If there was ever a woman who defined the phrase “poor little rich girl,” it was Doris Duke. She was born into immense wealth and privilege, but nothing could stop heartbreak and controversy from coming for her in the most vicious way possible—even after she was gone. From quickie marriages to mysterious “accidents” and dark family secrets, Doris Duke took scandal to the next level.
Besides her scandalous personal life, Doris Duke is most famous for her immense wealth. Duke’s fortune came from her father, a tobacco magnate named James Buchanan Duke who tragically passed when she was just 12 years old. But there was a golden lining to his passing: He left Doris and her mother Nanaline Holt Inman up to $100 million, which is about a billion dollars today.
Duke received her inheritance in large chunks at her 21st, 25th, and 30th birthdays, as per her father’s will. But when her mother passed, she left Doris a disturbing "gift." In a chilling contrast to her father's generous last wishes, her mother’s will all but ignored her, and she only received...some jewelry and a coat. Ouch.
All the money in the world couldn’t protect Duke from the vultures. She once told a journalist that she always worried that men were trying to use her for her money, confessing: “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?” Sadly, her fears would come true...
Duke did her best to maintain a squeaky clean image with all her charity work, but she used her wealth for dark purposes. When her old friend Imelda Marcos, widow of the Philippine tyrant and kleptocrat Ferdinand Marcos, was indicted for racketeering, it was Duke who paid her $5 million bail to get her out of the slammer.
Doris Duke was born in New York City in 1912. As mentioned, her parents were James Buchanan Duke and Nanaline Holt Inman, but her family tree was more than a little twisted. Both of her parents had actually been married to other people before—Duke had divorced his first wife after two years, while Holt Inman was a widow.
Duke had two lavish weddings, both of which were followed by heartbreaking divorces. But another lover accused her of hiding a scandalous secret. Musician Joseph Castro claimed that he too had married the heiress in a closed-door ceremony. Whatever the truth, it wasn't a nice one: Duke ended up suing him to cease and desist.
Duke's paternal grandfather had made a fortune during the Industrial Revolution, and her father had the same knack for amassing wealth. He had businesses in both electric power and tobacco, but most of it came specifically from the Lucky Strike brand, which is still around today. Speaking of things that are still around...
Another chunk of James Buchanan Duke’s fortune didn’t go to his daughter, it went to an endowment for a little school in North Carolina. After Buchanan Duke made his generous $40 million donation, a school official demanded that they rename the school in honor of his family’s generosity—and it became Duke University. Yup, that Duke University.
Bearing witness to a deep tragedy may have had an outsized influence on the young heiress. Just a month before her 17th birthday, the Wall Street Crash of 1929 happened, marking the start of the Great Depression and the ruin of many Americans' lives. But for Duke's young life, that catastrophe was just the beginning.
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Duke's family had so much money, they didn't really feel the impact of the Great Depression, but this wealth did bring intense scrutiny on Duke at one of the most vulnerable times of her life. It was during this period that people began to scornfully call her “the richest girl in the world.” At the best of times, it would’ve drawn attention, but in that era, it put a target on her back.
Duke quickly became a magnet for the tabloids, who documented her every move. It of course didn’t help that the heiress was no shrinking violet—at 6-feet tall, she was hard to miss at society parties and charity events.
Duke became even more of a tabloid magnet when she came of age. After all, when she turned 21, she received the first of her bequests from her late father’s will. And wouldn't you know, she met James H.R. Cromwell, the son of a Palm Beach socialite, soon after that. Despite his status, he was a most unlikely suitor for the young Duke.
Cromwell was a full 16 years Duke's senior, and had already been around the block. He came into the relationship with one ex-wife and one daughter already. Still, Doris was in love and Cromwell was happy to use her money to bankroll his political career. They were married in 1935, when Duke was just 22 years old. Was this a bad idea? Oh, yes.
Cromwell and Duke kept it together as best they could, but 1940 was a tumultuous year for the couple. After acting as the US Ambassador to Canada for a short period of time, Cromwell decided to give up the cushy job and run for the position of US Senator from New Jersey. Sadly, he lost the race—but the couple’s troubles were just beginning.
