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COLUMN ONE : A Tale of Money and Mystery : Billionaire tobacco heiress Doris Duke’s death has spawned a wealth of disputes. She died much as she lived--in secrecy, loneliness and on the edge of scandal.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

As she lay on her deathbed behind the wrought-iron gates of Falcon Lair, Doris Duke was surrounded by what passed for family after a lifetime spent nurturing one of America’s great fortunes.

At her side were four enormous guard dogs, her personal maid, the lawyer who drafted the last of her many wills and the man who hit the jackpot in that will--Bernard Lafferty, the soft-spoken Irish butler with the blond ponytail and penchant for diamond jewelry.

The tobacco heiress long known as “the richest girl in the world,” who once communed with Gandhi and dined with Jacqueline Kennedy, who made her society debut at Buckingham Palace and posted $5-million bail for her friend Imelda Marcos, thus died much as she lived--in secrecy, loneliness and on the edge of scandal.

Since Duke’s death 18 months ago at her home high above Beverly Hills, bitter lawsuits and investigations on both coasts have tied up her $1.2-billion estate, destined to become one of the nation’s largest charitable foundations.

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New allegations surface weekly, many seemingly straight out of Agatha Christie: That the 80-year-old heiress was so feeble when she signed her last will, in a Los Angeles hospital bed, that a lawyer had to guide her hand; that her butler went on Rodeo Drive shopping sprees as she lay dying, and even that she was murdered--her frail body pumped with morphine on top of Demerol on top of Valium.

“I have been accused of . . . dastardly deeds,” the 49-year-old Lafferty says these days in little more than a whisper, insisting that the furor has left him no time to celebrate being named executor of Duke’s estate.

“The butler word they like,” he laments, “because the butler always ‘did it.’ ”

But Lafferty is not the only one under a magnifying glass. The very person who raised the specter of murder--a nurse scribbling notes in Duke’s death room Oct. 28, 1993--now is under scrutiny after being arrested for stealing from another wealthy patient.

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Somehow, the mystery novel scenarios seem a fitting coda to the life of Doris Duke.

She was a woman bred for suspicion, who became nearly a recluse in her grand homes. In the end, she was turning out a new will every year--scratching names off and writing others in. Her Hawaiian spiritualist was asked to be her executor one day, her vitamin doctor the next. The wheel of fortune spun and spun and spun.

Duke’s death has provided a rare window into the private world of one the last figures of America’s Gilded Age.

The brewing controversies have preserved thousands of pages of records--from nursing logs to notes scribbled on an old will--that not only help re-create her last months, but reveal a complex woman who found wealth a burden as well as a blessing. For while she lived like royalty, Doris Duke never seemed able to rise above three words said to have been uttered by her father on his own deathbed:

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“Trust no one.”

In the Limelight / Heiress Fascinated U.S. for Decades

When James Buchanan (Buck) Duke tiptoed into fatherhood Nov. 22, 1912, at age 55, one news report called his offspring “probably the richest mite in humanity.”

Buck Duke had come to New York from the post-Civil War South and launched the American Tobacco Co., whose Lucky Strike brand became a staple of Americana, tucked proudly into the sleeve of the working man’s T-shirt.

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Though he was not quite as rich as oil’s John D. Rockefeller or steel’s Andrew Carnegie, Buck Duke’s $300 million put him on any Top 10 list of tycoons, and a university, Duke, was named for him.

The proud father paraded his daughter on a silk pillow in his 5th Avenue mansion, had private guards watch over her and--when he died in 1925--left his vast empire in trust to her rather than his widow . . . with, as lore had it, the three-word deathbed advice to 12-year-old Doris.

Her training in protecting the family fortune began even as Buck was being laid to rest--family attorneys crushed a lawsuit filed by his first wife, who claimed she was the rightful heir.

For decades the nation was fascinated with the young Duke, to her dismay. “I am no different from anyone else. Really,” she insisted at 15 to a reporter at Rough Point, Duke’s 30-room summer “cottage” in Newport, R.I.

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She had cool blue-gray eyes, wavy blonde hair and boarding-school bearing, but was frightfully self-conscious about her nearly six-foot height. Doris Duke didn’t want to stand out--in any sense.

Yet there she was attending the Lindbergh kidnaping trial, touring impoverished coal mining areas (in a mink coat) with Eleanor Roosevelt and pursuing a social life sure to grab headlines.

