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Butler Made Wealthy by Heiress Dies

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Three years and a week after the death of the famous woman he served--the event that thrust him into wealth, but also unrelenting controversy--Bernard Lafferty, the billion-dollar butler, died early Monday morning.

“His heart just stopped,” his lawyer said.

Lafferty had been at the side of his boss, 80-year-old tobacco heiress Doris Duke, when she died Oct. 28, 1993, at Falcon Lair, the gated Benedict Canyon home built for Rudolph Valentino.

House guests said Lafferty was alone when he died, at 51, in his own gated $2-million mansion a short drive up the canyon, bought with money that came his way after he was named executor of Duke’s estate.

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The bedroom where he died had a 20-foot ceiling, wine-red velvet drapes and a Venetian chandelier. The carved headboard of his bed was made from the door of a Vanderbilt mansion. And, yes, he had his own butler the last months of his life.

Still, no one in his inner circle believed that the orphaned Irish farm boy had been fully able to enjoy the fairy-tale turn in his fortunes. People seeking pieces of Duke’s $1.2-billion fortune never let up on their allegations: that he was a scheming servant who wormed his way into his mistress’ confidence, that he was a spendthrift drunk who went to town with Duke’s credit card as she lay comatose, and, of course, that he killed her with overdoses of morphine.

Virtually every detail of Duke’s death became ammunition for the lawyers who successfully campaigned to force Lafferty out as executor of her estate, which will become one of the nation’s largest charities. They cast especially suspicious eyes on how Duke was quickly cremated and her ashes scattered off her mansion in Hawaii--a cover-up of murder, they called it.

“I was the one who took care of Miss Duke to her dying moment,” Lafferty remarked in an interview not long before his death. “So a lot of these things that were said were very sad to me.”

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His attorney said Monday that the former butler had asked to be cremated and have his ashes scattered off Hawaii--right where he scattered Duke’s remains three years ago.

His death ends the $500,000-a-year bequest from Duke that he kept under the May settlement that removed him as executor. Unknown is how much remains of the $4.5 million in executor’s fees he also received, and who will inherit it.

His body was discovered by a former Duke employee, Sally Blake, who worked briefly as a housekeeper at the heiress’ cliff-side estate in Newport, R.I. She and Lafferty had grown up in the same region of Ireland, so they kept in touch after she left the job to return to her native country. And after her father died, Lafferty invited Blake and her 77-year-old mother to come stay with him this fall.

“He treated my mother like royalty,” said Blake, 56. “He’d make sure she went somewhere every day. He made sure she sat in the front seat"--of his white Rolls-Royce or his black Cadillac--"so she could see everything. Mommy and I went to Disneyland, Malibu. . . . And we reminisced about home, his neighbors and school days.”

But Lafferty wasn’t feeling well Sunday, Blake said. So Monday morning she decided “to see if he wanted a drink of water.”

She saw right away “he was gone,” she said. “He’d died peacefully in his sleep.”

Though paramedics confirmed that Lafferty appeared to have died of natural causes, his lawyer said an autopsy probably will be requested.

“Under the circumstances, where there was such a controversy about Duke’s cause of death, it does indicate we have to [confirm] the cause of death,” said Century City attorney Charlotte Hassett.

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“This was a very tough fight for him,” Hassett said. “He felt it was his duty to carry out [Duke’s] wishes, but he was frustrated that three years later, not a penny has gone to charity . . . while the total amount billed by attorneys [challenging and defending Duke’s will] may be $50 million.”

Even without the strain of the court battle--parts of which were ongoing--Lafferty seemed a candidate for a heart attack. A sedentary man with a taste for A-list restaurants--Eclipse, Drai’s and the like--he let his weight balloon to more than 250 pounds.

A memorial service will be scheduled in Beverly Hills, an event likely to draw some of the luminaries who stood by the pony-tailed former butler: singer Peggy Lee, for whom he once worked; Elizabeth Taylor, an old friend of Duke who worked with Lafferty on AIDS charities; and actress Sharon Stone.

An only child whose parents died by the time he was 17, Lafferty moved from Ireland to Philadelphia, where an aunt lived, and found work at a hotel, first as a waiter then maitre d’. He was hired away as a butler, first for Peggy Lee, then in 1986 for Duke.

Lafferty said Duke soon began confiding in him, worried that she was being taken advantage of by her adopted daughter Chandi Heffner, the grown woman she had met at a dance class. Eventually, Duke wrote the woman out of her will--and added Lafferty as her executor.

Though Duke died in California after deterioration from a stroke, the will was filed for probate in New York. The legal challenges came first from Heffner, then from a New York “longevity” doctor named executor in a former will and then by three former servants for Duke.

In January 1995, the will challengers unleashed their trump card: an affidavit by one of Duke’s deathbed nurses, Tammy Payette, insisting that the heiress was murdered.

“I have been accused of . . . dastardly deeds,” Lafferty said after that, lamenting the headlines announcing each new allegation.

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

Eventually, Payette was discredited--convicted and jailed for stealing from a string of wealthy patients.

But even Lafferty recognized that he had provided his enemies with provocative fodder, such as his documented drinking bouts and shopping sprees at Melrose Avenue antique shops. By any standard, he was an unconventional choice to oversee a $1.2-billion estate.

Though he relinquished the executor’s post in May, Lafferty was still fighting to play a key role in four small Duke foundations, doling out money for Newport restoration, for instance.

“They thought I would go away with the settlement. But the foundations are mine,” a defiant Lafferty said not long ago after inviting a reporter over to see his new 8,000-square-foot home decorated with large silver urns, formal oil paintings and framed photographs of Duke, Valentino and others.

He was irked not only by moves to bar him from the Duke charities, but by a smaller indignity he viewed as symbolic of the “Chinese water torture” of the last three years--lawyers fighting over the estate could not agree whether to release a painting to him.

It was of Duke herself--commissioned by her friend Imelda Marcos. But the painting showed Duke looking like a wax figure, wearing sapphires (which she hated), and it depicted the wrong Newport mansions--showing one of the Vanderbilt places, not Duke’s own Rough Point.

“She said it was ugly and shoved it under a bed,” Lafferty said. “When I told her I liked it, she said, ‘Fine, you take it.’ ”

Some people were skeptical of his story, suspicious that he was trying to wrangle a valuable piece of art from the estate. Then they had it evaluated by Christie’s auction house.

“The picture was appraised at $450,” said Hassett, Lafferty’s lawyer. "[And] here you had 14 or 15 lawyers arguing over this thing and running up the bills.”

During the recent home tour, Lafferty pointed to the living room wall where he hoped to hang the painting of Duke. For the moment, a 1600s portrait of the Earl of Southampton was “holding the spot.”

On Monday, as she handled final arrangements for the former butler, Hassett reported: “He still didn’t have the painting. He died without getting the painting.”

Times staff writer John Goldman contributed to this report.


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