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The Silver Swan

In Search of Doris Duke

Sallie Bingham

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

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ISBN10: 0374142599
ISBN13: 9780374142599


336 Pages



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In The Silver Swan, Sallie Bingham chronicles one of the great under-explored lives of the twentieth century and the very archetype of the modern woman. “Don’t touch that girl, she’ll burn your fingers,” FBI director J. Edgar Hoover once said about Doris Duke, the inheritor of James Buchanan Duke’s billion-dollar tobacco fortune. During her lifetime, she would be blamed for scorching many, including her mother and various ex-lovers. She established her first foundation when she was twenty-one; cultivated friendships with the likes of Jackie Kennedy, Imelda Marcos, and Michael Jackson; flaunted interracial relationships; and adopted a thirty-two year-old woman she believed to be the reincarnation of her deceased daughter. This is also the story of the great houses she inhabited, including the classically proportioned limestone mansion on Fifth Avenue, the sprawling Duke Farms in New Jersey, the Gilded Age mansion Rough Point in Newport, Shangri La in Honolulu, and Falcon’s Lair overlooking Beverly Hills.

Even though Duke was the subject of constant scrutiny, little beyond the tabloid accounts of her behavior has been publicly known. In 2012, when eight hundred linear feet of her personal papers were made available, Sallie Bingham set out to probe her identity. She found an alluring woman whose life was forged in the Jazz Age, who was not only an early war correspondent but also an environmentalist, a surfer, a collector of Islamic art, a savvy businesswoman who tripled her father’s fortune, and a major philanthropist with wide-ranging passions from dance to historic preservation to human rights.

In The Silver Swan, Bingham is especially interested in dissecting the stereotypes that have defined Duke’s story while also confronting the disturbing questions that cleave to her legacy.


Praise for The Silver Swan

"Men who inherit great wealth are respected, but women who do the same are ridiculed. In The Silver Swan, Sallie Bingham rescues Doris Duke from this gendered prison and shows us just how brave, rebellious, and creative this unique woman really was, and how her generosity benefits us to this day.”—Gloria Steinem

“How to write about the fabulously rich? Sallie Bingham, an accomplished memoirist and fiction writer who is herself a notable philanthropist and a woman of great privilege, may be uniquely situated to present the life of the famed tobacco heiress Doris Duke. Writing of Duke’s unconventional love life, palatial estates, 150 employees, stacks of lawyers, pet camels, and billion-dollar philanthropic legacy, Bingham spikes her sympathetic account with wry asides and imperative critique.”—Alix Kates Shulman, author of Memoirs of an Ex–Prom Queen

“Sallie Bingham went in search of a secretive Silver Swan and miraculously found sufficient information to gift us with the most significant, dramatic, and compelling biography of Doris Duke. Heiress, philanthropist, visionary, adventurer, Doris Duke did not keep journals or write letters. Nevertheless, Sallie Bingham’s imaginative persistence uncovered a twentieth-century journey of love and healing, of interracial activism for progress and justice, that will delight and inspire all readers concerned about a more humane future.” —Blanche Wiesen Cook, author of Eleanor Roosevelt (vols. I, II, III)

“Among the ranks of important American heiresses, Doris Duke has long remained an enigmatic figure. Thanks to Sallie Bingham’s assiduous research through never-before-used documents and her deft writing, we now have a clear and lucidly written account of Duke’s engaging life . . . The Doris Duke who emerges from the pages of The Silver Swan is an empathetic and generous woman whose massive inherited fortune fueled a remarkable life but also kept her true nature hidden from the public.”—James McGrath Morris, author of Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power

"Illuminating . . . Bingham is a generous biographer in this exacting, measured work."—Publishers Weekly


Read an Excerpt


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....

About the author

Sallie Bingham

Sallie Bingham is the author of several memoirs, short-story collections, novels, plays, and poetry collections. Her work has been widely anthologized and has appeared in The Atlantic, New Letters, Southwest Review, and other publications. She has been a director of the National Book Critics Circle and is the founder of the Kentucky Foundation for Women, as well as the Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture at Duke University. She has received fellowships from Yaddo, MacDowell, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Sallie's books include Passion & Prejudice: A Family Memoir, The Blue Box: Three Lives in Letters, Red Car: Stories, and The Silver Swan: In Search of Doris Duke.

Camila Motta

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