At 22, she married Jimmy Cromwell, a 38-year-old Philadelphian previously wed to an heir to the Dodge fortune. The word obey was deleted from their 1935 wedding vows and Duke dumped him eight years later, citing his “constant” demand for funds.

When she tried matrimony again, with polo playing Dominican diplomat Porfirio Rubirosa, her lawyers were ready with a prenuptial agreement. Rubirosa reportedly fainted after reading it and that marriage was over in a year.

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“She understood the power of her money,” recalled World War II-era escort John Reagan (Tex) McCrary, who was head of the editorial page of the New York Daily Mirror. When she wanted “movement” lessons, modern dance legend Martha Graham trekked to her homes. And after the “insatiably curious” Duke used her clout to become a $25-a-week war correspondent, Gen. George S. Patton invited her to attend his victory meeting with allied Russian leaders.

“She was,” said McCrary, “a helluva dame.”

But even then some sensed the heiress was trapped within walls of defenses, never knowing “if people liked her for what she was . . . or because she was an enormously wealthy girl,” said Jack Newman, who met her in a military information office.

She thus traveled under assumed names, behind sunglasses and scarves, or found refuge on estates such as Duke Farms, a 2,700-acre spread in New Jersey that had its own security force.

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She was most comfortable in Hawaii, where she could go unnoticed taking long swims or sharing lilting laughter with native beach boys, hula dancers and a spiritualist who taught “bliss-bestowing hugs.” Yet, even there, her Moroccan-styled mansion, Shangri-La, was set atop vast stone walls and patrolled by guard dogs.

Duke acquired a final home in 1953, in Los Angeles, after taking an interest in jazz bandleader Joey Castro, a mainstay at the Mocambo nightclub on the Sunset Strip. She called him up asking for piano lessons. One thing led to another.

When screen legend Gloria Swanson invited Duke to tea at Falcon Lair--the former home of Rudolph Valentino--the heiress bought it.

Duke and Castro were an item for more than a decade. Like others who fell within her orbit, he can rattle off remarkable episodes: music greats such as Duke Ellington dropping by to jam in the velvet-walled music room of Falcon Lair. Or heading to New York to dine with a doctor seeking financing for a line of cosmetics and discovering that the other guest was Greta Garbo.

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But Castro eventually filed suit alleging that Duke had come after him with a butcher knife and evicted him from Falcon Lair--and he soon married a singer and started a family.

“It wasn’t my money. It wasn’t my life,” Castro said. “Everybody always put an act on around her, and paid no attention to me. (You’d) watch them try to snow her.”

McCrary put it similarly in explaining why he never wed Duke: “I felt Doris Duke was a collector, and I didn’t want to be on a shelf with a brass plaque.”

McCrary labeled her hangers-on “remoras,” the tiny fish that scavenge food out of the mouths of sharks. “She had a changing cast of remoras,” he said.

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The death of a confidant after Castro led to her most agonizing scandal.

Interior designer Eduardo Tirella was helping refurbish Duke’s homes in 1966 when he jumped from the driver’s seat of her car to open the gates of her Newport mansion--and the vehicle slammed into him. Although an inquest cleared Duke, who was in the passenger’s seat, she turned more reclusive.

“She became a loner,” said Kusuma Cooray, Duke’s favorite chef. She often took meals alone, having a butler carry a tray to her. And increasingly the world let her be, for she no longer was the ingenue of the upper crust.

Dr. Harry B. Demopoulos, a New York “longevity” specialist who became Duke’s physician, recalled telling her over the phone, “ ‘I’d like to come and draw blood. How can I fit in with your busy schedule?’ She said, ‘Harry, I don’t have a busy schedule.’ ”

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“She said she’d go to parties to let friends know she’s still alive.”

Indeed, her life story had to be explained to new generations in 1988, when she posted $5-million bail for Imelda Marcos, who was accused of helping her husband, President Ferdinand Marcos, loot the Philippines. A month later, Duke adopted as her daughter Chandi Heffner, 35, a Hare Krishna devotee whom she met at a dance class in Hawaii.

Occasional pictures reinforced the image of an aging eccentric. Her hair was too blonde for her years. And while the skin of her long, narrow face was taut as a 30-year-old’s, heavy lipstick accented an almost ghoulish droop of her mouth. Her arms were skeletal.

The once curious girl had become a curiosity.

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Relentless Suspicion / Her Inner Circle: Doctors, Servants

“Before I met Miss Duke,” said Dr. Charles F. Kivowitz, “I thought she was dead.”

