Nabes and Neighbors

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New York al fresco. Photo: JH.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020. Warm and sunny day yesterday in New York. With the weatherman forecasting thunderstorms. With amazing combinations of clouds both white and grey passing overhead in the bright blue sky. 

Same forecast as yesterday and same kinda clouds. With a touch of rain in the late afternoon, and no thunder.  Except: very early in the evening when was a series of thunderous explosions in the distance! Maybe not even on the island of Manhattan – but to the west. The thunder wasn’t “claps” but sounded and vibrated like bombs exploding, with much greater volume and audio-impact. JH and his brother were met with hail(!) in their nabes as per the below video.

And then … just a few minutes later … the skies cleared up.

Today we’re running in John Foreman’s “Big Old Houses,” the James B. Duke House that still stands palatial, now a property of NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts since 1952. It is located on the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 78th Street, across from the park.

Mr. Duke’s fortune came from American Tobacco (Lucky Strike cigarettes) and Duke Power (which he owned outright). As rich as Mr. Duke was, he had a daughter who was more famous in her lifetime, very famous in the world, named Doris. Doris Duke and Barbara Hutton, her contemporary who was an heiress to F.W. Woolworth, were known in their day as America’s “Poor Little Rich Girls.”

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

All houses, to me, are a history, representing the lives that dwelt therein and thereafter. I’ve never had the occasion to be inside the Duke house but from the photos, you get a clear picture of vast living space. 

While I appreciate the architecture and the interior design – the artistry and historical references to the era of Louis Quatorze – I remain wondering what it “felt” like to live in such domestic vastness. Even the bedrooms were like small ballrooms. Surely it emphasized to Mr. and Mrs. Duke and daughter Doris that they were indeed very small in that domestic reality, no matter the size of the family fortune. There were only three of them, at most, living there (when they were altogether).

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

Doris was born November 22, 1912 , the same year the house was completed. She lived there part of every year — when she was in New York — until 1952 when she donated it to NYU.  She also had famous residences in Newport, Rhode Island,  Hillsborough Township, New Jersey, Beverly Hills where she owned the legendary villa of Rudolph Valentino, Falcon Lair, and  Shangri-la in Hawaii. She died three weeks before her 81st birthday in Beverly Hills. 

Her fortune at the time of her death was estimated at more than $1 billion, most of which went to charity and dedicated to medical research, prevention of cruelty to children and animals, the performing arts, wildlife, and ecology. Her choices give you a strong sense of her basic values in life, as well as concern for others. That was a strong part of her uniqueness.

Her father had died at age 68 in 1925, leaving the bulk of his $140 million fortune to his only child. It has been said that the dying father advised his not yet teenage daughter: “Trust no one.” Perhaps by the time that deathbed admonishment was delivered she, the child, already knew what that meant. As thoughtful and generous as she was, she once stopped speaking to a lifelong (from childhood) friend with nary a word or explanation. The dumfounded friend was crestfallen and confused. Doris repaired the breach several years later and their lifelong relationship continued.

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.

She married for the first time when she was 22 to James Cromwell, the son of Eva Stotesbury. Cromwell, who was sixteen years older than his bride, had previously been married to Delphine Dodge, the only daughter of Horace Dodge, one of the two brothers who founded the Dodge Motor Company. Eight years later, now mature in the ways of marital life, Doris divorced Cromwell. Eight years after that, she married Porfirio Rubirosa, the Dominican diplomat playboy, racecar driver and polo player. 

This marriage made the tabloids and sold a lot of papers because Rubirosa was famously tabloidal as a playboy who had been married to the Dominican Republic’s president’s daughter Flor Trujillo. Six years later, she’d had enough of him and divorced. Then a few years later he married the French movie star Danielle Darrieux. A few years later, he divorced Darrieux to marry the richest girl in the world. Darrieux, it was reported, received $1 million from Doris for her departure. 

Doris got what she wanted, and four years later, Rubi (as his friends called him) and Doris divorced. She’d probably had had enough too. Rubi reportedly left that marriage with several million bucks, polo ponies, sports cars, a converted B-25 bomber, and a 17th Century house in Paris.

Then he married the other richest girl in the world Barbara Hutton. That marriage lasted one year, if that; and we readers of the tabloids read about all the “booty” that Rubi took from that marriage (Hutton was famously generous). There were all kinds of prizes – more polo ponies, private plane, sports cars, and more dollars and dollars.

Porfirio Rubirosa with Zsa Zsa Gabor, circa 1954.

Rubi finally married two years later to a French beauty, Odile Rodin, and remained married until his sudden death in an auto accident in Paris in 1965. 

Rubirosa was especially famous among his international socialite crowd not for his brilliance as a diplomat or his prowess at polo; not for his multi-marriages, or even his charming personality, but for… his larger than life sexual equipment. Evidently it also peaked the curiosity of both sexes just in terms of “seeing is believing.” Anne Slater, talking about him, told me of the time when she and her husband Denniston Slater met Rubi at a luncheon at a club in Miami. 

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.

He was the star of the party, “adored” for his Latin charm and good looks. But at one moment when the star had to use the men’s room, several other men at the luncheon, including Denny Slater, also excused themselves, having decided they had to go too. Anne, in telling the story recalled that at the time, asking Denny if she couldn’t join him too….because…everyone wanted a look at the proof positive. “Astounding” was the mildest word to describe the “sight.”

Meanwhile, back to the palatial house on Fifth Avenue and 78th Street: I never knew Doris Duke. I clearly recall seeing her — only once (which I’ve written about here before) at Sardi’s restaurant in the late ‘60s in Manhattan. Over the years since I know and have known others who knew Doris well. She was always an interesting subject among those who knew her. That moment at Sardi’s set the image in my imagination. She was taller than most, maybe five-ten or -eleven. She was striking, not beautiful, but goodlooking, almost handsome butg in a feminine, delicate way. And at the sight of her that night at Sardi’s, she moved through the entering crowd with alacrity and directness. Even if I didn’t know who she was, I would have known that she was Somebody. A rich somebody.

Although she had only two marriages, she evidently had a number of lovers. She was an accomplished competitive surfer, having taken it up in Hawaii under the tutelage of surfing champion and Olympic swimmer Duke Kahanamoku. She loved animals, particularly dogs and camels — three of whom (camels) were pets she kept at her house in Newport in summertime, and on the farm in New Jersey the rest of the year.

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.

She loved jazz, was an accomplished jazz pianist and had many jazz musician friends. She also loved gospel music and sang in a gospel choir. She was a major art collector including works of Picasso, Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Monet, as well as  Islamic and Southeast Asian art

The girl who had everything and befriended all kinds of people, also had an inner restlessness. She had had several lovers such as Duke the champion surfer, Errol Flynn the movie star, General George Patton, Joe Castro the bebop jazz pianist, Louis Bromfield, the American author and conservationist. It was a big life, full of relationships, properties, possessions, dramas, music. At the time of her death, I’d heard or read somewhere that she believed in re-incarnation and was thinking about her return, something we’ll never know about. Perhaps the house on Fifth has had wind of it.

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