Duke was no stranger to family tragedy or romantic heartbreak, but one devastating loss was the worst of all. In 1940, Duke became pregnant for the first time. She happily expected the baby, but before her due date, she noticed that something was horribly wrong. She soon prematurely gave birth to a baby daughter, with the girl only living for 24 hours.
The loss took a horrible toll on Duke and Cromwell’s marriage. While they gave it a go and stayed together for a couple more years, they eventually divorced in 1943. Duke was just entering her 30s as a divorcee—but at the same time, she was independently wealthy, with the world at her feet. Despite her heartbreak, Duke was ready for an adventure.
When push came to shove, Duke wasn’t shy about contributing chunks of her massive fortune or donating her time. When WWII broke out, Duke made her way to Egypt, where she volunteered at a canteen for fighters. Well, it wasn’t technically volunteering. It was a paid gig, but the ever-charitable Duke only accepted a salary of $1 a year.
Duke had an infamous rivalry with her fellow "poor little rich girl" Barbara Hutton. It didn't help that the tabloids constantly compared the two, calling them "The Gold Dust Twins." The petite Hutton was a notorious feminine beauty, and Duke was reportedly jealous of the girl's classic good looks next to her statuesque qualities. The rivalry only grew more bitter from there.
Where Duke was relatively thrifty and smart about her money, Hutton spent lavishly, often gave away money to friends, and sniped that Duke was "cheap." Not that Duke didn't get her own petty revenges: One day when Errol Flynn was over at Duke's house, the actor looked up at her chandelier and quipped, “Doris, what are you doing with one of Barbara’s earrings?” Bet she liked that one.
Hutton and Duke's rivalry hit a climax when Duke invited her frenemy to stay at her house while she was away. Hutton took up the invitation with aplomb—too much aplomb. When Duke arrived back home, she discovered that Hutton had entirely redecorated the place, throwing out piles of priceless antiques in the process. In response, Duke unceremoniously kicked her guest out. But it wasn't the last she'd see of Hutton.
One night while she was winding down her time as a foreign correspondent at the end of WWII, Duke had friends over. These friends brought along a man who would become her lover and change her life: Porfirio Rubirosa. There was just one problem. He was married to French actress Danielle Darrieux at the time—but Duke simply wouldn’t let that stop her.
Whatever Doris wanted, Doris got. Rubirosa's wife was, you know, kind of attached to her husband, but rumor has it Duke made her an offer she couldn't refuse. Reportedly, the heiress paid Darrieux a cool $1 million to agree to divorce Rubirosa. Either way, the couple did divorce, and Rubirosa was all hers. But shady love dealings were just one part of Rubirosa's dark past.
Rubirosa worked closely with “El Jefe”—the dictator of the Dominican Republic, Rafael Trujillo. However, their relationship went far deeper. Rubirosa’s first wife was Trujillo’s daughter. Rubirosa managed to work his way up the political ladder thanks to his father-in-law and despite his rampant womanizing. Trujillo even kept him on after Rubirosa divorced his daughter.
Whether or not anyone warned Duke specifically, Rubirosa’s reputation preceded him. He was a world traveler who hobnobbed with the rich and famous, and spent as much time taking lovers as he did making political connections. It’s said that waiters in Paris named their large pepper grinders “Rubirosas” after his—ahem—generous member.
Duke may have been in love with Rubirosa, but she wasn't a fool. She and her new husband signed an air-tight pre-nup that protected her money—but they had an even bigger reason to do it. Duke was so wealthy, and Rubirosa so well-connected politically, that the US government actually considered their marriage a threat.
Duke and Rubirosa married on September 1, 1947. However, despite her own government’s warnings about keeping Rubirosa’s hands out of her pockets, she showered him with insanely lavish gifts throughout the time they were together. These included sports cars, a B-52 plane, horses, and many other gifts totaling in the millions.
The couple had a glamorous, jet-setting marriage, but Duke couldn't stop what was happening behind closed doors. Rubirosa kept seeing his first wife—who, lest we forget, was his boss’s daughter—behind Duke’s back. Just a little over a year after they married, Duke had enough and divorced him on the grounds of "extreme mental cruelty"—and her ordeal wasn’t over.
