Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Women & Philanthropy: Sallie Bingham talks about Doris Duke

At home in Santa Fe, Sallie Bingham is working on the final revisions on her biography on Doris Duke, slated for a Spring 2016 publication by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Women & Philanthropy:
Sallie Bingham talks about Doris Duke
By Augustus Mayhew

During her lifetime Doris Duke (1912-1993) was widely characterized as an eccentric recluse although at 21 she had already established a foundation that gave away more than $400 million to worthy causes and needy individuals. While some only recall Duke’s unconventional quirks no one can deny her foresight and wisdom when she established the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation that today has assets in excess of $1.7 billion and since 1997 has awarded $1.3 billion in grants. 

As a paradigm for today’s women philanthropists, Doris Duke’s life and legacy are the subject of author Sallie Bingham’s forthcoming biography Doris Duke: The Invention of the New Woman. In January 2013, Bingham wrote: “I have always been intrigued by the life of this woman, who is usually described only in terms of her money and her real or imaginary escapades. She is emblematic of the way “rich women” are treated in this culture, with a powerful mixture of prurience and disapproval; one biography is called, simply, Too Rich, and others are scandalous potboilers. Yet anyone who listens to NPR knows at least one important use she made, through her foundation, of her inherited money, supporting conservation programs long before they became fashionable.” I recently spoke with Bingham at her hillside compound in Santa Fe about Doris Duke, “the greatest woman philanthropist of the 20th century.”
Bingham compound, entrance. Santa Fe. With final revisions two-thirds completed on the first serious biography of Doris Duke, Sallie Bingham's book "maps the extraordinary journey of an extraordinary woman who set the pace for women achievers in the 21st- century."
Sallie Bingham: Word for Word

“Twenty years ago I was visiting Duke University, where I had endowed the Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History & Culture at the Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, when I started looking around the campus for any recognition of Doris Duke’s contributions to the university and found nothing, nothing. If you’ve stayed at the very comfortable Washington Duke Inn on the campus, in the lobby there are busts of Duke family members but then there was nothing of Doris on par with her standing. Despite being the only child of James B. Duke and a major contributor during her lifetime and in her will, there was no acknowledgment for her. I thought, how strange ... and she was a significant donor.”
(Doris Duke Photograph Collection, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University)
“I’ve always written about women who were excluded and I was fascinated because I am not sure how welcoming members of her family were to her. It is what interests me. What happened? What’s the story? Doris has been the subject of only trash books written about her. I couldn’t find anyone on the campus forthcoming about her.  Lo and behold, five years ago, she had died in 1993, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation (DDCF) donated her complete archive of papers — 245 linear feet with 81,656 items, two tractor trailer loads — to the Rubenstein Library. I had funded an archive there first of all for my papers that has now expanded. Doris’s archive was an important addition to women’s history and culture.

“Doris Duke started like all of us who inherit money — we are overwhelmed. She developed a philosophy without really much guidance at a time when not much was available especially for a woman. Today more women than ever are in possession of large sums of money either by inheritance or by their professions. What do I do? How many houses do I need? How many Picassos do I want? How many yachts? How many cars? Is that really enough? Is there some need in this world that I should address other than my appearance? Is there some need to do something for the world I drive by every day?”
"I am a philanthropist and I know what a long journey it has been for me. I had empathy for Doris who had to find her way with much less education and guidance than was given to me. I had no interest in repeating the old gossip because the truth of all that has long since evaporated. But what has not diminished is her mission, her passions, that live on in her foundation. Though not everyone is of her magnitude, Doris Duke's story has important significance for all women, especially women of wealth."
Doris with one her dogs. There are almost more snapshots of dogs than of people in her photographs at the Rubenstein Library at Duke University. (Doris Duke Photograph Collection, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University)
“The problem in writing a biography of Doris was that she didn’t express herself much in writing. She didn’t have any significant writings of her own, almost no letters.  There was no personal diary though there were datebooks, schedules and other records. She was the subject of other people’s writings.  There were tapes, Thank God, I could listen to her music and singing ... being able to hear her voice was crucial. Her father was careful and guarded; she too. She gave few interviews. The Dukes were attacked by the press for every manner and reason, making for misrepresentations for all kind. People think everything now; everything and anything. Thus, I built my portrait of Doris on her actual records. What her very close friends, her lovers, how people who adored her described her. There are some really extraordinary love letters.”
November 22, 1933. (Doris Duke Photograph Collection, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University)
“My book opens before Doris’s birth, beginning with the origins of the James B. Duke tobacco fortune and the formation of the British-American Tobacco Company Ltd. conglomerate. Her mother Nanaline Holt Inman’s story is very interesting, coming from a prominent southern family. Then, everything fell apart. She found herself with almost nothing and a widow. Nanaline decided to go to New York where she met James B. Duke, newly divorced from a disastrous first marriage. They were a very compatible couple. The Dukes lived at 78th and 5th Avenue in actually a cozy house, quite surprising to me. Often these houses are so grand that you can’t imagine where you would sit if you were home alone in the evening. The Duke house though was so well designed. From all accounts, they were happy together. Doris was a beloved child, their only child, at a time later in life.”
The James B. Duke House on 78th and Fifth.
“Doris’s education, or lack of it, was another one of those mysterious things. She had a French governess Jennie Renaud who was with her from age nine till her marriage to Jimmy.  She learned beautiful French. Jennie was a real companion; they went everywhere. She was first exposed to Islamic Art at The Met’s Havemeyer Collection. Jennie was a very important influence. Nanaline realized her daughter was unusual, fascinated by music and dance. She played piano and, of all things, jazz, that no one of her class was listening to nonetheless learning. She did go to Brearley School.

