You can find out more about my next book, working title Doris Duke: The Invention of the New Women, on my dedicated Doris Duke bibliography page.
In looking into the spiritual connection Doris formed in the last years of her life—and it may have been essential to her, or it may not have been—I first looked into the Fellowship of Reconciliation, mistaking the title of the group to which she left half a million dollars in her 1993 will.
The Fellowship of Reconcilation works for peace and justice; it was a founding source of the American Civil Liberties Union and an important building block in the Civil Rights Movement. I realized right away that this group would have seemed alien and even threatening to Doris Duke, with her Cold War mentality and worship of her father and, inevitably, of corporate America, as represented by James B. Duke’s monopolistic American Tobacco Company.
A second search revealed a slightly differently named movement of which she was a part, at least for a time, in the early 1990’s when she was spending time at Falcon’s Lair in Los Angeles.
It’s a long drive from that house where Doris died, in Beverly Hills, to the Self-Realization Fellowship’s headquarters at Lake Park in the Pacific Palisades, a drive Doris would have taken in the early 1990’s in her chauffeured limo, perhaps to attend a meditation practice. More likely, given her horror of being observed, interviewed or photographed, she would have gone for one-on-one spiritual counseling with the guru who headed the place at the time (Yogananda, the founder, having died forty years earlier).
If she walked in the Fellowship’s beautiful, flower-filled park around a lake, she might have been reassured by the shrine there to Gandhi, whom she had met in India many years earlier on her honeymoon; it contains a pinch of his ashes.
She might also have been reassured by the Fellowship’s embrace of all religions, in this way mirroring Theosophy, which I studied when writing my play, A Dangerous Personality, on the life of its founder, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky.
Not only is the long-abandoned Methodism of Doris’ childhood accepted here, but various brands of Buddhism, and the Christian tradition embodied in St. Francis, whose image, in advanced age, stands in one of the secluded alcoves in the park.
And, had she allowed herself to linger, she might have sat on one of the sheltered benches where, on this hot July Sunday, single people and couples sat in silent meditation, the basis for this particular philosophy. In Doris’ hectic and haunted life, developing a practice of meditation may have proved impossible, in these her last and most difficult years, when she was losing her physical health and many of her friendships; but even a passing connection with the practice and its adherents would have allowed her a glimpse of another way.
Perhaps even more important might have been Yogananda’s “The Law of Abundance” as laid out in a brochure in the temple’s well-stocked gift shop.
“Teach me to feel that Thou are the power behind all wealth,” the folder advises along with a box for deposits for the “Horn of Plenty” bank. This sentiment, if Doris was able to adopt it, would have sanctified her money in a way that would seem, possibly, to remove its cursed connections with social ills (the millions of deaths from tobacco addiction) and its commonly perceived link with inevitable unhappiness, a link I am at some pains to disprove. In my view, the possibilities offered by money far outweigh its drawbacks, which are often over-sensitive reactions to clichéd public perceptions of what it means to be rich.
It seems to me that one of the wise sayings about money was pronounced by Harpo Marx: “You can’t buy happiness but you can buy your own brand of misery.”
Doris suffered from very human forms of misery during her life: early loss of her father, mistaken love leading to two divorces, chosen isolation, illness and disability, but none of these miseries add up to an unhappy life. And it seems to me that her ability to travel the world, buy, furnish and live in beautiful houses and assemble a choice collection of Islamic Art, would certainly have given her some comfort. Her money made all these choices possible.
If there is a chance, and I think there is one, that Doris was touched and perhaps even changed by her connection, whatever it may prove to have been, with the Self-Realization Fellowship, her miseries would have been if not reduced, placed in a realistic context, uniting her with her fellows.
And that provides, always and for all of us, the way out of suffering.
To be continued…