To say Duke and Rubirosa's divorce was bitter is an understatement. Despite the pre-nup, Rubirosa exited the marriage with a 17th-century Parisian home and a tidy alimony of $25,000 per year, courtesy of Duke. Clearly, Rubirosa came out of it feelin’ fine, as the next two women he pursued were also heiresses: Zsa Zsa Gabor and Duke's old friend Barbara Hutton.
On top of that, Rubirosa also took his sweet time milking his alimony payments, which would only last until his next marriage. As a result, Duke's ex waited five years to remarry. And then he got his brutal revenge. After Zsa Zsa Gabor turned down his proposal (smart girl), Rubirosa eventually made it official with...Barbara Hutton.
Doris found out about her ex-husband's re-marriage to her rival in the worst way possible. While staying in Geneva, she came across the headline "RUBI AND BARBARA HUTTON WED." Duke's response was utterly unhinged. She got drunk and started screaming insults about Hutton, claiming that “She always wanted what I have.” For her part, Duke never remarried.
As we mentioned before, Duke lived in fear that people—and men in particular—would use her for her money, and her brief and tumultuous marriage to Rubirosa only made this worse. However, this didn’t stop her from having a series of high-profile affairs with men like General George S. Patton, Errol Flynn, and her surf teacher, Duke Kahanamoku.
Duke couldn’t go long without some kind of scandal marching into her life, and in her 70s, it came from an unlikely source. After two childless marriages, Duke finally adopted at the age of 75, but that’s not the weirdest part. The woman she adopted was a 35-year-old Hare Krishna follower—and her reasons for going through with it were truly disturbing.
Duke believed that Chandi Heffner, the adult woman who she adopted, was the reincarnation of the daughter she’d had in 1940 who had died shortly after birth. However, within a few years, Duke was voiding the adoption and removing Heffner from her will, even specifically stating that she didn’t want Heffner to see a dollar of her money.
Over the last years of her life, Duke seemed calm on the surface. But behind the scenes, there was a vicious power struggle going on. Duke was infamous for frequently changing the executor on her will, from her nephew Walker Inman Jr. to her longtime butler, Bernard Lafferty. Before long, it would all come to a head.
As she aged, Duke had difficulty letting go of her good looks, and at the ripe old age of 79, she got yet another facelift. But this surgery spelled disaster. While recovering from the operation, Duke tried to walk while medicated, and ended up falling and breaking her hip, which soon led to her needing a knee replacement. This was the beginning of the end.
In late 1993 while returning home from a surgery on her knee, Doris Duke had a stroke that she never fully recovered from. She eventually passed at her home on October 28, 1993. It may have been the end of Duke’s life, but it wasn’t the end of the scandal and drama that had plagued her throughout her time on Earth.
Predictably, Duke’s passing sparked an epic battle over her will and massive estate—but less predictable were the unexpected figures and shocking revelations that popped up during the years-long clash over her assets.
Duke’s will left the vast majority of her money to charity, but that didn’t stop people from trying to get a piece of what was left. Normally, talk about executors can be dry, but this might be the only time in history when things got this melodramatic. As the executor of her will, her beloved butler Bernard Lafferty had all the power...and he also had skeletons in his closet.
The first challenge came from a man named Harry Demopoulos, who Duke named as executor in an earlier version of her will. His claims about Lafferty were chilling. He said that in Duke’s final days, when she’d been extremely weak and sick, Lafferty had forced her to transfer executorship—but that wasn’t even the worst claim.
A woman named Tammy Payette, who’d been one of Duke’s nurses, made another disturbing accusation about Lafferty. She claimed that he had conspired with one of Duke’s doctors to murder the heiress. Payette said that they’d given Duke extra doses of medication so that she’d go faster. After Lafferty himself passed, the authorities ruled that there was no evidence for this, so whatever he knew he took to his grave.
Duke knew that there would be a lot of drama and fighting about her will no matter how clear she was about it—so she came up with an ingenious plan. In order to foil those who wanted to go against her wishes, she included a clause that said that any beneficiary who tried to get more than their fair share would get nothing. Bam.
