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.
Now that my newest book, Mending: New and Selected Short Stories is reaching its readers, I find myself in a rather delightful quandary: Sarabande Books will publish my next book, The Blue Box, a family narrative based on the letters and papers of three of my foremothers, in August, 2014—which seems a lifetime away. As I debate turning my energies in another direction (The Blue Box is virtually finished), I am intrigued by the life of Doris Duke, whose papers have just been opened to the public as part of the Rubenstein Library at Duke University.
I have always been intrigued by the life of this woman, who is usually described only in terms of her money and her real or imaginary escapades. She is emblematic of the way “rich women” are treated in this culture, with a powerful mixture of prurience and disapproval; one biography is called, simply, Too Rich, and others are scandalous potboilers. Yet anyone who listens to NPR knows at least one important use she made, through her foundation, of her inherited money, supporting conservation programs long before they became fashionable.
And I met her.
I was a young bride in Paris on my honeymoon, a silent guest at a formal luncheon where severe-looking French- speaking men and women ignored me. At the head of the table, a woman—DD—who seemed unbelievably old, wielded an authority that startled me. She had no consort, as far as I could tell; she did not hesitate to orchestrate her guests, turning from one to the other, asking questions, soliciting opinions. She ignored me; I had nothing at that point to offer. She frightened me, but at the same time, her unquestioned authority excited me. She unlike any woman I had ever encountered.
Many years passed. Eighteen years ago DD died, leaving her enormous foundation to continue her work.
When I visited Duke a few months ago, a small display of material from the DD archives (she is often referred to as DD at Duke) was in the library lobby. I was fascinated by old black and white footage of a young woman in a white dress, dancing with other young women in white dresses on a lawn. Grace, insouciance, pleasure in living—how do these attributes fit with, or contradict, the heavy aura of scandal?
A few weeks ago, a reporter for the New York Times wrote with relish of a dispute in Newport, where DD did much important work, restoring, salvaging, creating the Historic Newport Foundation. Now, a monument designed by Maya Lin “Splits Newport’s Old Guard”, according to the report.
The monument, in Queen Anne Square, created when DD cleared some derelict buildings, sometimes directing the bulldozer drivers herself, has caused an uproar, pitting ancient people who actually knew her against one another, some wishing a monument that points to the future, rather than the past, others decrying it as “ersatz history” they claim the “relentless pragmatic Mrs. Duke would have hated”. (The Times, titling her Mrs, seems to believe that DD was married to her own father.)
This is, for me, the opening note in what will certainly be several years of looking through an enormous archive, finding not what suits my preconceptions—and of course I will try to have no preconceptions!—but material that may show the enormous complexity of a woman who not only transformed Newport but left two other exceptional houses, one in New Jersey and one in Hawaii, and an enormous foundation, all to promote her vision.
I’m certain that DD had a vision. No woman encumbered with the prejudices of the early twentieth century could have worked in the public realm without one. For me, her vision is necessarily a mystery, like the grace and insouciance of the young woman in white dancing on the grass in a long passed and forgotten summer.
I will follow the course of my discoveries here, beginning with my first days in the archive at Duke next spring.