But there she was, at 79, in the emergency room at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center on April 19, 1992. She’d had a face lift two days earlier, gone home to Falcon Lair, then fallen and broken her hip.

That she was alive was only the first surprise for Kivowitz. Later, when lawyers challenging Duke’s will questioned him about her medical care, he recalled asking the heiress who should be alerted to her hospitalization.

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“She said, ‘Nobody except the people surrounding us.’ ”

Surrounding Duke were: Dr. Harry A. Glassman, the Beverly Hills plastic surgeon who had given her the face lift; Nuku Makasiale, her personal maid; Dr. Rolando Atiga, a San Gabriel Valley physician giving her vitamin treatments, and Bernard Lafferty, whom Kivowitz took to be Duke’s “executive assistant.”

There was not a single relative in the group, not a single old friend.

“I just felt that was very odd,” Kivowitz said.

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Duke’s closest blood relative was a half nephew, who spent much of his time sailing off New Zealand. There was the adopted daughter, but she now was on the outs. And while Duke had friends from over the years, her relentless suspicion made relations fragile.

“People would catch her attention . . . move into her life, have an influence and not be in there that long,” said Dr. Robert Nixon, her dentist for a time. “When she talked about people she did not like, there was a cool, steely stare that would stop a bull at 50 yards.”

Doctors were a prime example--some coming, some going. Demopoulos still phoned her, for instance, but she wouldn’t take his calls, Kivowitz said.

While one was in her circle, though, the rewards could be staggering. Plastic surgeon Glassman, the husband of actress Victoria Principal, once got a gift of $500,000. And Duke’s new doctor, Kivowitz, eventually would charge her $50,000 a month.

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After she checked into Cedars, Glassman recommended him as her supervising physician. A Beverly Hills internist whose patients had included Dean Martin and Danny Kaye, Kivowitz understood the importance of confidentiality: Duke was listed on hospital records as “Norma Jane” (after someone misunderstood her request for “Norma Jean,” Marilyn Monroe’s real name).

A note in her nursing file made it plain that “Ms. Jane” expected to be treated with deference. “Do not stand around or . . . make small chat, etc.,” nurses were instructed. “She will not tolerate it.”

“Always ask first, ‘May I . . .’ before carrying out any procedure.” And, “Call Bernard for any help.”

Bernard again, Bernard Lafferty: the immigrant from Ireland, raised on a “very humble” farm, a dropout after grade school.

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Orphaned at 17, he headed to Philadelphia, where an aunt lived, then found work at the Bellevue Stratford hotel, first as a waiter then maitre d’. His tall bearing and Irish accent fit well in a tuxedo, and he knew how to pamper celebrity guests. One of them, singer Peggy Lee, hired him away as her do-all assistant and butler. She introduced him to Duke.

When he arrived at Duke Farms in 1986, he was called a butler, Lafferty said, only because “there was a title needed.” He really was more, he said--an assistant and “best friend.”

Other servants, though, said he too had to come running when “Miss Duke” rang a little bell. Duke’s chef at the time, Colin F. Shanley, said Lafferty’s role only changed as he encouraged Duke’s doubts about her adopted daughter.

Lafferty “began to fill Miss Duke’s head with all sorts of conspiracy theories” that Chandi Heffner was out for her money, the chef said in an affidavit.

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By the time Duke entered Cedars, Lafferty was constantly at her side. He even slept on the sofa in her hospital room. “She would ask him,” Kivowitz said, “to do virtually everything.”

After Duke was released from Cedars, Lafferty often was the one who gave Kivowitz updates as she, as usual, summered in the East and headed to Shangri-La for the winter.

So when Duke wound up in the hospital again the next year, Kivowitz said, he approached Lafferty first when he decided it was time to inquire whether she “had her affairs in order.”

That question produced the biggest surprise yet from “Norma Jane.” She replied, “No,” Kivowitz said, and “requested to see an attorney.”

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Buck Duke’s daughter wanted to rewrite her will.

Changing Fortunes / Wills Rewritten at Her Whims

Doris Duke, it turned out, changed wills as often as she changed doctors. A quick search found six wills or revisions (codicils) from the last decade alone, including:

* A 1991 codicil naming Dr. Demopoulos and Chemical Bank of New York as co-executors, positions that could generate millions in fees.

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* A will later in 1991 replacing the doctor with New York accountant Irwin Bloom, whom Duke reportedly met through Chandi Heffner.

