Monday, October 26, 2009

Doris Duke's Treasures at the Asian 3: Burma

The 1940s for Doris Duke were packed with enough drama to fill a trashy television miniseries. In fact, a four-hour version of her biography was made in 1999 with Lauren Bacall as the elderly Doris and Richard Chamberlain as her sinister butler Bernard. Doris was simultaneously carrying on affairs with Duke Kahanamoku in Hawaii, the British politician Alec Cunningham-Reid all over the world, not to mention a dalliance with Erroll Flynn, all the while trying to get a divorce from her despised husband which she successfully managed in Reno in 1942.

From there, she went to Europe for World War Two where she was pursuing Cunningham-Reid while working for the OSS in Cairo. During that same period, she met the infamous Domican playboy Porfirio Rubirosa "with the Rolls-Royce of genitalia," who became her second husband after she paid $1 million to his mistress, the French actress Danielle Darrieux.

The marriage didn't last long, but the two stayed friends, and from there it was on to a series of adventures with the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Louis Bromfeld in the 1950s, a handsome gay decorator named Edward Tirella in the 1960s who Doris accidentally murdered when she crushed him against the gates of her Newport estate in 1966
with her car, and finally paid companions in the 1970s and 1980s from Harlem who would entertain her after all-night sessions at Studio 54. To say that the rest of the Duke family was scandalized and horrified by her behavior would probably be an understatement.

The last chapters of her life were spent mostly at her Shangri-La estate on Diamond Head in Honolulu where she collected odd people, dangled money in front of them, and then banished them into exile. She had conceived two children with Duke Kahanamoku in the late 1930s, but had aborted the first one and intentionally miscarried the second, a daughter who lived two days and who she named Arden. In the final years of her life, a young Hare Krishna con woman named Chandi Heffner convinced Doris that she was the living reincarnation of that daughter and Doris legally adopted her.

This didn't work out very well, and a couple of years later Chandi was banished from Shangri-La. Doris tried to disinherit her, but legal adoptions cannot be undone, so that Ms. Heffner ended up with about $65 million from the estate after Doris' death. Chandi also brought in the notorious butler Bernard Lafferty who basically took over Doris' life in her final years, keeping all family and friends away from her sickbed in Beverly Hills, and making sure she was pumped to the gills with a variety of drugs.

The final quote in the book is from an anonymous relative:
"I don't care whether Bernard snuffed the old girl or not. She was a selfish, self-centered old bitch who never did anything for anyone. If Bernard Lafferty can use some of her money to do some good in the Duke name, I don't care if he fed the old girl champagne and Valium and pills until her stomach exploded."
The authors go on to explain, "Of course, that relative is not in the will."

Happily, the residents of San Francisco are a part of Doris' bequest, thanks to the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. Her collection is extraordinary and feels right at home at the Asian Art Museum. May her next incarnation be a little less troubled.

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