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.
First Step Toward Writing a Biography of Doris Duke
Beginning research for a new biography feels to me like stepping, with one bare toe, into a puddle of icy water.
What will I find?
What will I not find?
What will I learn, or not?
How effectively can I clear away my presumptions about my subject, admitting to myself that at this point—and possibly during the whole process of researching and writing—I know nothing?
Next week, as I begin to unravel the many strands of Doris Duke’s life, preserved in a massive archive at Duke University in Durham, NC, I must work hard to clear away my presumptions, in fact, my prejudices about a woman whose whole history seems, superficially, at least, to have been clouded, or distorted, by scandal.
Called “The richest little girl in the world” by the press when her father, James Duke, co-founder of Duke Tobacco Company, died, leaving his only child in possession of millions when she was only twelve, DD (as I will for the moment call her) seems never to have had a relationship, as an adult, that departed from the noxious stereotype: a lot of money brings a lot of disaster, at least on the personal level.
I don’t believe this.
I do believe that our culture both loves and hates heiresses (even the word has a nasty ring) while it simply loves, or at least admires and envies, heirs.
Why this should be I am not entirely sure, but it certainly has something to do with power.
I have only a handful of other ideas, at the moment, and all of them will be brought into question when I begin to sift through the accounts, letters, journals and news items relating to DD, and especially the records of her extraordinary foundations and charitable enterprises which continue to influence thousands of people in this country and beyond.
My first idea: if DD’s relationship with her mother was strained, (IF), did this prevent her from forming close relationships with other women who could have served as mentors as she struggled to define herself and her life?
Did her fixation on men as lovers and consorts—if it was a fixation—(IF) reflect the expectations of the early twentieth century, before the modern women’s movement took hold?
What was the influence of the sixties on her ideas and her behavior? (PERHAPS NOTHING AT ALL)
So the icy puddle waits for my bare toe.
To wade in with both feet—which is what I will do if I decide to write this book—I must find common ground with a woman who, at this distance, seems almost an alien. I do not need to love her, but I do need to find a level of respect that allows me to conceive of her without prejudice.
And that means dealing with scandal: its meaning, and possibly its uses, as unveiling (unintentionally) the attitudes toward women which are by no means inoperative today.