The Duke fortune was created soon after the Civil War by a dirt-poor North Carolina farmer named Washington Duke who started the American Tobacco Company, a company that morphed into the American Tobacco Trust which owned and controlled 90% of the tobacco products in the world at the turn of the century. This was broken up in a federal antitrust action in 1909, at about which time the two sons Ben and Buck decided to diversify the family fortune out of tobacco and into energy (Duke Power) and aluminum (namely Alcoa). To Buck's credit, he knew that tobacco was killing his customers and he "decided to slowly liquidate his massive cigarette company holdings."
Just before Washington's death in 1905, Buck married his wild Irish mistress Lillian McCredy in New York but the marriage didn't last longer than a year, possibly because they were both serial adulterers and his detectives were better than hers. After the two Duke sons buried their father and gave a huge chunk of money to Trinity College, which was later renamed Duke University, Ben encouraged his brother to marry a more respectable woman, which is how Buck ended up betrothed to a Southern Belle widow named Nanaline Holt Inman. They had a single child together named Doris.
The succession in the family business and the bulk of the Duke fortune were supposed to go to Ben's son, Angier. However, in 1923 the young heir got into a rowboat at a yacht club near Greenwich, Connecticut along with two male friends and three women. The group had been drinking champagne all night and were on their way to Angier's 76-foot yacht, Althea, for his favorite pastime, "Diddling at dawn." The rowboat overturned and Angier drowned. After the accident, Buck rearranged his financial empire so that everything would go to his beloved daughter Doris through a series of complex, legally ironclad trusts. This didn't sit very well with his wife Nanaline who despised her own daughter and favored her son Walker from her previous marriage, but Buck made sure the stepson received only a relative pittance.
The biography hints that Nanaline probably poisoned Duke in his final years, and when he came down with pneumonia in 1925, she had the butler open all the windows and turn off the heat in the sickroom of their New York City penthouse as a winter storm arrived in the city. "In the South we believe that a sick man needs fresh air," she told the startled butler as she wrapped herself in a fur coat and watched her husband die overnight. The only object Nanaline bequeathed Doris in her own will, by the way, was that same coat.
Partly just to get away from her mother, Doris married the handsome socialite Jimmy Cromwell (above) when she was 21. His family fortune had dissolved in the Crash of 1929, but he managed to keep up appearances well enough that nobody was aware of it. They embarked on a globetrotting honeymoon cruise on the "Conti di Savoia" luxury liner where Doris was filled with hope for the future, for all of 12 hours. As the bio puts it:
"Jimmy entered the stateroom and looked at Doris, who was waiting in bed in her negligee. He seemed very dashing in his morning coat. He looked at his bride as she waited for him to say the romantic words of love that an adoring groom might say on a wedding night. Instead, he lit a cigarette, sat on the side of the bed, leaned toward his excited bride, and said, "My darling, what might I expect my annual income to be?" Doris Duke's body turned cold. "I told that son of a bitch to go straight to hell." He went to the ship's bar."
Sexual desire was sublimated into shopping as Doris bought treasures throughout their eastward honeymoon cruise, which is how her Asian art collection began. "In Bangkok and Shanghai, Doris continued her haggling as she acquired priceless antique rugs, the finest of ivory, tiles, and jade. Every ship that sailed west from the Orient that summer carried crated treasures to be delivered to Duke Farms." It was when they arrived in Honolulu in August of 1935 that she discovered beach boys, surfing and sex.
Her first escort and lover was the Olympic swimming star and surfing pioneer Duke Kahanamoku. From that moment on, she never looked back.