Guardian Spirit: Newport Legacy of Doris Duke

Featured image
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.

Interior photographs by Timothy Warburton and Sam Bolton

“Richest Girl in the World,” the epithet coined in the 1920s about New York-born heiress Doris Duke (1912-1993), and subsequent labels, serve to reinforce the pervasive stereotype of an eccentric, troubled socialite unable to form lasting friendships. Miss Duke agonized over her reluctant “celebrity” and reputedly remained haunted by her father, tobacco, aluminum and energy mogul, James B. Duke’s purported 1925 deathbed warning to “trust no one.”

A portrait of Doris’s father, James B. Duke, at Rough Point.

A day’s visit to Newport, RI, where a far more dynamic portrait emerges, will do much however to dispel what are indeed misleading stereotypes. Due to her mother Nanaline Holt Inman Duke’s social aspirations, young Doris first arrived in Newport at the age of three in 1915; first staying in rented villas particularly the Horace Trumbauer designed Storrs-Wells (later J.J. Astor) cottage Chetwode before buying in 1922. Nanaline and J.B. “Buck” Duke settled on the dramatically-sited Rough Point, an 1891 baronial English style manor built by architects Peabody & Stearns for Frederick W. Vanderbilt at the cliff-side terminus of Bellevue Avenue.

Doris’s mother Nanaline Holt Inman Duke and Doris as an 11-year-old, painted in 1923.

Although educated primarily by private tutors, little Doris had already met and formed what became a lifelong friendship with Alletta Morris (known to everyone as “Leta”), daughter of Old Guard New Yorkers Lewis Gouverneur Morris and Nathalie Lorillard Bailey Morris.

Leta lived at 1015 Park Avenue, a short distance from Doris’s family home at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 78th Street; a palatial French neo-classical mansion built by architect Horace Trumbauer in 1912 and now NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts.  Leta’s family had been summering in Newport for close to a century and assisted the Dukes with almost immediate social entrée.

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

Days spent at Bailey’s Beach building sand castles or taking dance and tennis lessons were followed by Leta and Doris’s clandestine excursions to the nearby Cliff Walk to flirt with sailors. On August 23rd 1930, Miss Doris Duke’s debut was held at Rough Point with a “small dance” for six hundred guests at 10:30 p.m. following more intimate dinner parties. Meyer Davis and a Hungarian gypsy orchestra provided music; the evening concluded with the apparently not-so-shy Doris leading a conga line through the Frederick Law Olmsted landscape to the sea.

Doris Duke’s debut invitation.

Although absent for most of the period 1935-1957 spent in Hawaii, Paris, Rome, New York, Beverly Hills and Duke Farms in Somerville, NJ, Doris Duke continued her friendship with Leta Morris (later Mrs. Byrnes MacDonald and subsequently Mrs. Peter McBean) and other Newport summer residents including Noreen Stonor Drexel, Aeriel Frazer Eweson, Nuala O’Donnell Pell and Oatsie Leiter Charles. Doris simultaneously maintained a keen interest in her Rough Point estate, kept staffed and in waiting, for occasional visits with her mother.

While a prolonged 1935 honeymoon around the world with her first husband, man about town James Cromwell, had introduced Doris Duke to Near Eastern Islamic and Indian Moghul art and architecture, a passion enshrined in her 1938 Honolulu residence Shangri La by architect Marion Sims Wyeth, the collections she acquired for Newport would present a far more focused and sentimental side.

Doris Duke with her first husband, James Cromwell. Courtesy of Doris Duke Charitable Foundation Historical Archives, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University, Durham, NC.

In 1957, Nanaline Holt Inman Duke downsized to the Stanhope Hotel, where she would remain until her death in 1962, and Doris chose to donate the 78th Street mansion to NYU. Despite what is generally assumed, she did not sell off or disperse the Gilded Age contents of the house in the spirit of the Modernist dictate of the period. Eighteenth century French style seat and case furniture, Flemish tapestries, Royal Academy portraits, and Chinese Export porcelain, so emblematic of Belle Époque interiors, were packed and moved to Rough Point in Newport which had been only spartanly furnished following the fright of the 1938 Hurricane.

