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.
Changing the title of my biography of Doris Duke, especially after more than six years of work, is a big deal. From the beginning, I’ve called it Doris Duke: The Invention of the New Woman, a title with gravitas that also links her to the reinterpretation of women’s roles that was going on in the 1920’s and 1930’s.
But I knew from the beginning that my title might pose problems. Some potential readers might think this was an expansion of a PhD thesis, a scholarly examination of a life that didn’t seem appropriate to an academic approach. Others might resist an openly feminist interpretation. Of course, no title can attract readers who are not interested in biographies of women, especially when written by women.
When my editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux suggested the new title last week, I saw immediately the brilliance of her suggestion. The Silver Swan not only solves the problems that might be caused by my first title. It also holds a hint of the glamor, and the mystery, of Doris Duke’s life, while suggesting, perhaps appropriate, that I might not find the clue to the riddle.
This is appropriate, too, because since Doris never wrote much herself, perhaps remembering the “Never apologize, never explain” axiom of upper-class life, she will always remain something of an enigma. And that itself has a fascination. No subject worthy of a serious biography can be finally pinned down, although some biographers might bristle at the statement. We are all too complex, too mysterious, too hidden—which is what makes my work so interesting, and so demanding, in fiction as well as biographies, since the narrators in my novels and short stories, no matter their education, are never simple people.
The silver swan as image and icon links to the story of Doris Duke’s life. The Tiffany silver swan shown here was perhaps her favorite possession. It traveled with her on her extensive journeys during the last five years of her life, to Newport, Summerville, Los Angeles and Honolulu, but also to Asia and Europe. It didn’t get shipped to Shangri La, where she died in 1993, and perhaps she missed its silent silvery presence. It is now in Rough Point, her house in Newport, open to the public.
The poem, by Orlando Gibbons, is set to a melancholy madrigal you can listen to on YouTube. Its first line applies to Doris: “The silver swan, who living had no note”—as it does to all of us who, for any number of reasons, fail to set down an account of our lives.
After the mid-1940’s, Doris gave few interviews, wrote few letters, and never kept a journal. She had learned her father’s lesson: never expose yourself. The hostility of the gossip columnists who ruled the press in the 1920’s and 1930’s had taught her never to expect a sympathetic—or even an objective—rendering of her life.
As her mother, Nanaline Holt Duke, warned her, the fortune Doris inherited at age thirteen on the death of her father, James Buchanan Duke, would always arouse jealousy and suspicion. It would have been different if the Dukes had had a son; certainly he would have been the inheritor and as a male millionaire more likely to be accepted.
In one way, Gibbons’ poem is not applicable to Doris. The last line reads, “When death approached, unlocked her silent throat.” Doris’ death was complicated by the motives of the people attending her and their administering of drugs. She probably did not know her end was approaching, and by that time may have lacked the clarity she needed to write about her complicated life.
Others, of course, wrote a great deal about her, in the form of letters, books, and articles, many of which drew readers’ attention with that combination of glamor and suspicion that seems to act on us like catnip. That meant an obsessive concentration on her relationships, especially her sexual relationships. Rumor and innuendo, building on her silence, conveyed little of her character or her achievements while damaging her reputation. “Didn’t she have some kind of weird relationship with a man at the end?” an acquaintance who knows nothing about Doris Duke, but has heard the rumors, asked me last week.
I’ve been asked some version of this question dozens of times in the past six years.
As Gibbons’ poem ends, “More geese than swans now live, more fools than wise.”
The Silver Swan: Searching for Doris Duke will be published next spring or summer by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, with thirty pages of photographs.
The swan, at last, will sail forth.