What We Talk About When We Talk About Doris Duke

Errol Flynn and Doris Duke

Recently, a comrade’s glossy monthly magazine published a photo essay on Doris Duke’s Hawaiian estate. And we were not asked for our assistance. It was then that we realized that we have not advertised the fact that we are the world’s leading authority on Doris Duke, who battled it out with Barbara Hutton for the mantle of Poor Little Rich Girl.

(Maybe we’re not the world’s leading authority on Doris Duke. Maybe we just taped the TV miniseries about her life, Too Rich, starring Lauren Bacall, and watched it over and over again in high school. So maybe what follows is more fiction than fact.)

Doris Duke, of Duke University and tobacco wealth, had a doting father and a virago stepmother. When her father caught cold, her very Southern mother informed all the doctors that the best cure would be to throw open all the windows and hide his blankets. Or maybe she didn’t so much inform the doctors as just do it one night, keeping vigil at her rapidly dying husband’s bedside in a fur coat. Later, when she died, she left only some jewelry and that coat to Lauren Bacall Doris, who burned it in a leaf pile on the estate of her friend Brian Dennehy Louis Bromfield.

Duke was married twice (what’s a bored rich gal to do?) including disastrously, to renowned playboy Porfirio Rubirosa—later husband to Barbara Hutton. We once read an entire biography about Rubirosa, and the only salient fact we retained was that he was so well-endowed that in Europe, extra-tall pepper grinders are still called Rubirosas. In Answered Prayers, Truman Capote described it as “an 11-inch cafe au lait sinker as thick as a man’s wrist.” Joan Crawford once told her best friend, Billy Haines, that actor John Ireland went “where no man had gone before—except Porfirio Rubirosa.”

Ahem. Anyway, Doris made a lot of mistakes in her life, like adopting a young Hare Krishna woman whom she claimed was the reincarnation of her only child, a son who died shortly after birth. Despite negating the adoption and stipulating that the woman receive nothing upon her death, Duke’s estate eventually settled with the woman to the tune of $65 million.

There’s also the question of whether or not Duke’s butler, Bernard, killed her after making her adjust her will to make him executor of the $1.3 billion estate. Litigation was messy; Bernard died just two years after Duke, leaving the field open for a film about the unlikely duo starring Susan Sarandon and Ralph Fiennes.

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