In this illuminating biography, Bingham (The Blue Box) chronicles the life of philanthropist and tobacco heiress Doris Duke (1912–1993). Drawing from personal papers archived at Duke University, which bears the family’s name, as well as correspondence, journals, and reminiscences of friends and associates, Bingham eschews scandal to concentrate on the elements that shaped Duke. Details of her short-lived marriages to ne’er-do-well Jimmy Cromwell and Dominican playboy “Rubi” Rubirosa, for example, are balanced by chapters on Duke’s work as a war correspondent and undercover agent during WWII, writer for Harper’s Bazaar, investor in a Rome newspaper, and overseer of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. The story of her parents, James Buchanan and Nanaline—and the fortune they amassed from their tobacco and cigarette companies—give context to Duke’s wealthy, privileged upbringing. When her father’s death threatens two family properties—a mansion in New Jersey, another in Newport, R.I.—15-year-old Duke challenges their sale, becoming owner of both and establishing her lifelong role as their manager and caretaker. Duke later builds Shangri La, a Hawaiian estate featuring her Islamic art collection, and crosses paths with Eleanor Roosevelt, General Patton, Jackie Kennedy, and dozens of rumored lovers. Bingham is a generous biographer in this exacting, measured work. (Apr.)
"Illuminating . . . Bingham is a generous biographer in this exacting, measured work." Publishers Weekly
"Men who inherit great wealth are respected, but women who do the same are ridiculed. In The Silver Swan, Sallie Bingham rescues Doris Duke from this gendered prison and shows us just how brave, rebellious, and creative this unique woman really was, and how her generosity benefits us to this day.” GLORIA STEINEM
“How to write about the fabulously rich? Sallie Bingham, an accomplished memoirist and fiction writer who is herself a notable philanthropist and a woman of great privilege, may be uniquely situated to present the life of the famed tobacco heiress Doris Duke. Writing of Duke’s unconventional love life, palatial estates, 150 employees, stacks of lawyers, pet camels, and billion-dollar philanthropic legacy, Bingham spikes her sympathetic account with wry asides and imperative critique.” ALIX KATES SHULMAN, author of Memoirs of an Ex–Prom Queen
“Sallie Bingham went in search of a secretive Silver Swan and miraculously found sufficient information to gift us with the most significant, dramatic, and compelling biography of Doris Duke. Heiress, philanthropist, visionary, adventurer, Doris Duke did not keep journals or write letters. Nevertheless, Sallie Bingham’s imaginative persistence uncovered a twentieth-century journey of love and healing, of interracial activism for progress and justice, that will delight and inspire all readers concerned about a more humane future.” BLANCHE WIESEN COOK, author of Eleanor Roosevelt (vols. I, II, III)
“Among the ranks of important American heiresses, Doris Duke has long remained an enigmatic figure. Thanks to Sallie Bingham’s assiduous research through never-before-used documents and her deft writing, we now have a clear and lucidly written account of Duke’s engaging life. And what a life it was! Adventuresome and sometimes impetuous, she was a spectacular spender of wealth for personal pleasure and for the public good, a surfer (who knew?), and the prototype of the modern woman, complete with an array of lovers. The Doris Duke who emerges from the pages of The Silver Swan is an empathetic and generous woman whose massive inherited fortune fueled a remarkable life but also kept her true nature hidden from the public.” JAMES McGRATH MORRIS, author of Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power
Doris Duke (1912–93), for a time the richest woman in the world through inherited wealth from a tobacco fortune, was also fiercely independent and wanted to chart her own path in the world. Bingham, a prolific novelist and playwright, is empathic in her treatment of Duke's somewhat unknowable character and motivations. Utilizing archives at Duke University, her literary style is sometimes challenging to follow; each person in Doris's life had a different nickname for her, and her husbands and lovers are not presented in chronological order. Opening chapters describing Duke's experience in World War II are confusing because they lack context, but Bingham does convey a sense of the pace of Duke's existence. Ultimately, Bingham concludes that while Duke handled her wealth as well as could be expected, she might have been better off without it. VERDICT Fans of Bingham will relish this personal account; an essential reference for scholars and researchers of Duke. [See Prepub Alert, 10/7/19.]—Margaret Heller, Loyola Univ. Chicago Libs.
A portrait of a well-known philanthropist who kept her thoughts secret.
When Doris Duke (1912-1993) turned 21, she received an installment of $10 million from the trust she inherited from her billionaire father, tobacco tycoon James Buchanan "Buck" Duke. At the age of 25, she got another $10 million, and she was reputed to be the richest woman in the world. By the time she died, her net worth had burgeoned to $1.2 billion, mostly directed to the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation to support arts and social services projects. Bingham (The Blue Box: Three Lives in Letters, 2014, etc.) became fascinated by the woman whose image was relegated to a small photograph in a garden at Duke University, the institution her father had endowed. Although the author had access to a huge archive of Duke's personal papers, none of these included diaries, journals, or more than a few letters. "Nothing," Bingham notes, "that has been written or said about her can be proved—or disproved." The lack of revealing material proves a challenge that the author fails to fully overcome. The biography offers a chronicle of Duke's philanthropic largesse; her worldwide travels; luxurious residences; flamboyant marriages and love affairs; the "feuds, separations, and firings" that characterized her relationships with associates and employees; and her often puzzling friendships: with Imelda Marcos, for one, to whom Duke lent a great deal of money to help out with legal fees when she was accused of extortion; Pee-wee Herman, who earned Duke's sympathy when he was hounded by tabloids after a sexual scandal; and especially Charlene Heffner, known as Chandi, who was 32 when she met 74-year-old Duke in 1986, moved into her home, and became her intimate companion. Duke formally adopted Chandi two years later; three years after that, she instructed her staff to eject Chandi from her home. After Duke died, her foundation settled with Chandi for $65 million in return for her silence about their relationship. Bingham, too, remains silent on the matter of Duke's sexuality, emotional needs, and any glimpse of her inner life.
An unsatisfying portrait of a complex woman.