We understand now what being outdoors means for women. Because we were for so long confined, inside walls, inside corsets, inside rules of correct behavior—and because these restrictions were often reinforced by fear of attack by strangers—we didn’t use to venture out. Doris Duke’s early life reflected the restrictions of her mother’s generation. Readers of my forthcoming biography, The Silver Swan: In Search of Doris Duke will notice, as I did, how little “outdoors” there was in her childhood.
For Doris, her mother, and their peers, “outdoors” would have meant sedate strolls in city parks (for Doris, this was New York’s Central Park) or rambles on private estates (Duke Farms in Summerville, New Jersey). Doris had her gardens to tend to, particularly at Rough Point in Newport, as well as her elaborate greenhouses at Duke Farms, but this would not have allowed for much freedom of movement.
As for swimming, women, freed from the voluminous skirts of an earlier period, could wear scanty “maillots”—knitted one-piece wool suits that required the wearing of stockings. When Doris was pre-pubescent, her scant wool bathing suit—shorts, and a top—was similar to what the boys would have worn. Some of my favorite photos of Doris, as a twelve year, show her in this kind of bathing suit on Bailey’s beach in Newport.
On that beach, Doris drew her first long gasp of physical freedom when she began to swim with her friend Alleda. Alleda, who wrote about these excursions in her diary, doesn’t mention a lifeguard or grown-ups in attendance. The girls swam with other children, unsupervised.
The Atlantic surf breaks on the beaches at Newport; Alleda and Doris loved battling the waves. Both girls developed physical strength, courage and confidence. Doris would plan part of her life as a woman around this experience.
She developed the habit of swimming twice a day in nearly all weather, either at Newport or in Hawaii. The surf off Shangri-La, her house near Diamond Head outside of Honolulu, can be fierce. The people who worked for her sometimes worried for her safety, and it seems that one of her maids drowned off Shangri-La—but Doris was undeterred. Later she built a swimming pool in the basement at Rough Point, painting the walls black and hanging a silver disco ball from the ceiling. She continued swimming twice daily into old age.
The freedom she achieved in sometimes turbulent water in the Atlantic and the Pacific inspired her to take up surfing and outrigger canoe racing. She won gold trophies for her expertise. These experiences also inspired her to sponsor the first women’s Olympic swimming team. Her two-piece bathing suits allowed for the exposure of women’s midriffs. And all her suits were designed for active swimming.
Both seas, the Atlantic and the Pacific, inspired and liberated her. We see the consequence in the great physical freedom women enjoy today.
The reach of Doris’ imaginative giving parallels the reach of the two great oceans, from financing the outrigger canoe club in Hawaii to trying to save the about-to-be submerged temples in Egypt when the Aswan High Dam was built. She hoped to plant each one in a U.S. State capitol. She wasn’t able to fulfill this dream. Practical problems thwarted her. But what an idea it was!
Now as the foundation she financed and endowed through her will begins to focus even more intently on conservation issues, the scale of those gifts mirrors the scales of the gifts Doris gave during her lifetime. Most women will never have access to the fortune she was able to devote to conservation, art—especially dance—animal welfare and the needs of children. But we can attempt with our lesser means to take the risks she took—as part of our development as women, and as revolutionary citizens.