* A 1992 codicil calling for two executors: half nephew Walker P. Inman Jr. and Lafferty--although the paperwork spelled it “Rafferty” and Duke’s new lawyers could not determine if the codicil had been formally executed.

At the recommendation of plastic surgeon Glassman after she was hospitalized Feb. 25, 1993, the heiress hired the Chicago-based law firm of Katten Muchin & Zavis to redo it again. The firm had a Los Angeles office, including Howard Weitzman, who represents singer Michael Jackson, among others. But because of the scope of Duke’s estate--which had the potential to generate millions in legal fees--the firm’s top probate specialist, William M. Doyle Jr., immediately flew in from the main office to tend to the new client.

The lawyers worked fast. Duke was suffering from anemia, was unable to walk despite having artificial knees implanted and apparently had suffered a stroke. They wanted at least a codicil completed by March 9, when she was to have a feeding tube implanted.

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They started with the 1991 will. Doyle brought a copy to the hospital and jotted notes on it as Duke spoke from her bed.

Atop a long list of bequests was one for half nephew Inman, slated to receive $5 million in trust. Now, the lawyer wrote, “She may want to cut back somewhat.”

“She thought he was something of a spendthrift,” another attorney, Michael E. S. McCarthy, said when questioned later in a deposition.

In a section of the will naming the head of the charitable foundation created on her death, eliminate was scribbled next to accountant Bloom’s name.

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“She had come to mistrust him,” McCarthy said.

Then Chandi Heffner. A priority, McCarthy said, was to undercut any claim by the adopted daughter, who even at the moment was asking a New Jersey court to force Duke to support her in style.

The key decision was whom to make executor of her estate.

The lawyers mentioned names ranging from Glassman to “I. M.” Imelda Marcos had fallen from favor, however: Duke insisted the will call for her to repay the millions loaned for her trial.

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More names were offered, McCarthy said, until Duke told the lawyers, as the notes put it: “Give B. L. total control as executor.”

Crossed out was the old bequest next to Lafferty’s name: “two times his annual salary plus $18,000.” Handwritten above was: "$500,000 per year.” Plus executor fees totaling $5 million.

The lawyers rushed together an eight-page codicil for signing the evening before Duke was to have the feeding tube inserted.

McCarthy said there was talk of videotaping the signing, but Duke said, “Absolutely not.”

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Two guards stood in front of the door to the $1,175-a-night hospital suite. Called in as witnesses were a doctor, two nurses, Duke’s Honolulu lawyer and her chef, Shanley.

According to McCarthy, the lawyers began by asking Duke where she was. “In Cedars-Sinai Hospital.” Did she want to make changes in her estate? “Yes.”

The bed was raised so she was sitting. Doyle put a briefcase on her lap. Then he put the papers atop the briefcase and gave her a pen.

In the coming days, the ceremony was repeated twice in the hospital--with another codicil March 14, and with an entire new will April 5 to consolidate the changes.

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Each bore a similar “Doris Duke” in shaky block letters. As one lawyer said, they had carried out her wish that “Mr. Lafferty should become her alter ego.”

Later, of course, Duke’s condition and competence would be subject to nasty debate--as would so many details of her final months.

But the furor was far off. For the moment, probate attorney McCarthy simply carried the will back to his office, sealed it in an envelope and put it in a safe.

Dance Aficionado / ‘She Wanted to Die Waltzing’

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The months after Duke’s April 15, 1993, release from Cedars were miserable ones for the woman who named her favorite home, Shangri-La, after the mythical land of eternal youth. Now she would fall out of bed. She forgot things. And, worst of all, her artificial knees still didn’t work.

Kivowitz said he recommended against replacing the joints because any operation was risky for someone in her condition. But Duke insisted on seeing a surgeon.

On July 8, a nurse noted a rare occurrence: Duke “requested me to sit with her for company. . . . She discussed her pending surgery, her hope to be able to dance again.”

It’s one phrase amid endless notes, but this was a woman who befriended the great dancers of the century--had Rudolf Nureyev over for caviar--and tried everything from ballet to belly dancing. Tex McCrary recalled talking about death with Duke, and making a pact to dance together at the millennium.

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“She wanted to die waltzing,” he said.

So Duke had the knee surgery. Two days after returning to Falcon Lair, she suffered another stroke. She was rushed to Cedars and stayed two months. Then she “expressed strong wishes to go home,” her discharge report said.

Dying Days / Morphine Drips at Falcon Lair

There were four visitors waiting when the ambulance pulled through the gates of Falcon Lair on Sept. 20, 1993--her favorite dogs from Duke Farms, 150-pound akitas and German shepherds.

