Friends and Foes

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Thursday, November 11, 2021. Fair and partly sunny with temps in the low 60s yesterday in New York.

The house at 1015 Park Avenue, which was featured on Tuesday’s lineup, has been a fascinating curiosity to me for years. Simply because of its architectural uniqueness compared to the style of mansions along the avenue. Its design speaks of a unique personality. There is something cinematic about it, provoking one’s curiosity as to what kind of people had lived there.

The double-paneled entrance doors to 1015 Park Avenue at 85th Street.

I knew it was old (more than a century) so whoever the original occupants were, they had undoubtedly left. Obviously they were wealthy. But the architectural style spoke to me of an interesting individual personality; and intimate.

Charles Burns, the historian who researched and wrote the piece, also wrote another for NYSD a few months ago on Doris Duke and her house in Newport. She also grew up at the same time in another unique mansion over on 78th and Fifth. The architectural message of that house was an imperial personality, as indeed she demonstrated in her life.

What I learned from the 1015 Park story was that it was built and occupied by a family by the name of Morris who had a daughter named Alleta (known to friends and family as Leta). Alleta was a close friend of Doris from childhood and throughout their long lives in Newport and in New York. They were best friends.

Doris Duke had always been a passing curiosity to this writer. When I was a kid, her name was famous to us ordinary people as one of the “richest” girls in the world. I’m referring to the 20th century version of “rich,” which is not to be confused with this century’s version — greatly inflated as it is otherwise.

Doris Duke and Leta McBean down by the beach in Newport, 1924. Courtesy of Doris Duke Charitable Foundation Historical Archives, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University, Durham, NC.

Despite being a private person, because of her personality — aside from her great wealth — Doris Duke grew up to flash around with lovers who were celebrated, socially or otherwise. Her father died in 1925 when she was thirteen. It’s often been said that on his deathbed he told his grieving daughter to “trust no one” in her life, and he left her a huge fortune.

The daughter was regarded as very intelligent, shrewd perhaps; and maybe even wise. She also became a wise and generous philanthropist. Great wealth can aggrandize reputations that are believed by the possessor.

Doris was also drawn to American jazz and its revolutionary musical expression. As she matured, she  became a kind of adventurer, independent and sexual. She lived in big, lavish residences which included Newport, Hawaii, and Rudolph Valentino’s legendary hillside lair overlooking Beverly Hills.

She was famous for her high life which unfurled could have been like something out of a Tennessee Williams play if he wrote about rich girls. She also grew up with Alleta — who I learned from Charles Burns’ piece, grew up in that house at 1015 Park Avenue.

Alleta was also friend of Lady Sarah Churchill. It was through her that I met Leta, as she was known by all. Her first husband, father of her only son, had died and she then married Mr. McBean, a major Southern California real estate owner. Lady Sarah knew Doris also, but through Leta. She was somewhat impressed by Doris’ wealth, which was uncharacteristic of Sarah whose own British aristocratic and historic background was a tribute to grandeur.

Doris Duke wearing her famous diamond and pearl, Moghul style, David Webb earrings, engages in conversation with decorator Thomas Hagerman at a Newport dinner in 1968. Also at the table are Leta Morris McBean (left) and Janet Lee Auchincloss (right).

In those days you didn’t need to hear anything private or gossipy about Doris Duke because her lifestyle attracted public attention. She was a celebrity, as famous in some circles as a movie star, and obviously more powerful. I saw her only once, in Sardi’s restaurant during the pre-theatre dinner hour on a weeknight in the mid-1960s.

Portrait of Alletta Morris MacDonald by Elizabeth Shoumatoff, c. 1935. Collection of The Preservation Society of Newport County.

Sardi’s entry foyer was crowded, waiting for their tables when she entered with her grey-haired escort looking chic and simply bejeweled with a single bracelet of emeralds laid out in the shape of a watchface. She was smartly dressed for evening. With her hair pulled back, she had the classic profile of determination, with bright eyes under strong eyebrows and a naturally serious expression. There was an air of intimidation in its gaze. She moved through the crowd gracefully as they moved aside for her, and was escorted to her table immediately. She was Doris Duke.

Coincidentally, around that same time — on October 7, 1966 — she had had a terrible accident at Rough Point, her house in Newport when she had “accidentally” driven her car into the man who was opening the gates for her, and killed him.

This was front page news everywhere. The man was Eduardo Tirella, an interior designer who was advising her on the interior of the mansion. Not a few assumed he was also her boyfriend although he was known to be gay. The facts in the press were vague.

