Doris Duke was a wealthy heiress who spent a lot of money while alive, and continues to spend after her death, through the charitable foundation that carries her name. A few weeks ago, we took a tour of one of her life’s passions, a former Oahu home. Known as Shangri La, it is located just outside Honolulu near Diamond Head. Duke started building it in 1937 and spent the next sixty years filling it with Islamic art.
Duke shopped for art and furnishings in markets across the Near East and made purchases through private dealers in Iran, Morocco, Syria and Egypt, Spain and India. We weren’t allowed to take pictures inside the house, only on patios and in the garden. A few photos would have been nice for future reference, because it was difficult to absorb everything we were seeing. The rooms were crammed full of interesting and beautiful pieces, from wall hangings to glass work, ironwork, carved wooden doors and ceilings, pottery, tile work, rugs, and metal chests. A twentieth-century Alhambra.
The tour was offered through the Honolulu Museum of Art, which buses visitors to and from the house to protect its neighbors from traffic and gawkers. You can avoid all this and take a guided tour of Shangri La without leaving home.
Duke’s legacy goes beyond the maintenance of her former homes, gardens and art collections. Her foundation supports environmental programs, medical research and Africa health-care programs, artists, child well-being, and a greater awareness of Muslim societies through Islamic art.
The tour guide shared a few tidbits about Mrs. Duke’s personal life. For example, she built a guest cottage she called the Playhouse. Her friend Elton John once stayed there. Imelda Marcos, wife of deposed Philippines’ dictator Ferdinand Marcos, lived there for two years. I first wondered if the place was big enough to store Marcos’ famed shoe collection, but read recently that she had to leave more than 1,220 pairs behind when she and her husband fled Manila.
Wikipedia and Biography.com added more details of Duke’s personal life: The heiress took up competitive surfing with Hawaiian surfer and Olympic swimmer, Duke Kahanamoku, as her teacher. She married and divorced twice. Her second husband was a diplomat from the Dominican Republic and a playboy. Allegedly, “the U.S. government drew up Duke’s prenuptial agreement,” (bio.com) due to fears that without this a foreign government…”could gain too much leverage.”(Wikipedia) Mrs. Duke was somewhat of an introvert who tried to steer clear of media attention. “When she died in 1993, her billion-dollar legacy was left in the sole control of her butler,” as executor. “She left virtually all her fortune to several existing and new charitable foundations.”
She didn’t keep a diary or write about herself, though she did keep detailed records of every item she purchased for the house. This didn’t keep others from producing television miniseries or writing about her, though. “The Richest Girl in the World, The Extravagant Life and Fast Times of Doris Duke,” is one of several books about her life. I’ve got it on order at the library.