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The Duke dogs were legendary. Visitors likened driving onto her estates to “The Hound of the Baskervilles"--dogs surrounding your car, snarling, until a servant gave them a signal and they turned, like that, into pets. Now the nurses dutifully recorded their presence at Falcon Lair, as in: “Nuku in room to assist with ‘attack dogs.’ ”

Duke’s bedroom became a medical ward with six nurses working in shifts. She had to be medicated, monitored, turned hourly in bed and helped to the commode. She had a stomach tube for feeding and a tracheotomy tube to assist breathing. Still, her condition did not seem that bleak to one young nurse--or so Tammy Payette asserted later, in the affidavit that set off far-reaching investigations.

“When Miss Duke arrived home from the hospital, she was in good, stable condition and alert,” Payette said. “There was total potential for her to become rehabilitated. . . . Miss Duke’s life expectancy was at least five years.”

The doctors say it was obvious Duke was dying, but Payette insisted: “No one ever told me that Miss Duke was in critical or terminal condition.”

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Duke herself wasn’t saying much, although nurses recorded occasional mood swings as she entered the last month of her life.

The morning of Oct. 7, she was “very calm.” But by 3 p.m., she was “awake--angry. Wants to go to either CS (Cedars-Sinai) or Duke University Hospital.” Then at 4:30 p.m., simply: “wants to go.”

It was just three words: “wants to go.” What did Duke mean?

To Payette, she “wanted to be rehabilitated so she could go to Duke Farms.”

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But Dr. Kivowitz said in a deposition that Duke had something heavier in mind when they had a “very candid” talk that evening in the bedroom with an Italian marble fireplace and windows overlooking lush gardens. Kivowitz said he told her “that with continued medical care, she would be as she was now and . . . ultimately deteriorate and die.

“I remember very clearly a statement that she made . . . that she couldn’t go on living the way she was,” Kivowitz said. He said he assured her that the nurses would “take very good care of her. . . .”

“She turned to Bernard, who was closer to her head than I was, and she said, ‘Bernard, he doesn’t get it, does he? . . . I want out.’ ”

From then on, Kivowitz said, rehabilitation was downplayed and the mission became keeping Duke clean and making her comfortable--largely with drugs.

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The morning of Oct. 8, the nurses’ file included a reminder: “NO CODE BLUE per Dr. Kivowitz.” Do not resuscitate.

On Oct. 18, a nurse noted, “ ‘I want to die’ pt. states how she feels.” But Duke mostly was sleeping.

According to credit card receipts in the court record, Lafferty went that week to Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills and spent $254 on gifts for the nurses. Duke’s American Express Platinum Card listed visits to Giorgio Armani on Rodeo Drive on Oct. 20, 21 and 22, as well, bringing charges at the clothing store to $20,000 during the month.

No day is more disputed than Oct. 27. By then, notes list Duke’s treatment as “TLC,” tender loving care, with “room lights down.” Intravenous “drip” doses of Demerol were increased, then more potent morphine included, starting at 5 mg. “I did not want Miss Duke to be awakened,” Kivowitz said.

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Doyle, the lawyer, and Glassman, the plastic surgeon, visited the house and met with Kivowitz.

Payette alleges in court papers that Kivowitz then said, “it was time for Miss Duke to go.” Shanley, the chef, says in an affidavit that a parcel containing morphine was brought into the kitchen, and that Lafferty grabbed it and said, “Miss Duke is going to die tonight.”

Kivowitz, though, recalled a somber death watch--with Lafferty “crying his eyes out.”

The morphine drip was increased, first to 10 mg., then 15 mg. By 11 p.m., Duke was breathing as few as five times a minute.

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Kivowitz left for a trip out of town, but kept in touch by phone and put a partner on call. At Duke’s bedside were the maid Nuku, Nuku’s sister, Doyle and Lafferty.

At 2:30 a.m., the nurses noted “effort breathing . . . but patient is lingering.” After a 4 a.m. call to Kivowitz, the morphine was upped to 25 mg.

Later, the doctor would spend five days being grilled by Donald Howarth, a lawyer for Demopoulos who asked: “Had you ever discussed with Miss Duke the use of drugs to cause her to die?”

Kivowitz said, “I increased the morphine so she will not linger and suffer in any way.”

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Howarth: ". . . So that she would die?”

