Once labelled ‘the richest little girl in the world’, Doris Duke left behind a unique legacy.
Though James Buchanan Duke was a philanthropist and electric power baron of great note, his most (in)famous legacy was the creation and marketing of the pre-rolled, modern-day cigarette, founding the American Tobacco Company—original makers of, among others, Lucky Strike. When Duke died in 1925, aged 68, he had amassed such wealth that even once a vast chunk of his fortune was bequeathed to charitable causes, his daughter and sole child, Doris Duke, 12, was labelled ‘the richest little girl in the world’ inheriting a cool US$50 million. When Ms Duke, also a noted philanthropist, passed away in 1993, aged 80, she left an entirely different kind of legacy.
Duke, according to the Los Angeles Times, took great pride in “overseeing where every dollar of those riches was invested and donated”. “She had a very soft voice,” Duke’s longtime friend, Emma Veary, tells Smithsonian. “In her quiet way, Doris was very strong. She knew what she wanted, and she had the where withal to get it.” What she wanted most was art and artefacts — and the Islamic kind, to be precise.
Upon marrying American diplomat James Henry Roberts Cromwell in 1935 (they divorced in 1943, four years later she married Porfiro Rubirosa, a jetsetting Dominican diplomat—and four years later divorced him too. Her only child died soon after birth), the pair took a round-the-world sailing honeymoon that lasted around a year, during which time they were introduced to both Gandhi, and Stalin. But, most significant was to be Duke’s discovery of — and infatuation with — Islamic culture, as well as her home-to-be in Hawaii. The heiress was soon fixated upon merging the two, writing in Town & Country: “The idea of building a Near Eastern house in Honolulu must seem fantastic to many. But precisely at the time I fell in love with Hawaii and decided I could never live anywhere else, a Mogul-inspired bedroom and bathroom, planned for another house, was being completed for me in India, so there was nothing to do but have it shipped to Hawaii and build a house around it.”
Duke’s Hawaiian home, named Shangri La, was completed in 1938 — the islands’ first to cost more than a million dollars. She continued collecting pieces up until the year before her death, amassing a staggering 2,500 objects mainly from Spain, North Africa, the Middle East and Central and Southeast Asia. Since Duke’s death, the residence has served as a centre for Islamic arts and cultures. The museum, managed by the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, operates guided tours and offers residences to scholars and artists, and, according to Marianna Shreve Simpson, a former curator at the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, represents the “most important works of Iranian art and possibly Islamic art in North America”, adding that “few such virtually interior features survive today — certainly nothing of this grandeur”.
Notable pieces in the house include painted interiors from 18th- and 19th-century Damascus, a pair of shaped Mughal carpets, a Qajar ceiling painting, a water pipe, a Seljuk lamp stand and a Bedouin-style tent. Numerous pieces have been incorporated into the various structures, such as ceilings, doors, ceramic tile ensembles, and marble columns. In the main living room is a medieval stone fireplace from Islamic Spain that once belonged to publishing tycoon William Randolph Hurst who was forced to sell many of his antiques upon bankruptcy (Duke relieved him of other pieces also).
Johnny Gomez, a friend of Duke, said that for her “there was no such word as ‘finished’”, while, during the 1980s, a lauded art scholar visited the oceanfront home and upon examining the collection told her that the contents alone may be worth close to US$1 billion. She simply instructed him to cease counting.
Words: Jamie Christian Desplaces