In 1925 at the age of 12, Doris Duke became the richest little girl in the world. She was the only child of American Tobacco Co. magnate James B. Duke. From then on her romances, philanthropies and eccentricities became fodder for gossip columns.
She inherited many millions – accounts of the specific amount vary — and a Newport mansion built by Frederick Vanderbilt called Rough Point.
Her wealth multiplied during her lifetime and she gave away five times her original inheritance. She donated $1 million to her friend Elizabeth Taylor’s AIDS Foundation. She also supported animal rights and environmental causes.
And she cared about historic preservation, paying to save 83 historic buildings, including the Samuel Whitehorne House, Prescott Farm, the Buloid-Perry House, the King’s Arms Tavern, the Baptist Meetinghouse, and the Cotton House. Along with her friend Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, she saved Newport’s early American architecture through the Newport Restoration Foundation, established in 1968.
After her death in 1993 (and contested will), Rough Point became the foundation’s property.
Unlike the other Newport mansions, uninhabited for 60 years, Doris Duke lived in Rough Point until she died. The house still bears her imprint, from her priceless art and antiques to her bedroom draperies by J.C. Penney.
Tours go from May to November and are limited to 12 people. Since 2003, the foundation staged an annual exhibit of her clothing, jewelry, silver or furniture. But Rough Point has no gift shop because Duke thought they were in bad taste.
Guides treat visitors to stories about Duke’s remarkable life.
Doris Duke, the Legend
Doris Duke was an avid art collector, traveler and animal lover. She had two pet camels at Rough Point, Princess and Baby, who slept in a tent on the patio. A Middle Eastern businessmen threw them into a deal for a B-25 bomber she bought from him. During the 1991 storm Hurricane Bob, the camels came into the house after she had hay strewn on the floor. One broke a mirror.
She hated being photographed, traveled under aliases and always minded her father’s dying words, “Trust no one.”
She had two husbands, diplomat James H.R. Cromwell and playboy Porfirio Rubirosa. She supposedly had affairs with Errol Flynn, surfer Duke Kahanamoku, jazz pianist Joe Castro and Gen. George S. Patton.
She confessed her money created a barrier to true love. In 1945, over a glass of wine at the Hassler Hotel in Rome, she told a friend:
All that money is a problem sometimes. It happens every time. After I’ve gone out with a man a few times, he starts to tell me how much he loves me. But how can I know if he really means it? How can I ever be sure?
Her only child, Arden, died at one day old. In her 70s she adopted a 35-year-old belly dancer and Hare Krishna Chandi Heffner, but then disinherited her.
Duke also had a dark side. She could be incredibly vindictive, her enemies said. Once she fell out with someone lawsuits were common.
Many books and movies have since been produced about her life. Her godson wrote a biography, Too Rich, in which he summed her up this way: “Doris gave no second chances. She collected people and then she threw them away.”
In 2021, author Peter Lance reported on a tragedy that occurred at Rough Point: the death of designer/actor Eduardo Tirella in 1966.
Duke killed Tirella when she ran over him with a station wagon at the Newport estate. Duke said her foot slipped, she hit the accelerator and ran over Tirella, who was her design consultant. Police declared it an accident A civil trial found she was negligent.
However, Lance argues in Homicide at Rough Point that the case was not properly investigated and that Duke may have murdered Tirella, given the fact Tirella and Duke had a falling out and Duke’s temper.
Her Newport Life
Doris Duke was an accomplished pianist and practiced twice a day. She especially loved jazz and gospel music. After the Newport Jazz Festival, she invited musicians to jam at Rough Point, and she was even said to have played incognito at the festival.
Doris Duke was good at the tango, tennis and building sand castles. She swam off the rocks at Rough Point and surfed in Hawaii.
On Oct. 28, 1993, Doris Duke died at the age of 80. Her will then got tied up in lawsuits for years.
Photo of Rough Point, By John Phelan – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15208189; in bathing suit: By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42082593. This story about Doris Duke was updated in 2021.