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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Silver Swan

In Search of Doris Duke

Sallie Bingham

Farrar, Straus and Giroux




Wearing her signature two-piece bathing suit, elastic, sturdy, designed for serious swimming, Doris Duke climbs down the steep bluff below Rough Point, her mansion on the coast at Newport, Rhode Island, and plunges into the ocean. For a moment, she disappears beneath the waves, and the gardener, sent by her staff, starts from behind his tree. He is hiding because Doris would be furious if she knew he was waiting there, armed with a coil of rope, in case she needs rescue.

She does not.

She surfaces, swimming strongly toward the calmer water outside of the cove. She breaststrokes out, then turns on her back to float, staying so long in the cold water her fingers shrivel and her lips turn blue, just as when, decades earlier, she swam all morning with her best friend, Alletta Morris,1 at nearby Bailey’s Beach.

Floating, she glimpses her camels, Princess and Baby, lazing on the lawn in front of her house, wearing the pink harnesses she bought for them from Schiaparelli in Paris. Later, she’ll twine pink hibiscus from her garden into their manes.

In spite of having shrunk a bit with age from her commanding height of six foot one, Doris is long and lean in the water. In Hawaii, she still occasionally wears her wet suit and surfs off Diamond Head, one of the first nonnative women to brave those waves.

But her time in the water is up. Guests are coming for lunch. She sidestrokes into the cove, clambers out, and climbs up the bluff. The gardener hurriedly retreats before she sees him.

Crossing the lawn, she stops to stroke Baby’s furry neck. She has never regretted her purchase of a Boeing 737-300 aircraft to transport the two camels from J. C. Schulz’s game farm in Catskill, New York. Along with her dogs, the camels are her greatest comfort.

In her second-floor bedroom, she dresses in one of her gauzy orange caftans, then turns on the radio to check the weather. If an Atlantic storm is brewing, she’ll give orders to have the furniture moved out of the ground-floor solarium and straw spread so that Baby and Princess can take shelter there.

Her father, James Buchanan Duke, would have understood. They both loved the horses, the pony, Prince, and the dogs that had lived, during Doris’s childhood, at Duke Farms in Somerville, New Jersey. Now, when she visits the farm, she houses her dogs right next to her bedroom on a fenced porch with a door so they can come in to visit her. They sometimes climb up on the bed beside her when she is eating her breakfast off a tray.

Her father would have understood that, too, but he had died years earlier, in 1925, when Doris was a girl of not quite thirteen. He had never had a chance to see his beloved only daughter swimming out to sea at Rough Point or battling the waves off Diamond Head. Battling ocean waves in the Atlantic and the Pacific led Doris to other adventures, not least her involvement in World War II.


September 1944. In Europe, the war was coming to an end. The Allies had invaded Normandy, and the occupying German army had surrendered Paris. In New York, Doris Duke was fretting that she was missing the experience of her generation. This was the time to go, especially now that her divorce from her first husband, Jimmy Cromwell, was finalized. She had initiated proceedings in 1943 on grounds of extreme cruelty.

Late in September, Doris would receive official permission to go to Cairo. Her U.S. passport, however, did not authorize her to visit other countries except ones she might have to pass through on her way to Egypt.1 Here begins Doris’s struggle with the State Department. Since Egypt was now a backwater in the war, she wanted, instead, to get to a country closer to the fighting in order to write dispatches of consequence for the international news services. But the State Department had other ideas, perhaps in an attempt to disguise Doris’s dual role as minor undercover agent for the OSS and war correspondent. She was aware that nothing she could write from or about Egypt would attract the level of attention of dispatches from the war zone.

Her movements in this period are difficult to trace, since she felt empowered to go wherever she wanted, with or without an authorizing passport and visa. She wanted to be able to travel around Europe as freely as she had moved with her parents in the years before the war. Her privilege, at this point in her life, gave her the illusion that she could always go her own way.

Doris’s difficulties were compounded by the notoriety of her divorce.2 She had spent six months in Reno, Nevada, establishing residency in the only state where it was possible to obtain a quick divorce; her decree was issued on December 21, 1943, but then Jimmy had contested it, questioning the legitimacy of her residence in Nevada. The final decree would not be issued until 1948. But Doris would not wait. She was already packing for Cairo.

Into her sunny bedroom, on the second floor of the great white limestone mansion at the corner of Seventy-eighth Street and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan that was built by her father, the porter and his mate hauled two Louis Vuitton steamer trunks. On the right side of each trunk was a capacious cupboard with wooden hangers, covered by a blue silk curtain; on the left, six drawers, each equipped with metal pulls. Her mother’s scent, Guerlain’s 1912 L’Heure Bleue, wafted out as she opened the top drawer.

Doris selected the various outfits she would need—for England, where Captain Alec Cunningham-Reid might or might not be waiting; for the Continent (as she had learned to call Europe on trips with her parents); and for Egypt.

Into the trunk went bathing suits for the Mediterranean, golf outfits for servicemen’s clubs and grand hotels, tennis dresses and rackets for mixed doubles, and proper suits for the work she hoped for as a foreign correspondent. Doris knew what she wanted, if not necessarily how she would achieve it.

