You can find out more about my next book, now titled The Silver Swan: Searching for Doris Duke, on my dedicated Doris Duke bibliography page.
I remember my surprise almost outweighed my satisfaction when I found that in one letter, written in middle age, Doris referred to the patriarchy. This was in the context of her fruitless struggle to effect a change in the investment strategy of the Duke Endowment, on whose board she occupied an uncomfortable seat. Like many women inheritors of her generation, she never seemed confident of her role in an institution her father founded, and so tended to disappear rather than regularly attend meetings. This also reflected the fact that she never had an adequate education, since her mother deemed it inessential; here on the Duke campus, I remember Doris’ few months spent, in disguise, as an undergraduate, in a heartbreaking attempt to see what college would have been like.
But back to the patriarchy. The term was in use at a time in the late 1970’s, when Doris at least briefly understood it as contributing to the struggles of her complicated life.
She may never have realized how deeply embedded the concept is in our society, brought home to me as I re-visited the Duke University Chapel, the first building on that handsome university envisioned by Doris’ father, James Buchanan Duke, on a walk with a friend on an April day in 1925 to a plateau full of pines, gums and hickories. “Here’s where it ought to be,” he announced. And although it was the last building to be erected, in 1930, it still stands at the heart of the West Campus: an immense, towering Gothic structure few visitors would call a chapel rather than a cathedral. But the Dukes were Methodists, and in spite of their wealth, seem to have preserved a certain sense of humility.
It is gratifying that the long-ignored African-American architect, Julian Abele, a member of Horace Trumbauer’s firm, is acknowledged in a plaque—this after a student uprising—and Doris Duke is also acknowledged, in a plaque, as a philanthropist.
Nanaline Holt Duke, Doris’ mother, is buried beneath the floor in the crypt, while her father and two of her uncles rest above, in marble effigies on sarcophagi in the Memorial Chapel. But, in a scheme where God is a man, woman was created from Adam’s rib, and most of the emblems of worldly power belong by rights to men (at least white men), the way the Duke family is memorialized makes perfect sense. And it is not only Christianity that upholds this system; the ceiling of the Memorial Chapel is decorated with the Duke family coat of arms—there’s the social hierarchy, which would have to be dismantled along with religion before the multitudinous forms of patriarchy could die.As unlikely as it is threatening.
And yet I see, as well, the beauty of the chapel and its emblems, including statues of the southern greats Thomas Jefferson and Robert E. Lee, holding scrolls and shouldering military greatcoats— Lee with “U.S.” instead of “C.S.A.” not quite scratched out on his belt—and he was an officer of the United States Army before what my grandmother only called The War when he joined the Confederacy.
And it’s clear that the chapel, whose ornamentation is probably seldom noticed by students stunned by its beauty, serves an altogether positive role in that community, with an African American minister and outreach that means far more than marble effigies and plaques.
So we live, all of us, inside of structures, real and institutional, founded and endowed by men who could hardly have imagined the ways our world has changed. And Doris, heir to these traditions yet striking out on her own—especially in her collection of Islamic art—would have been as impressed as I am by the blooming white azaleas and the deep pink peonies that surround the campus her father built.
It may be that finally beauty matters most.