Kivowitz: “So that she would not linger, that she would not suffer, and ultimately that she would die perhaps shortly or sooner than she would have otherwise died from her medical conditions, which I judged within a 48-hour period were of a terminal nature.”

The nursing instructions said, “If Pt. expires; Do not call 911!”

The last entry is at 5:48 a.m. “Resp. ceased.”

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Kivowitz’ fill-in, Dr. Joshua Trabulus, signed the death certificate. It described the dead woman as a self-employed “farm owner.”

Probate Battle / A Feeding Frenzy of Allegations

The day Doris Duke died, Lafferty went to the Louis Vuitton luggage store on Rodeo Drive and bought a small bag for $1,878.13.

“To carry her back,” he explained. Her ashes, that is. “It was a bag that fit the urn and everything. We weren’t going to put it in a paper carrying bag.”

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Decades earlier, the city of Durham, N.C., site of Duke University, shut down for a day when Buck Duke was buried in a family crypt. Now his daughter’s remains were to be taken to Hawaii, where Lafferty would gather a few employees from Shangri-La and scatter the ashes, at sundown, off Diamond Head.

Just two people accompanied her body to a Westwood mortuary for cremation, Lafferty and Doyle.

Both insist it was only on the ride back, winding along Sunset Boulevard, that the lawyer informed the butler of his own bequest under the will--that Lafferty would earn millions while largely controlling one of the nation’s greatest fortunes, concentrated in a new Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.

Though one of Duke’s Newport society neighbors, Marian Oates Charles, also was named to the board of that umbrella foundation and several below it--to benefit Asian and Islamic art, endangered wildlife and Newport preservation--Lafferty was to appoint all the other members.

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“I just sat there and took a deep breath,” Lafferty said. “I said to Bill, ‘Please pull over.’ And I said, ‘Please tell me this again.’ And he said, ‘Bernard . . . this is what Miss Duke wanted.’ ”

Of course, Lafferty already had a notion of the contents of the will. The court record contains handwritten notes said to be his, with one saying, “I think Miss Duke is fading fast” and the name of someone “cut out of will.”

Another undated note--which Lafferty would neither confirm nor deny was written by him--said, “The time has come to figh . . . & nothin is gowin to stope it. I will goo to no ends.” And “I am the will.”

McCarthy took the will from his safe, carried it across the country and filed it in Manhattan Surrogate’s Court on Nov. 1, 1993.

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Unveiled was an estate valued at $1.2 billion, but that could rise as 5,200 Duke collectibles are appraised by Christie’s auction house and the United States Trust Co.--the bank Lafferty named as co-executor to manage the everyday work of the estate.

The will called for the Duke foundation to be based at Duke Farms, and the Newport and Hawaiian homes to become museums open to visitors for “a reasonable fee.” Bequests of $10 million each were listed for Duke University and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Letters also went to a handful of individuals: Eleanor Lawson, who gave Duke dance lessons in Los Angeles and became a friend, was to get $3 million. Tahitian dancer Anna Kennesey, who became a shopping companion in Hawaii, was in for $1 million.

The minister of a black New Jersey Baptist church that let Duke sing in its choir also was to get $1 million, her New Jersey piano teacher $500,000.

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It took 20 pages to list the employees getting bequests: one month’s salary for each year of service. None of Duke’s old suitors got a penny. Her dogs got $100,000 in trust funds.

Then legal challenges put everything on hold.

In a feeding frenzy of allegations, no detail was overlooked: Were the dogs brought to Falcon Lair to comfort Duke--or because she was afraid of being killed? Was her will signing not videotaped because of vanity--or because the lawyers had something to hide?

The most nagging challenge was not from the expected source, the adopted daughter. She reached a sealed settlement with the estate.

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Instead, it was Demopoulos, the Scarsdale, N.Y., doctor who would have been her executor two wills earlier. He could not believe Duke would leave one of the great fortunes in the hands of what his court papers called “an illiterate, unstable and even dangerous person.” Her butler .

He sued in Surrogate’s Court to have the last will invalidated. He was helped by three former Duke employees, including chef Shanley, who filed a $30-million harassment and breach-of-promise suit against Lafferty and the estate’s attorneys--and then unleashed affidavits on everything from Lafferty’s drinking habits to Duke’s condition when she signed her last will. They said she was so disoriented that her staff joked, “She’s in Brooklyn.”

Defenders of the estate termed such claims ridiculous, part of another bid to “extort” money from “the richest girl in the world.”

