach-of-contract suit by Heffner is pending.

Miss Duke routinely refused requests for interviews, and the few remarks she issued for public consumption generally centered on her wealth.

“I’m not stingy,” she told Sheilah Graham in the 1974 book “How to Marry Super Rich.”

“I’m just afraid of being an easy mark. People wouldn’t have money long if they didn’t ask how much things cost.”

Survivors include a nephew, Walker Inman Jr., and six cousins, Angier Biddle Duke, Anthony Newton Duke, Nicholas Benjamin Duke Biddle, Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans, E. Buchanan Lyon and Laura Elizabeth Lambert Lyon Smith.