It was later explained that he had been the driver of the station wagon, and had stopped and got out of the car to open the gates.  At that moment she said she moved over to the driver’s seat to complete the exit and “accidentally stepped on the accelerator,” hitting the man directly. He died instantly.

The scene of the crime (Photo by Ed Quigley).

There was something oddly suspicious about what happened as reported in the press. For she accelerated with such power that the moving car dragged his body across the road and into a tree. It was a catastrophic accident, or so it was reported although never investigated by the police.

Those who knew Doris wondered sotto voce what really happened when it was revealed the victim had been staying with her for several months and was leaving to return to his home in Los Angeles, which he occupied with his male partner.

Eduardo Tirella and Doris Duke, c. 1960s.

Her explanation to the cops who showed up yielded no police investigation. Seemingly, Doris, in showing her appreciation for the way it was handled, got more involved in the Newport restoration of the early 17th and 18th century houses, which are still standing today. She had many of them restored, beautifying the community as well as offering them as reasonable rentals as long as the occupants kept the houses exactly as they were restored. It was a multi-million dollar project.

As life went on, in the late 1980s Doris met a young woman named Charlene Gail Heffner whom she had met at one of her parties in Hawaii. She later adopted the young woman, believing her to be the reincarnation of a child Doris had who died at birth many years before. Whatever that relationship was, it didn’t last, although the “daughter” left with a horse farm that Doris bought for her. Afterwards she sued Doris for $33 million in “palimony.” Whatever the outcome, when Doris died on October 28, 1993, one month before her 81st birthday, Heffner sued the estate and inherited $65 million of the $1.5 billion fortune.

Earlier this year, journalist Peter Lance published a book called Homicide at Rough Point (the name of the Duke Newport estate). After it was published Lance met a man named Bob Walker who was only 13 years old and a Newport paperboy. On that fatal October day in 1966 he told the reporter that he happened to be delivering Duke’s copy of the Newport Daily News just as the crash occurred.

On arrival Walker had heard two people arguing — a man and a woman. Then he heard screams of a man and the sound of a car crashing. Tirella was thrown onto the hood as it crashed through the gates. But then the car stopped with a jerk, and suddenly lurched forward as Tirella screamed, dragging him underneath and across the road.

Reaching the gate the boy witnessed the car crashing against the tree. He rushed over to it as a “tall women” got out, and he asked if she needed any help. She screamed at him to “get the hell out of here!” three times, and with that, the kid got back on his bike and took off.

When he got home, he told his father what he had seen. His father, on hearing, made his son swear he’d never tell anyone about it. Five years later the then-older boy did ask his father why he was told to keep it a secret that day.

His father replied: “The life of my son was far more important than going up against Doris Duke,” adding “knowing the power of this woman, I didn’t think you would make it out alive if you told the story. I had visions of you doing your paper route and a truck running over you, and that would be the end of it.”

Whatever Leta McBean knew about the accident is unknown to me. Her relationship with her childhood friend continued, although at one point in the late 1970s around the time Doris had met her then “adopted daughter,” she suddenly stopped speaking to Leta. This was a first. The reason was always a mystery to Leta, as she recounted to her friend Lady Sarah at the time. Although eventually communication resumed. A few years later Leta died after a long illness in 1986.

By that time in Doris’ life, Age had become the main issue. Her vast fortune had increased enormously over the decades and she was a billionairess. The great mansion her father had built in Fifth Avenue had long before been given to NYU to use for academic purposes — she bought a Park Avenue penthouse for her New York residence (which todays belongs to New York Post columnist Cindy Adams). The enormous farmland property in New Jersey which was her country residence from her New York life, along with her other three residences remained in her possession.

She had long before set up a foundation that would eventually possess the greatest part of her wealth directed specifically to philanthropy. She had a great, longtime interest in reincarnation and had apparently convinced herself that she would be returning as another life.

Doris Duke looking out the window at her Rough Point, Newport estate, c. 1965. Courtesy of Doris Duke Charitable Foundation Historical Archives, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University, Durham, NC.

How she regarded her life, her relationships and her moments with Mr. Tirella, or if she even ever thought about it, will never be known. But she had arrived at the reality of life: she’d come to the conclusion. Her final days were noted by the press as it had been all her life. This time there still was a “man in her life” — her butler Bernard Lafferty to whom she had named executor of her billion dollar estate only six months before her death. At the time, Lafferty was regarded with some suspicion about the legacy. Although ironically, as fate would have it, Lafferty’s life afterwards turned out to be brief. He died three years later, and Doris’ legacy remained in place for the good of others, recipients of her generosity and caring forever after.

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