Three months ago, the stakes escalated. The challengers produced Payette’s affidavit, charging that “Miss Duke did not die of natural causes.”

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Los Angeles police put the Robbery-Homicide Division on the case. Surrogate Judge Eve Preminger appointed a former Manhattan district attorney, Richard Kuh, to investigate.

Kuh hired an accounting firm to review records at Duke Farms and traveled to California, where, among other things, he searched closets at Falcon Lair. Kuh even gave Lafferty a “reading comprehension test.”

Outside the official inquiries, both sides in the mammoth probate fight have hired teams of private detectives to dig up dirt not only on the accused--but the accusers. Particularly Tammy Payette.

Even before her arrest 10 days ago, lawyers for Dr. Kivowitz had begun questioning her account of Duke’s final days. In a memorandum responding to her accusation, they alleged that medical records showed that Payette herself “increased the morphine drip” to Duke--so that if anyone over-drugged the heiress, it was the very nurse claiming the drug “was killing her.”

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And the 27-year-old nurse’s credibility suffered a blow when she was picked up on suspicion of grand theft at a Rodeo Drive pawnshop. The estate’s private detectives had tipped police that “valuable items may be missing from (other) people she cared for,” said Kivowitz’s attorney, Leonard Levine. In a jailhouse interview, Payette then admitted trying to sell “ivory pieces and statuettes” from a wealthy patient other than Duke.

The attorneys for the estate immediately pushed for an investigation into whether she may have stolen jewelry from Duke that disappeared shortly before her death, including a double strand of pearls with a diamond clasp.

Payette’s response? That Lafferty “gave me some gifts.” He said he sure didn’t give away the Duke pearls. With the nurse free on $20,000 bond, police work on.

Still, the greatest amount of dirt, without question, has been shoveled at Lafferty himself. Demopoulos’ lead attorney recently rattled off a barrage of allegations while interrogating a doctor who treated Duke--all intended to question her choice of executor:

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“That Mr. Lafferty was Ms. Duke’s butler for five or six years; that he was not her business confidant during that time period; that he had a sixth-grade education, was functionally illiterate, went on alcoholic binges . . . went on spending sprees with her credit card while she was sick . . . that he stated or wrote . . . ‘I am the will’ . . .”

Butler No More / Lafferty Learning Power of Money

“What’s happening right now,” Lafferty said, “is people are trying to belittle me. . . . And they’re doing it because of greed.”

He was seated at a conference table in the Century City offices of attorney Weitzman.

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Lafferty wore a gray pin-striped suit, two gold-and-diamond bracelets on his right wrist and a Cartier watch on his left, also flecked with diamonds.

But he was without the jewelry that draws notice in the A-list restaurants he frequents: two rings and an earring with “huge diamonds,” as a society friend put it.

“It’s on a vacation,” Lafferty said of the earring.

He said he agreed to an interview out of “great frustration,” that because of the challenges “we can’t get our foundation going . . . (and) get on with the work that Miss Duke wanted to be done.”

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Lafferty said his new power “can be a burden.”

He said he was hospitalized twice for drinking--first after Duke got sick and then after her death. In the best Duke tradition, he was admitted to Cedars under an assumed name, “John Mason.”

“I had a bout with alcohol because of the loss of Miss Duke and everything,” he said.

“Look at me. I live alone and she was the only company I had most of the time. . . . So when she died, it took a very long time for me to get over it. And then all these accusations falling on top of me.”

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He shook his head. No, he did not use her credit cards without permission. Or try to stop the estate from selling her Boeing 737 so he could jet around in it. For two hours, he went down the list.

Lafferty insisted that there has not been a single moment when he could celebrate his turn of fortune--perhaps dance a private jig when he went to New York and had a Park Avenue penthouse to stay in. Not so, he said, because “Miss Duke’s not there.”

Yet it is possible to imagine that an Irish farm boy might have gotten a little thrill from rounding up a board for the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.

Lafferty asked New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman to tea at Duke Farms. “She stayed for one hour and 15 minutes,” he recalled. “We just talked . . . about (how) she was a farmer and everything and . . . now she’s going to be a candidate maybe for vice president.”

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He also called Elizabeth Taylor, whose favorite AIDS charity received a $1-million gift from the heiress before she died.

“I thought when we were making up the board that Elizabeth Taylor would be very good,” he said. "(She would) help in the industry here. The film industry.”

Taylor accepted too. So did Duke University President Nannerl O. Keohane and J. Carter Brown, the retired director of the National Gallery in Washington.

