Americans like to say that behind every great fortune is a great crime. But that is hard for me to imagine as I walk through the bucolic Duke Farms on this sunny autumn day.
My guide is my gardener, William. He grew up near this 2,000-acre estate in Somerset County and became fascinated by its bountiful trees and plantings. And he was equally fascinated by Doris Duke, the remarkable, star-crossed woman who inherited this extraordinary place. She led a life filled with money and all the misfortunes it can bring.
Doris was the only child of the exorbitantly wealthy tobacco manufacturer James Buchanan Duke, the philanthropic maker of Lucky Strikes and Camel for whom Duke University is named. When he died in 1925, the bulk of his estate went to the 12-year-old Doris, whom everyone then named “the richest girl in the world.”
As an American Marie Antoinette, Doris led an incredibly luxurious life in a country then suffering under the Great Depression. But it did not hinder her. She became a championship surfer, dancer, singer, and foreign correspondent.
Just before his death, her father told her to trust no one. His warning turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Doris avoided people and mistrusted everyone. Her first marriage ended in a lengthy lawsuit. Of course, it was over money. When she married for the second time to the Dominican playboy-diplomat Porfirio Rubirosa, the federal government imposed conditions on the marriage to make sure her money would remain in her control under all circumstances. It was a wise decision, since the marriage would last only a year.
People continued to chase her money. A 35-year-old Hare Krishna adherent named Chandi Gail Heffner told Doris that she was the incarnation of her daughter Arden, her only child, who had died shortly after birth. At 75, Doris adopted the woman, which she later described as “the greatest mistake I ever made.” Later, her Irish butler, Bernard Lafferty, took complete control of her life until her death.
William knows well the way around the now-demolished mansion on the estate. “Sometimes I saw her driving,” he tells me. “She was an old lady, bent over the wheel of her golden Rolls Royce.” She became increasingly eccentric. The wildest stories circulated about her. She had bought a B-25 bomber for her personal use and furnished it luxuriously inside. There was also a complete Thai village she owned. But the most beautiful of her indulgences were the exotic animals that she kept at Duke Farms. “What should we do with the camels?” her staff wailed when a hurricane was forecast. “Oh, put them in the living room,” she replied.
William has to chuckle again.
At the top of a hill we stop and marvel at a pastoral view that spreads out before us like a Botticelli landscape. Rolling hills, nine lakes, miles of stone walls, a meandering river in the distance. “All laid out,” says William, “every hill.”
Doris died at the age of 80, soon after a facelift. She appointed her butler the executor of her estate of $1.2 billion, including her camels and her dog. Later, the butler was accused of having played a suspicious role in her death.
“You have to see this,” William says. He takes me to a lawn where Doris’ menagerie is buried. He points to two marble headstones on which images of camels have been carved. One for Baby and one for Princess.
Her only real friends.
If you visit Duke Farms: From mid-March to early November, the Orientation Center and Duke Farms are Thursday through Tuesday from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. After November, hours are 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Admission is free. Duke Farms is closed on Wednesdays, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.
Pia de Jong is a Dutch writer who lives in Princeton. Her bestselling memoir, “Charlotte,” was published in 2017 in the U.S. She can be contacted at piadejong.com.
This article was originally published in the December 2018 Princeton Echo.