In the first trunk, on the hanging side, she arranged size-sixteen prewar Paquin suits (size ten by American standards) and an assortment of evening gowns. She based her choices on her past work: recently she had been running a relief station in New York Harbor for the United Seamen’s Service, throwing parties with plenty of food and pretty girls for merchant seamen on leave. A lifetime later, her New York Times obituary (October 3, 1993) reported that she had said of that period, “I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t do something real to help with this war. This may sound funny, but I honestly believe I’m happier now than I’ve ever been … I’m doing something worthwhile, earning the right to be friends with a lot of swell, interesting people … I’ve discovered, I guess, that it’s fun to work.” For her training, Doris had been dispatched in April 1944 for one month to the United Seamen’s Service in New Orleans.

On May 29, 1944, J. Reilly Marcus, business manager at the Merchant Marine Relief Center, wrote to his opposite number at the rest center in Oyster Bay, New York, that Doris Duke had arrived in an atmosphere that was colored, inevitably, by expectations the men might have formed from reading news stories about her. Yet Marcus wrote, with seeming surprise, that these expectations were dispelled almost at once by Doris’s calm, evenhanded treatment of everyone she met. She accepted all of the men as worthy of whatever help she could provide. Some of the merchant mariners were African Americans, never a problem for Doris, who had loved her father’s African American valet and felt an affinity with people of color. She was to be paid a dollar a year, and to serve until the end of the war. A check for her first dollar was enclosed in Marcus’s letter.3

Her job was not frivolous. Merchant ships carrying essential supplies to England were vulnerable to submarine and air attack; they were lightly armed, if at all, and even in convoys were subject to sinking by the Axis Powers. Rest and recreation for the sailors between these harrowing voyages were essential. Still, Doris had her sights on journalistic work.

It had seemed that Doris’s break had come much earlier, in September 1942, when the FBI head, J. Edgar Hoover, wrote to thank her for her intelligence work and raised the possibility of a dual assignment abroad: foreign correspondent and minor operative for the OSS.4 This explains her posting to Egypt, which was at this point in the war a nest of spies. But red tape and her lack of credentials had kept Doris in the United States for two more years.

Admittedly, she had no training or background as a journalist, and in fact she hardly wrote at all. But that, for Doris, was no impediment. She could always learn. One of the very rare interviews with Doris, conducted by her International News Service boss, Mike Chinigo, on January 30, 1945, was printed in Stars and Stripes, a daily publication for United States forces stationed in Europe. An accompanying photograph of Doris predictably identifies her as the “world’s richest girl.”

In the interview, she spoke fondly of the service, referring to herself several times as a dangerous woman, like screen stars of the period, such as Hedy Lamarr, whose allure was enhanced by her roguishness. This led Chinigo to conclude that the posting to Cairo was the only possibility for Doris. Her face was not so familiar there that she would have difficulty maintaining dual roles.

Chinigo mentions that in Alexandria, Egypt, Doris had repainted and redecorated the American Seamen’s Club and arranged its first dance. Asked if the subject of her fortune ever came up at the club, she said it never had. Chinigo added that she was a tall blonde who seemed friendly and approachable. When he apologized for asking her age, she replied without hesitation that she was thirty-two. After one of the officers attending the interview said that she was three years his junior, she got up, shook his hand, and congratulated him on being even older than she was.

About six months later, on June 23, 1945, Mike Chinigo again interviewed her, this time for an article called “Doris Duke Learning How to Be a Reporter.” When Chinigo asked her why she wanted to be a reporter, she replied that she felt compelled to do something worthwhile with her life. She added that her friend the writer Clare Boothe Luce had sparked the idea when she was visiting Doris in Hawaii back in 1941.

Doris told Chinigo that she had been preparing for the job by studying and then rewriting news stories. She said she understood that she might not be taken seriously by editors, since she had no previous experience as a reporter. She knew she would have to establish herself as a responsible professional by proving that she could observe accurately and write persuasively.

She went on to say that during this unorthodox apprenticeship she had begun to appreciate how useful newspaper reporting could be when stories about important events were written responsibly. This work might satisfy her drive to achieve something independent of her family and her fortune, as well as introduce her to a great variety of people. She hoped to write news stories that would appeal to a mass audience, a large swathe of the population she would never have encountered in her post-debutante life in New York.

She had already learned how difficult it was for editors to take their minds off her celebrity and attend to her interest in her work, but she believed she could cut through their fascination with her by presenting herself as a hardworking reporter.

Doris’s reporting put to rest one myth—that she could not write—which has been used as an attempt to explain the small number of her letters in her archive. For that there is a more compelling explanation. From an early age, Doris feared the loss of privacy that would result if unfriendly eyes read her correspondence. This apprehension severely curtailed her letter writing. Anyhow, she explained, most of the letters she received answered themselves over time.

After the war, when she began to refuse almost all interviews, Doris was imitating her father’s determination to shield himself from scrutiny in an age of gossip columnists and scandal sheets. She would never again feel comfortable enough with an interviewer to talk as frankly as she had with Mike Chinigo.

Copyright © 2020 by Sallie Bingham