Lafferty has not decided where to live. Much foundation work is back East, but he recently supervised renovation of Falcon Lair, which was damaged in the Northridge earthquake.

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To redecorate his bedroom, he perused Melrose shops. At one, he found a purple and gold silk-embroidered bedcover from India, then sent an assistant to pay for it and cart it away.

“He has a butler himself!” the store owner marveled.

The power of money manifests itself in others ways. Lafferty has no trouble getting a table at perhaps the trendiest restaurant in town, Eclipse.

On the festive pre-Oscar weekend, the Friday night crowd included Michael Ovitz, Michael Eisner, Clint Eastwood, Arnold Schwarzenegger . . . and Bernard Lafferty. He was back the next night, with two companions. Nearby, Barbara Walters supped with Robert L. Shapiro and Larry King.

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Here the earring was in place as Lafferty nursed a cranberry juice with his filet of sole and let his eyes take in the Hollywood scene, the table-hopping and schmoozing.

He had plans for Oscar night too. The party at the Four Seasons hotel, “Elton John’s AIDS benefit,” he said. It’s the sort of cause “Miss Duke liked to support,” and he would too, if they let him get on with the foundation.

Two days later, he was in Durham, delivering the $10 million that Duke willed to the university named for her father. Nearly 18 months after her death, it was the first bequest handed out--freed up by Judge Preminger. Because of the delay, Lafferty threw in an extra $500,000.

Still, the onetime butler, who turns 50 this week, pledged to remember Doris Duke’s caution about the people always tugging at your sleeve, trying to get a piece of the fortune. “I’m careful,” he said.

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Of course, you can’t always say no.

“There is,” he noted, “enough money here to go around.”

Times staff writers Robert Lopez and Stephanie Simon contributed to this story.

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A World of Wealth

Doris Duke became one of the most celebrated heiresses in American history when she inherited her father’s tobacco fortune at age 12 in 1925. Although she was fiercely private, her every move drew attention for decades as she survived scandals and hopscotched among her showpiece estates. Only in later years did she escape the limelight--until her death Oct. 28, 1993, at her home above Beverly Hills. Twice divorced and with no children to inherit her billion-dollar fortune, Duke left her butler in charge of one of the country’s largest charitable foundations. Now the circumstances of her death and validity of her will are part of bitter court challenges.

THE MONEY

Duke’s father, James Buchanan, was a grand figure of the robber baron era, rising from modest roots to found the American Tobacco Co., which pioneered the mass marketing of cigarettes. With an empire--and lifestyle--that rivaled that of the Rockefellers and the Vanderbilts, he also was a great philanthropist. In 1924, he gave a then-astounding $40 million to a college immediately renamed Duke University.

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THE TRAPPINGS

Doris Duke, according to one appraisal, accumulated 5,200 “extraordinary . . . works of art, antiques, artifacts, tapestries, sculptures, furnishings and breathtaking pieces of jewelry.” But she was best known for the estates housing her treasures.

* Duke Farms: A 2,700-acre New Jersey farm that was her primary home.

* Rough Point in Newport, R.I.: a 30-room mansion built by the Vanderbilts.

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* Shangri-La in Hawaii: The winter retreat.

* Falcon Lair above L.A.: The former home of Rudolph Valentino, it was used only for occasional visits until her final year.

PHILANTHROPY

Her best known cause was the Newport Restoration Foundation, which helped revive historic mansions in the playground of high society. She also supported medical research and the arts. And among her final acts:

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* She gave $1 million each to the favorite charities of Michael Jackson and Elizabeth Taylor.

* She made $10-million donations to Duke University and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

* Her will created the umbrella Doris Duke Charitable Foundation--to be headed by former butler Bernard Lafferty and a board, including New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman.

Source: Doris Duke’s will and papers filed in Manhattan Surrogate’s Court.

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How the Duke Foundation Ranks

With an initial estimated value of $1.2 billion that is expected to rise, the charitable foundation created on Doris Duke’s death ranks on par with the Carnegie Corp. Some of the nation’s largest charitable foundations: Foundation: Assets (in billions) 1. Ford: $6.95 2. J. Paul Getty Trust: $6.18 3. W.K. Kellogg: $5.46 4. Pew Charitable Trusts: $3.51 5. Robert Wood Johnson: $3.46 15. Annenberg: $1.26 16. Doris Duke: $1.20 17. Carnegie Corp.: $1.18 * Estimated rank

Source: The Foundation Center

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