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.
Of course she did not, dying in 1993 at 81.
Writing on the eve of her birthday, I like to think of her as the smiling little girl in this shot from one of her home movies.
Or as the slightly older, deeply engaged girl on the beach at Newport with her friend Alleda.
Or muddied to the knees on that same beach, maybe from digging for clams.
She always looked for, fought for, traveled for that freedom, as so many women of her generation and previous generations have done.
Just to be happy and free—an impossible goal but one we must all necessarily strive for.
Her father, James Buchanan Duke, sent a telegram of celebration to an English friend, recording Doris’ birth and that both the infant and her mother were doing well.
It must have seemed almost a miracle to him—the birth of a child after he had spent so many years building his hydroelectric and tobacco fortune, his only romantic alliance—if it was romantic—with a woman too old to have children.
For Nanaline, Doris’ mother, her birth might have seemed a miracle, as well, proof that she had finally escaped the impoverished south, her widowed mother ruined by the consequences of the Civil War, her own future, had she stayed at home, limited to the duties of a spinster daughter.
I would love to know how and why Doris’ parents chose her name. It doesn’t turn up on the family tree on either side. Sometimes a choice of a name without family connotations means an attempt to break loose from the past. If so, Doris’ life fulfilled that purpose. Or, as her father defined it in a letter, to be the finest lady the world had ever seen.
Now with Thanksgiving almost here, a lot of women who will be working to bring often-broken or at least separated families together may speculate for a minute on the meaning of being “the finest lady.”
Hard to imagine fulfilling that role when trying to drag the still half-frozen guts out of a raw turkey.
Yet we all know that we are fine, and we are ladies, because we are brave. There is no other definition that makes any sense; all the connotations of money, class, and sophistication are falling by the wayside as we face the end of the world as we know it.
In the Arizona desert, a scientist has invented a machine that sucks all the poisons out of our air, converts them into a harmless gas, and stores them while figuring out the next step. But there is no will, and no fortune—or no mass of fortunes—to sustain the development of his invention on the scale that would be required to save our world.
His work reminds me of Doris traveling from temple to temple in the Egyptian desert before the building of the Aswan dam submerged them.
She wanted to buy the temples and plant one in each of the U.S. capitols—which proved to be impractical.
Her fortune would have been only a drop in the bucket for what would be needed to duplicate the Arizona scientist’s world-saving invention.
But I have a feeling Doris would have tried.
And I am thankful for her.
[Footage from the Doris Duke Foundation Historical Archives. This collection is housed at Duke University Libraries’ Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library: https://library.duke.edu/rubenstein/collections/creators/people/dorisduke.
The home movies are part of the exhibit “Philanthropist, Environmentalist, Collector: Doris Duke and Her Estates,” curated by Mary Samouelian and Molly Bragg at Duke University Libraries’ Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library. See the online exhibit at: http://exhibits.library.duke.edu/exhibits/show/dorisduke.]