At least I felt that way when, earlier this week, I was given a special chance to see the basement at Rough Point, Doris Duke’s house here in Newport, Rhode Island.
I recognized the enormous black iron furnace crouching in an alcove as cousin to the great iron furnace that heated my childhood house. Both were stoked with coal. The coal chute has been transformed into a part of the modern energy-efficient air-conditioning system.
Nearby, Doris installed a pool in order to keep to her routine of swimming twice a day when weather made the ocean off Rough Point particularly inhospitable. (It looks pretty inhospitable to me even on this mild overcast spring day, the breakers surging against big black rocks.) Doris had the ceiling of her pool room painted black so she could imagine she was swimming in the ocean at night. She also installed a disco ball at one end. Her sense of humor, sometimes mordant, more often fey, is a part of her complex personality earlier accounts have omitted.
At the other end of inside, the servants’ rooms on the third floor, now used for storage, faintly echo the lives of the men and women who lived there, some of them serving the Duke family for decades, both here, in New York, and in New Jersey. One, an elderly cook Doris called back from retirement to work at Rough Point, settled into her eventual, final retirement in a house Doris built for her.
Perhaps she cooked from some of the recipes I took away with me, potentially for an article about Doris’ food. She didn’t frequent the kitchen herself (although she was hands-on in all her gardens) but she was determined that the light, surprisingly modern food served would be up to her demanding standards.
Finally, I was able to see the careful storage of a part of her wardrobe (the couture costumes went to the Met in New York or the Brooklyn Museum), her shoes filed in their original shoe boxes, each neatly labeled. This fit the contradiction, one of many in this fascinating woman’s life: she preferred to go barefoot.Contradictions and complexities enrich my biography, due to be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux next spring. I look forward to reading from it in the ballroom at Rough Point, to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of The Newport Restoration Society, which Doris founded and funded. Because of her work, 84 of the old frame houses in the colonial part of Newport—far from the mansions on Bellevue Avenue—were preserved when they were about to be torn down for urban renewal. I sometimes think of those projects as urban destruction.
The photos I took mysteriously disappeared from my camera, but the photos attached from the NRF website make up for their disappearance.
Now, as I fall asleep on my last night of this trip in Newport, I can glance up at the reproduction on the wall of Doris’ formal portrait, painted when she was still a girl, a pretty picture that for me, perfectly illustrates her restless nature, confined to hold a pose for hours in a long dress she would never have worn for any other purpose.
I am blessed—and have been for six long years—in being given the responsibility of writing this biography, which I hope will at least in small measure scotch the vicious rumors I hear all the time in Newport.
It’s good to be reminded that, as in the funeral oration at Caesar’s burial, “the evil that men do lives after them/the good is oft interred with their bones.”
Evil, in this case, is only the rumor of evil. The record is one of almost unspotted good.