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.
Almost the only question people asked me about her is, “Did she marry her butler?”
No, she did not. But does that question really matter, in a long, complex and accomplished life?
That is only one of the rumors—although apparently the one with the longest life—with which she has been burdened. Others hint at outlaw behavior (never defined), outrageousness—she once kicked off her shoes in a nightclub!—a terrible love of luxury (which she could well afford), and dismissing lovers, friends and employees when she no longer needed or wanted them. And a lot of money, although her fortune was small compared to what has been piled up by the top one percent today.
Even in its exaggerated form, this list hardly amounts to anything very surprising.
But the legends (to view them charitably) continue to circulate.
Lately I heard from an author who has not allowed me to quote her because of trouble with her family, yet this story is perfectly harmless and even quite touching.
It’s the tale of what may have been Doris Duke’s one true love (although I believe there were several other candidates): a Hawaiian man who drew her out of her over-organized, over-privileged life, taught her to surf and fish and to keep guppies for bait under her bottom lip and who suffered heartbreak when she eventually rejected him, unable, presumably, to give up the life she knew, a life in which he would never find a comfortable or even tolerable role.
My informant told me another tale so unlikely and so outrageous that I knew I could never use it, although apparently I could without causing any difficultly, because it would seem to endorse other long-lived rumors.
It’s interesting to note that something obviously untrue and even scandalous is sometimes substituted for the truth, as though there is an energy in rumor-mongering that eagerly replaces fact with something more colorful—and more detrimental.
I’m sorry not to use this story of Doris’ one true love—or at least of an important, positive relationship—because the next question I am asked, after the butler question, is whether she was ever able to love.
I doubt very much that the biographers of Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson are asked this question; it would seem entirely beside the point, as of course it is.
And the newly discovered letters of Martha Washington seem to prove that she was a loving wife, which will probably weigh for more, in the public imagination, that her extraordinary partnership, on the battlefield and off, with George.
In Doris’ case, since she wrote no love letters (there are notes on other subjects), she is defined by the love letters men wrote to her.
But perhaps she is more accurately defined in this honeymoon photograph with her first husband, Jimmy Cromwell, in Hawaii, outfitted with matching flowered Hawaiian shirts, leis, and delighted smiles. Doris hasn’t even bothered to comb her hair.
So that was love, too, even if it didn’t last.