"Brearley would not give me any information about her although I did have access to her school work and records that were in the archives. Doris never felt she was an intellectual; it wasn’t something that interested her, she was more instinctive. She was sent to a boarding school in Aiken that has since burned down. After one semester she begged her mother to let her return to New York. That was the end of her formal education. Doris was always very self-conscious, very self-conscious, about her lack of education. One reason, perhaps, she felt uncomfortable coming to Duke University where she didn’t spend much time. Education was always a sore point for her. Quite touching actually, as this was part of the issue with women of that period.”
School report by Doris Duke, 1927. (Doris Duke Photograph Collection, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University)
“Doris did move around all the time but always to places she felt anchored — Rough Point, Duke Farms, Falcon Lair, and Shangri-La.  As a child, it was Newport every summer. I don’t think she was an impulsive person, perhaps more intuitive. Her Islamic collection was very carefully put together over a long period of time. The fact she could put together what is considered one of the world’s greatest collections shows focus and concentration. There is a wonderful iconic photo of her in the book Doris Duke's Shangri-La: A House in Paradise looking at bureaus in Baghdad where you can see there is a real concentration, a single-mindedness. Clearly, there were always advisors but she was very much in charge and engaged with what she wanted to do with her life.”
"Though Doris and Barbara Hutton were often paired as the era's two beautiful heiresses, they really were acquaintenances, never friends. Hutton appears to have had a much more unhappy life. By contrast, Doris had a happy childhood."
“Doris’s marriage to Jimmy Cromwell lasted ten years. It began quite happy with an around the world honeymoon. There was a sense of inspiration and collaboration. Jimmy’s letters show they shared interests. But I think he was always torn. You probably know the relationship to Palm Beach where she and Jimmy had planned to build Malmaison on the Stotesbury’s estate and spend their winters there. Jimmy’s mother was in charge of designing the house; one reason Doris realized living in Palm Beach was never going to work. Eva Stotesbury’s letters are filled with endless details. Palm Beach and his mother were a real magnet, a real pull, for him and Doris made it clear she was not going to spend time there. For Jimmy, his mother and his step-father’s wealth were critical, very critical. ‘She wants to be a lovely hermit,’ was about the nicest thing Eva Stotesbury ever said about Doris, other things were much worse. At Palm Beach, there was also that other branch of the Duke family with whom she never felt comfortable.”
Doris and Jimmy Cromwell on their honeymoon in Kauai, circa 1935. (Doris Duke Photograph Collection, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University)
Doris and Jimmy at Shangri-La
“She stayed friends with her former husbands, Jimmy and Rubi. Doris tried to promote Cromwell’s career running for the New Jersey senate. But her checks didn’t do any good, Jimmy was too right wing to be a Democrat. He wanted a return to the gold standard. She was enormously generous even years after they were divorced she was still supporting his business efforts, never cut him off.”

“I made an early decision not to interview, not to dig out someone who knew her when, who would say this or that. I decided I did not want to chance repeating personal anecdotes of all kinds, most made unreliable by time and memory, when there was this enormous archive of records, photographs and tapes to turn too that were incontrovertible fact.” 
Doris and her father J.B. Duke in Europe, 1923. (Doris Duke Photograph Collection, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University)
“The Invention of the New Woman reference in the title refers to the active role Doris played creating and supporting her vast and varied interests. Would Newport be Newport without her? Rough Point itself so revealing, so revealing.  It can still be seen as Nanaline had it, as well as the changes Doris made after her mother died, subtle but evocative. Though Doris may have aspired to become a professional dancer, many dancers may not have made it without her. Her support for Martha Graham made all the difference. Her backing for Williamstown’s Jacob Pillow Festival was invaluable where the Doris Duke Theatre hosts studio and theatre productions.
Rough Point estate. (Doris Duke Photograph Collection, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University)
“Her legacy is very much what she wanted. For instance, Duke Farms has become a great center of conservation, reflecting her early interest way before Silent Spring was written. It is really good example of how great old places can be turned into the right kind of farming, the right habitat. Shangri-La has become an international center for Islamic study, exactly what she wanted. When women are misguided it leads to a tragic loss of personal development.  Women have so much potential to make a difference, certainly Doris Duke acted on the belief she could help make changes for the good, and that is what we need more of in this world.”
Sallie Bingham is the founder of the Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture at Duke University and the Kentucky Foundation for Women. She was born and raised in Louisville where she was a book editor at The Courier-Journal newspaper. Her first novel published by Houghton Mifflin in 1961 was followed by four collections of short stories. Her most recent title is The Blue Box: Three Lives in Letters (Sarabande Books, 2014). She has also published six additional novels, three collections of poetry and numerous plays.
In a June 2014 online column, Bingham wrote about Doris Duke’s death: “Does it matter? Only to the degree that the removal of women from the history of our times matters.”  On 2 October at NYC’s CUNY Graduate Center-365 Fifth Avenue, Sallie Bingham will appear on the 11:15 a.m. panel “Telling the Story” at the Women Writing Women’s Lives conference. To follow Sallie Bingham’s latest writings and events:  http://salliebingham.com/
Photography by Augustus Mayhew.

Augustus Mayhew is the author of Lost in Wonderland – Reflections on Palm Beach.