Doris Duke photographed by Cecil Beaton. Courtesy of Doris Duke Charitable Foundation Historical Archives, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University, Durham, NC.

Miss Duke, in conjunction with a series of decorators, arranged these family collections reverentially, not only preserving her parents’ aesthetic but also setting it off to maximum advantage. In the ensuing years she would vastly expand this aesthetic by collecting herself, at auction and through dealers, exactly those schools, Royal Academy and Old Master artists, Flemish tapestries and French furniture, favored by her parents.

The process was significantly aided by the simultaneous break-up of several of Newport’s most fabled estates. At the 1962 Parke-Bernet auction of the contents of the Berwind estate The Elms, the 1969 sale of the Wetmore collections at Chateau-sur-Mer, and the 1977 sale of the Elinor Dorrance Ingersoll estate Bois Doré, Doris Duke bought key decorative arts highlights preserving them in Newport while adding to the Gilded Age profile of her family home.

A parallel and equally strategic collecting mission emerged in the 1960s. The Newport of Doris Duke’s youth had changed drastically during her post-War absence. Unregulated suburbanization and large-scale urban renewal had altered the city’s context and erased the Colonial era waterfront of wharves and squares from the map. Numerous eighteenth and early nineteenth century houses, considered derelict, were slated for demolition.

While Doris had quietly given considerable financial support to the Preservation Society of Newport County’s efforts, sponsoring surveys on the rehabilitation of the Trinity church neighborhood and funding the purchase of Chateau-sur-Mer, she quickly realized that the organization would be overwhelmed with its broadened focus on the Gilded Age following the 1962 purchase of The Elms and the 1963 acquisition of the Marble House.  Driving around town with Leta Morris McBean, Miss Duke quickly came to the realization that private initiative was needed to act quickly and decisively to save endangered historic structures and neighborhoods … she thus began to collect Colonial buildings in 1968.

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).

Forty homes were bought through third party agents within the first 15 months, eventually to total 83 properties. Miss Duke created the Newport Restoration Foundation to hold and manage these historic homes and it was under their auspices that architects and artisans were hired; the houses restored and kept on the tax roles as rental properties. In this undertaking Miss Duke gained considerable expertise on construction, design and restoration practices, personally choosing period-appropriate architectural elements, paint colors, fixtures and floor plans.

At an early date she also researched Newport Colonial furniture with the aim of converting one of her properties into a house museum showcasing the arts and crafts of the region. Focused buying for this endeavor centered on private purchases from old Rhode Island families and collectors, local estate auctions and forays into signature sales at major auction houses.  In 1989 she was the under-bidder at Christie’s, New York for the celebrated John Goddard secretary desk made for Nicholas Brown, which set the world record for American furniture at auction at 12.1 million dollars … and which Miss Duke had intended for her Newport house museum where she had measured spots for its potential placement. The Goddard desk would be known as “the piece that got away.”

Rough Point aerial.

In refurnishing her parent’s Rough Point, Miss Duke conveniently had an inventory to start with such as a Palma il Vecchio’s The Annunciation (circa 1526) hanging over the mantel in the Newport dining room and purchased originally for that spot in 1924 by J.B. Duke from the dealer Joseph Duveen together with a set of circa 1500 Brussels tapestries.  Like his peers, Mr. Duke bought from the de rigeur taste-making dealers of the age, Duveen, Knoedler and Colnaghi. To add to the then pared down inventory in Newport, a motivated Miss Duke quickly added treasures from the New York residence at 1 East 78th Street beginning with two portraits by Thomas Gainsborough.  One of the paintings depicts Lord Peter Burrell (circa 1785), a well-known cricket player in England during the late 18th century.

Brussels tapestry, circa 1500.

