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Whether you love grand architecture, great art, animals, scandals, generosity, or damn-the-torpedos eccentricity, you've got to love Doris Duke and Rough Point, Duke's seaside mansion in Newport, Rhode Island. Known as “the world's richest girl,” Doris Duke inherited her wealthy father's estate when she was 12 and ended up suing her own mother for control of the properties. (And you thought your family had spats?) Judging by what happened later, it's a good thing she did.
Duke grew up to be a decent piano player, a good athlete, and (I think) a beautiful woman. As a jazz lover, she hosted black musicians at Rough Point back when Newport society was not known for having African-Americans lounging in the living room. She had affairs with A-list men like Errol Flynn, General George S. Patton, and Duke Kahanamoku, the Hawaiian surfing king.
With lovers like that, a private fortune, and a respectable backhand, why ever settle down? Duke tried, but her marriages fell apart, a child born in 1940 died, and her adoption (at age 75) of a Hare Krishna follower – she believed the woman was the reincarnation of her deceased baby -- came to a bad end.
Rough Point Tour
The original owner of Rough Point, built in the 1890s, was a Vanderbilt, so he was able to hire a pretty good landscaper named Frederick Law Olmstead. The building's sprawling, three-story stone facade looks like an English country house that never ends: It has 49 rooms – big ones. The Newport Restoration Foundation offers excellent tours, which it limits to 12 participants at a time.
Visiting her house, you quickly see what a smart collector Duke was. The Brussels tapestry depicting courtship scenes and the Annunciation over one of the mantles (both 16th century), the deep blue Ming Dynasty vases, the paintings by Gainsborough and Van Dyke, the Joshua Reynolds portraits of women – they all testify to Duke's good taste and even better checking account.
Dogs on the Furniture
A jeweled pagoda with elephant-like legs in the music room is really a large music box; the Steinway concert grand produced some great jazz in its day. The Yellow Room features Louis XVI carpets and chairs with exquisite silk needlework. Duke kept up to 12 pet dogs at a time, and they were permitted to hang out on these priceless, hand-sewn antiques.
In the 1980s she acquired a couple of camels, to whom she fed Graham crackers on a silver tray. She let them into the mansion's solarium during a storm in 1991; otherwise, they wandered freely on the back lawn and scared the bejesus out of people on the Cliff Walk.
Duke Restores Downtown
Fun, but Duke had a philanthropic side, too, donating more than $400 million to various causes -- especially the Newport Restoration Foundation, which she created in 1968. This foundation has not only opened grand buildings like Rough Point to the public, but bought up scores of dilapidated 18th- and 19th-century clapboard houses downtown. Then, instead of tearing them down and putting up clean, new, soulless boxes, as has happened in other American cities, she and the foundation restored these buildings to their original function as residences and shops. No wonder people credit Duke with having turned a run-down, dying town into an evocative place with a vibrant culture and economy. FYI, those restorations are so authentic that residents of the historic buildings may not use insulation.
In the early 1990s her new butler convinced Duke to get a facelift and knee surgery. The latter left her incapacitated and in pain. When she died in 1993, possibly of overmedication, her contemporaries said that the butler did it, but nothing was ever proved. She had bequeathed the butler a lot of money and a seat on the Foundation, but the charity managed to oust him, and what's left is a wonderfully revived Newport, including that mansion by the sea.
To see how Newport mansion life looked from the servants' point of view, click here.