As we’ve mentioned, Duke had no children and wasn’t married at the time of her passing. The only family member she really had left was her nephew Walker Patterson Inman Jr. When he died in 2010, Inman Jr. left behind two children, Georgia and Patterson Inman—and his passing revealed yet another disturbing secret about the heiress.
Despite his pedigree, Walker Inman mistreated and neglected his two children Georgia and Patterson. Before that, he spent his life mistreating others, racking up debt, and using substances. Yet, charitable donations aside, Duke often used her money to shield her nephew from any consequences of his horrific lifestyle. Not a good look.
Duke was famous for her love of travel, and she kept up her jet-setting lifestyle for most of her life—but it had a huge downside. As a relative once confessed, she could only stay in one place for a day or two before news would spread that she was there, putting her life in danger from those who might plot to kidnap her.
This led to a routine where she would tour the sights quickly and have maybe one meal before leaving any given city or attraction.
Among those who tried to sue for a part of Duke’s fortune was Chandi Heffner. You remember, the adult woman who Duke had adopted and later bitterly cut out of her will. She tried to claim $65 million of Duke’s estate, but settled the matter out of court—which just makes me wonder how much she got to give up and go away!
Aside from travel, Duke had an exhaustive list of hobbies and interests, among them: surfing, jazz music, Islamic and Southeast Asian art, and gardening. To honor the memory of her father, she even created a massive indoor plant display called Duke Gardens at their ancestral home, Duke Farms. She actually built most of the displays herself, putting in 16-hour days to do it.
The aftermath of their horrific childhood was devastating for Georgia and Patterson Inman; both were severely depressed and considered suicide. However, that same duo is in a constant battle over the last remnants of Duke’s fortune. They say absolute power corrupts absolutely, but the story of Doris Duke could make the same argument for privilege.
Duke owned a number of homes, including Duke Farms, places in Beverly Hills, Manhattan, and a place called “Shangri La” in Hawaii. But one of her favorites was the 49-room mansion Rough Point in Newport, Rhode Island. She began a major project to redecorate it with an interior designer named Eduardo Tirella—it was there that tragedy struck.
Tirella and Duke had actually been working on Rough Point together over a number of years, and were also close friends. One day in 1966, as Tirella and Duke were leaving the premises, he got out of the car to open the gate. Duke slid over into the driver’s seat to pull the car out—but she accidentally accelerated, hitting Tirella.
The car dragged Tirella across the street, pinning him against a tree, where he died instantly. Neighbors found Duke wandering aimlessly nearby after the incident, distressed and sporting visible head injuries. They sent her to a hospital, but the authorities didn’t speak to her for two days at the insistence of her doctor.
In the meantime, the tabloids speculated on what had really happened. Rumors flew that Duke had been drunk at the time of the accident. While Duke’s doctor attempted to dispel the stories, his own editorializing served to make them worse, as he told reporters, “I’m convinced that enormous wealth brings great handicaps.”
Despite all the stories in the news cycle, the authorities eventually concluded after investigating that the whole thing had been a terrible accident, and that Duke had already suffered enough guilt and punishment over the freak occurrence. Yet her nightmare was far from over.
One of Tirella’s sisters, Alice Romano, filed two civil suits for negligence following the crash—one against the car rental company that had provided the vehicle in question, and one against Duke. Each was for $1.25 million. This time, Duke didn't get off lightly: the judge deemed her negligent, and ordered her to pay $75,000.
When Duke’s “frenemy" Barbara Hutton heard of Tirella’s tragic end, her reaction was utterly vitriolic. As Hutton told one publication, referring to her little redecorating incident, “Perhaps Doris didn’t like his taste. She certainly didn’t care for mine.”
Duke became notoriously eccentric in her old age, and that's putting it mildly. She went under the knife for a series of plastic surgeries that made her look less and less like herself, and bought a bevy of pet camels for her estate. But to make matters gross, she also happily let those camels poop all over her priceless Persian rugs. As we'll see, that's just the tip of the iceberg.
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