The second is a 1780 portrait of the London jeweler Raphael Franco seated at his desk in London with a view of St Paul’s in the background. In accordance with the taste of his class and period, Mr. Duke was a great admirer of English Royal Academy portraiture; he paid 6,200 pounds sterling for the Franco portrait at Christie’s, London in 1910, a then record price for a Gainsborough male portrait.

This conservative preference provided Doris Duke with enough stock to fill the walls of Rough Point with comparable works including portraits by Sir Joshua Reynolds, John Hoppner, her father’s favorite, and Henry Raeburn. In keeping with J.B. Duke’s taste, Doris would subsequently transform the Great Hall at Rough Point by acquiring a van Dyck for the space, a double portrait of the Earl of Newport and Lord Goring circa 1639.

van Dyck’s double portrait of the Earl of Newport and Lord Goring, circa 1639.
A view of the Great Hall.

Miss Duke used to like to tell her friends the reason she bought the portrait is because the Earl of NEWPORT should feel at home at Rough Point.  She then bought a second van Dyck to grace the stairwell at Rough Point, a portrait of Charles II painted in 1641 as the eleven-year old Prince of Wales.  A keen history buff Doris Duke was fully aware that Charles II had granted Rhode Island its 1663 charter.

van Dyck’s portrait of Charles II as the eleven-year old Prince of Wales, which graces the stairwell at Rough Point.

Further up the staircase on the landing is a portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds of Caroline, the 4th Duchess of Marlborough, the portrait was in the Matilda Dodge collection and hung in Meadowbrook Hall in Rochester Hills, MI and was purchased by Miss Duke in 1970. Most certainly, Doris was also aware of the Marlborough connection to Newport, the 9th Duke having married Consuelo Vanderbilt of Marble House in 1895.

Sir Joshua Reynolds, Caroline, the 4th Duchess of Marlborough.

After organizing the transfer of key pieces from New York, Doris Duke turned to the estate sales in Newport during the 1960s and ’70s, both to acquire quality pieces for her collection and to preserve significant works from the city’s signature collectors.

At the 1962 Parke-Bernet auction of The Elms, then destined for demolition, she acquired two fifteenth-century School of Andrea Della Robbia haut-relief plaques one, a Madonna and Child, the other an Adoration.  The Madonna and Child she hung in the entrance vestibule and the other in her dining room facing a related Luca Della Robbia of a winged cherub.

Madonna and Child.

In the dining room, Doris hung a Beauvais tapestry bought from the 1965 sale of the Eleanor Elkins Widener collection at Miramar.  The armorial tapestry made for King Louis XV in the winter of 1741 as a diplomatic gift, features two allegorical figures and the arms of France after a design by Francois Boucher. This is one of several pieces at Rough Point with a royal provenance.

In the Yellow Sitting Room is a pair of eighteenth-century Russian steel and ivory inlay occasional tables, purchased from a Paris dealer in 1938, bearing the monogram of Catherine the Great.  The tables stand before a pair of mirrored giltwood floor screens made circa 1743-1744 originally as a pair of doors for the “Golden Salon” of the Palazzo Carrega-Cataldi in Genoa.

Partial View of Doris Duke’s Private Sitting Room.
Detail of steel and ivory inlay occasional table, bearing the monogram of Catherine the Great.

The palazzo’s set of doors was acquired by architect Stanford White in the late 19th century who then had Paris-New York decorator Jules Allard make them into four floor screens. White sold the two screens presently at Rough Point to the Whitney family for their ballroom at 871 Fifth Avenue; eventually they were acquired by the Campbell Soup heiress Elinor Dorrance Hill Ingersoll for her Newport summer cottage Bois Doré. The screens were bought at Mrs. Ingersoll’s estate sale in 1977.

The other two pairs of Palazzo Carrega-Cataldi door-screens are now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a gift of another Newporter Whitney Warren Jr., son of the architect of Grand Central Station and the New York Yacht Club.

Carrega Cataldi mirrored giltwood floor screens at Rough Point.

