One night when Doris Duke was 10, her father leaned across the dinner table with a disturbing prediction that no child (honestly, no adult) should ever hear. James “Buck” Buchanan Duke told his little girl that no one would ever truly love her. No matter what she did or where she moved, people would only love Doris for her money. It was a message he repeated constantly.
“Buck” Duke was the founder of the American Tobacco Company. Two years after delivering that horrible dinner table prediction, Buck was dead. He died on October 10, 1925 at the age of 68. Doris was 12 years old. She was just one month shy of her 13th birthday.
Upon Buck’s death, 12-year-old Doris inherited a $100 million trust fund. Doris was instantly the richest person in the world. At 12.
Technically speaking, there were no wealth tracking publications likes Forbes or CelebrityNetWorth to perfectly know if $100 million made Doris the richest person in the world in 1925. But it was an absolutely enormous fortune. She was most-definitely the richest “girl” in the world and at least one of the 2-3 richest people. And it wasn’t just the $100 million. In 1962 Doris received another $250 million after her mother Nanaline died. In total, Doris was worth the equivalent of $3 billion in the 1960s.
And despite being hounded by reporters, suitors, and grifters, the “world’s richest girl” still managed to live a vibrant, wild, life.
Marriages and Affairs
Doris married twice. In 1935, she married gold-digging social climber James Cromwell. Cromwell would soon use his wife’s money to finance an unsuccessful run for the U.S. Senate. While they were married, Doris became pregnant, though she told friends the child wasn’t her husband’s but rather the product of an affair she had while on a cross-country train trip. “There was nothing else to do,” she reportedly said. A daughter, Arden, was born prematurely and lived for just 24 hours. Doris and Cromwell divorced in 1943.
She married again in 1947 to a diplomat from the Dominican Republic named Porfirio Rubirosa. There was one tiny obstacle before they got married. Porfirio was already married. According to legend, Doris was so head over heels for him she offered his current wife $1 million to divorce him quickly. The offer was accepted.
That marriage only lasted a year as Rubirosa was a well-known womanizer who had dalliances with a number of famous women including Marilyn Monroe, Ava Gardner, Rita Hayworth, Joan Crawford, Veronica Lake, Judy Garland, Eva Peron, and Zsa Zsa Gabor. Fortunately, Doris had an iron-clad prenup.
However, it wasn’t his extramarital affairs that dulled her affection for Rubirosa – it was the fact that after they divorced he married her arch-nemesis, Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton. Doris and Hutton were both born into wealthy Manhattan families within a week of each other and spent their entire lives in competition with each other. Doris could claim a victory over her rival with Rubirosa though – his marriage to Hutton only lasted 53 days.
Doris had a number of high-profile affairs as well. Her lovers included Duke Kahanamoku, Errol Flynn, British politician Alec Cunningham-Reid, and George Patton.
Doris dabbled in a number of interests and careers. She studied singing with one of the most renowned voice coaches of her day. During World War II, she worked in a canteen for soldiers in Egypt for $1 a year. She had a short-lived career as a foreign correspondent. She moved to Paris and wrote for Harper’s Bazaar.
Doris was even the first non-Hawaiian woman to take up competitive surfing after learning from the best of the best, Duke Kahanamoku.
She was an animal lover and supported animal rights and conservation long before it was fashionable.
She sang in a gospel choir.
She cultivated rare and exotic flowers after learning to do so from Louis Bromfield, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and horticulturist.
Doris had a priceess art collection. She was especially passionate about Southeast Asian and Islamic art. The collection is on public display at her former estate in Hawaii, which is now the Museum of Islamic Art, Culture, and Design.
Tragedy and Controversy
Doris Duke lived a wild and exciting life but it wasn’t without tragedy and scandal. In 1966, Eduardo Tirella, the curator of her art collections, told Doris he was leaving her employ to pursue a career as a production designer in the film industry. He flew to Rough Point, Doris’ Newport, Rhode Island estate to pack his things and give her formal notice. The two were overheard having a heated argument by the estate’s staff just before they got into a station wagon to leave. According to Doris, Tirella drove the car down the driveway and stopped to get out and open the gates. He left the engine running. Doris moved over to the driver’s seat so she could pick Tirella up as they left her estate. As she was moving into the driver’s seat, she released the parking brake and accidentally hit the accelerator, pinning Tirella between the station wagon and the gates. The gates soon gave way, lurching the car forward into a tree across the road. Tirella died. Newport police ruled the death an accident. Tirella’s family sued Doris for wrongful death. They were awarded $75,000 — which was far less than they were seeking.
Doris never married again after her second marriage failed. She never had children. But she did have deep, personal relationships with two people that would change the course of all of their lives.
In 1984, Doris met then 30-year old Chandi Heffner in Hawaii. The two women developed a deep bond quickly. Doris actually believed Chandi was the reincarnation of her daughter Arden. They traveled the world together, enjoying Doris’ wealth. They spent time in Russia, went to Romania for “fountain of youth” treatments, shopped for a $25 million Boeing 737, and adopted two camels after Doris learned they were an endangered species. Chandi managed Doris’s staff and advised her on financial matters. They were inseparable and traveled between Doris’s huge New Jersey farm, her Newport, Rhode Island estate, and “Shangri-La,” her palatial property on Oahu, Hawaii.
Here’s where it gets weird: Doris adopted Chandi in 1988. Chandi was 35 years old. She also reportedly promised to take care of Chandi in the manner she’d become accustomed to for the rest of her life and make her the executor of her will.
But something changed and Doris cut Chandi out of her life and her will in 1991.
Ironically, it was Chandi who brought the other significant relationship of Doris’ senior years into their lives when she recommended Bernard Lafferty as a butler. Bernard had formerly worked for Chandi’s sister Charlene who was married to billionaire Nelson Peltz. Bernard was Irish and an orphan who emigrated to the U.S. when he was 35. Doris hired him as her butler in 1987. He endeared himself to Doris and became her closest confidant and constant companion. When Doris died in 1993, Bernard inherited the bulk of her fortune, was made the executor of her will, and managed the philanthropic donations Doris specified in her will.
Chandi was left $0. It turns out, Doris made Bernard the executor of her will six months before her death. There were rumors that Bernard and a Beverly Hills doctor had hastened Doris’ death with morphine and Demerol, but no solid evidence of that was found since Doris had been cremated, which allegedly was absolutely not what she wanted. She reportedly had a huge fear of fire and made it clear she wanted her body disposed of in the ocean off Hawaii.
At the time of her death, Doris had a total net worth of $5.3 billion. This includes her cash and investments, homes in New Jersey, Hawaii, Rhode Island, and Beverly Hills, her jewelry, and her art collection, which in addition to her Southeast Asian and Islamic holdings, included works by Picasso, Monet, Van Gogh, and Rembrandt. She had a collection of rare wine –more than 2,000 bottles valued at over $5 million.
Chandi sued the estate of Doris Duke claiming she was owed a large amount of money as her daughter. Amazingly, Chandi was awarded $65 million in 1995. Today, Chandi lives on a ranch Doris purchased for her in Hawaii. Bernard died in 1996 of a heart attack in his sleep in the $2.1 million Bel-Air home.
It’s not totally clear if Doris’ father was right or wrong when he predicted people would only love her for her money. Or at the very least, she never stopped trying to prove him wrong.