Doris Duke’s interest in collecting European fine and decorative arts also kept her active in international sales.  In 1966 she attended the auction of the collection of Helena Rubinstein and purchased an unusual suite of mother-of-pearl veneered seat furniture made in Vienna in the late 1840s for the duc and duchesse de Montpensier.  The duc was the son of Louis Philippe of France and the duchesse was a daughter of Ferdinand VII of Spain. The suite remained in the Spanish royal collection until the 1930s eventually making its way into the Paris collection of Helena Rubinstein.

A mother of pearl table in Doris Duke’s bedroom.

Miss Duke placed the furniture in her own colorful purple and yellow bedroom at Rough Point, rounding out the mother-of-pearl suite with an exotic mother-of-pearl secretary desk made in Colonial Peru in the late eighteenth century. This assemblage constitutes what may be one of the largest displays of mother-of-pearl furniture in a museum today.

A pair of circa 1815 mother-of-pearl torchères, made in Paris by Thomire and an 1875 Renoir oil painting of A Girl Sewing, related to a larger version of the same subject at the Clark Museum in Williamstown, MA, round out the high style references.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Jeune fille blonde cousant, 1875.

Nearby, a more whimsical grouping of objets sits on a black ebonized mother-of-pearl table. Gifts from friends, these sentimental trinkets include snuffboxes, small jewel boxes and a porcelain whistle given Miss Duke by Leta Morris McBean.

Doris’s personal bathroom in her bedroom at Rough Point.

Another, more extravagant gift from Leta, is an important oil on canvas marinescape painting, surprisingly the only American painting at Rough Point.  A characteristic early 1860s work by Fitz Henry Lane, the painting from the Morris collection depicts The Reef Near Norman’s Woe at Gloucester, MA. It hangs over the mantel in Miss Duke’s private sitting room, home to a baby grand piano and a Sony reel to reel used to record Miss Duke’s solo or group piano and singing sessions.  Miss Duke became an accomplished jazz musician under the tutelage of her friend Joey Castro.

The Morning Room.

By far the most impressive room at Rough Point, the 60-foot-long ballroom, a 1924 addition by architect Horace Trumbauer, is hung with eighteenth century Chinese Export wallpaper segments forming a panoramic whole.  In order to paper the entire room Miss Duke combined two different Chinese papers purchased at Parke Bernet in 1958, one of the papers is known to have been created for Castle Clyne (1791) in Wales.

The room is filled with an assembled collection of eighteenth and nineteenth century French seat furniture, consoles, commodes and carpets …  mostly from the reception rooms of 1 East 78th Street mixed in with eighteenth century Qianlong Dynasty (1736-95) porcelain. A pair of tabletop 18th century pagoda shaped gilded bronze and jewel inlaid English automatons made by Jonathan Cox play six different tunes as a clipper ship moves forward along the Chinoiserie landscape.

The immense 60-foot-long ballroom.
18th century Chinese Export wallpaper segments.
One of a pair of 18th century pagoda shaped gilded bronze and jewel inlaid English automatons.
Wallpaper detail.

Later additions to Rough Point after the 1960s would illustrate a certain refinement in Miss Duke’s taste, witnessed first by an interest in Dutch and Flemish art.  In the early 1970s she would purchase an evocative portrait by Ferdinand Bol, a student of Rembrandt, the subject, a Young Woman with Pearls is not unlike Vermeer’s famous painting The Girl With the Pearl Earring.

Ferdinand Bol’s Young Woman with Pearls.

The last great work of art purchased by Doris Duke for Rough Point was in 1985 when she acquired Jan van de Cappelle’s Visit of the Stadtholder Prince Frederick Hendrick to the Fleet of the States General at Dordrecht in 1646 at Christie’s for $1.5 million.  Given the resurgence of interest in American silver in the 1980s, Miss Duke followed suit and acquired an important Tiffany & Co. silver swan centerpiece from the 1876 Philadelphia Exposition for her dining table. The table saw small informal gatherings of Newport friends and visiting celebrities Doris liked to host; frequent guests included Martha Graham, Jim Nabors, Elizabeth Taylor and Malcolm Forbes.

Tiffany & Co. silver swan centerpiece.
Regence Style settee in the Dining Room at Rough Point.

Luncheon was served in the solarium, from which Miss Duke might stroll across the lawn to swim off the rocks into the rough sea. Dinner parties were small, generally six to eight guests, after drinks in the Ballroom and digestifs in the Morning Room. Favorite fare included chicken curry… Wit was always in evidence and rarely more so than the 1988 lawn party in honor of Princess and Baby who summered with Miss Duke every season until her death; the party was their coming out fete and the guests of honor proved very sociable mingling and munching ever so delicately on graham crackers, for these young ladies were Doris’s pet camels!

The Solarium.

With Rough Point ‘s redecoration largely completed in the mid 1960s Doris Duke would explore a whole new arena of collecting in the late 1960s, one that would reflect her active interest in eighteenth and early nineteenth century Newport architecture and her 1968 formation of the Newport Restoration Foundation.  The original Board of the Newport Restoration Foundation was composed of Doris, Leta Morris McBean and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.  Of the 83 houses she would buy and restore in Newport between 1968 and 1984 she always intended that one of them would be operated as a house museum serving as a contextual backdrop for her collection of 18th and early 19th century Newport decorative arts.

Doris Duke on the terrace at Rough Point celebrating Princess and Baby’s debut in 1988. From left to right is Oatsie Charles, Doris Duke, Ben Reed, Nuala Pell, and Senator Claiborne Pell in the doorway.

The house she chose for this purpose was the 1811 Samuel Whitehorne, Jr. House at 416 Thames Street, opened to the public in 1974.  The house contains a collection of Newport decorative arts (furniture, pewter, silver) with a concentration on furniture made by the celebrated Townsend and Goddard craftsmen of Newport, four generations of inter-related furniture makers from the 1730s through the early 1800s.  The two most famous members of the extended family were cousins John Goddard and John Townsend.  Amongst the important pieces at the Whitehorne House is a dining table made by John Townsend bearing his engraved 1796 label.

In the drawing room is a cabinet pedestal tilt top tea table, circa 1760-80, one of only seven extant tables of its kind, and one of only three in public collections, set against a wallpaper chosen by Jackie Onassis and based on a document she considered using to redecorate a room at the White House in the early 1960s.

On the second floor is a boldly carved ball and claw bedstead made by John Townsend and descended in his family through his daughter Mary Townsend Brinley until purchased from the ex-collection of Newport attorney Cornelius Moore in the early 1970s.

From the Moore collection, Miss Duke also secured an important and representative cross section of Newport Colonial silver. Given her resolve, Doris Duke was the first person to pay over $100,00.00 for a piece of Newport furniture when she purchased a kneehole dresser in the early 1970s for $104,000.00 from a Philadelphia dealer.

Amongst the three high chests on display at the Whitehorne House is one made by Benjamin Baker, a Newport furniture maker who apprenticed under John Goddard, featuring Newport’s distinctive undercut ball and claw feet and its signature shell carving.  Posthumously Doris Duke would receive an award from the city for doing so much to save Newport’s 18th and early 19th century architectural heritage.  

An observant visitor to the Whitehorne or to Rough Point, opened to the public seven years after Miss Duke’s 1993 death, will not leave with the impression of a self-indulgent, reclusive dilettante shunning friends and family, but rather with an appreciation for a shy and self-effacing philanthropist who transformed the face of much of Newport with energetic drive, disciplined motivation and intellectual curiosity, a mission accomplished with passion and in the intimate company of a group of loyal and sincere friends who knew the face behind the veil of epithets.

To learn more about the Doris Duke collections and the Newport Restoration Foundation please visit

Charles J. Burns, Independent Newport Historian, Lecturer, and Guest Speaker at Sotheby’s Education in New York, has been affiliated with Doris Duke’s Newport Restoration Foundation since 2016.

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