In the fading black-and-white photograph, James Buchanan Duke directs his stolid gaze toward the camera, the slightest hint of a smile at the corners of his mouth. Next to him, wearing a delicate white gown and a broad grin, is his only child and cherished daughter, Doris. The photo, taken around 1914, shows a man who has built a formidable international tobacco empire—and in the process amassed great wealth—and the little girl who would inherit a sizable portion of that fortune.
The father-daughter portrait is among the vast assortment of materials in the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation Historical Archives, donated to Duke University in 2009. The 800 linear feet of materials—an amount that, stacked vertically, would be nearly four times as tall as Duke Chapel—include household inventories, architectural drawings, invoices, recipes, travel itineraries, photographs, legal documents, correspondence, maps, memorabilia, photographs, and home movies.
So far, only a fraction of the collection is available for researchers to explore—processing will continue through 2011. But its contents promise to provide a more comprehensive and better-balanced portrait of a multifaceted, intellectually curious woman who in her lifetime too often was perceived as an eccentric recluse. In fact, Doris Duke embraced a wide range of pursuits and was a committed philanthropist, supporting, among other things, historic restoration projects, the arts, the environment, child welfare programs (both through her own foundations and as a trustee for The Duke Endowment), animal welfare, and medical research, including support of Duke Medical Center and its founding dean, Wilburt Davison, one of a small number of Duke administrators she counted as a close friend. She established her first foundation when she was only twenty-one and, during her lifetime, gave away the equivalent of more than $400 million in today’s dollars.
Yet her legacy, like that of other wealthy, enigmatic figures, has been eclipsed by her celebrity and splashy aspects of her personal life, including two marriages that ended in divorce. She made her debut before King George V and Queen Mary at Buckingham Palace, traveled in the same circles as Elizabeth Taylor and Jacqueline Onassis, and kept two camels as pets. But other things that appeared eccentric or outré in the middle of the last century are things she would be admired or envied for today: becoming a competitive paddleboard surfer and avid ocean swimmer, traveling the world, and collecting museum-quality art.
Her wealth gave her the freedom to disdain convention and embrace what interested her, from taking jazz piano lessons and hanging out with musicians in Eugene Smith’s New York loft to exploring the teachings and principles of the Self-Realization Fellowship Church and its founder, Paramahansa Yogananda. “Doris Duke was a woman ahead of her time,” says Tim Pyatt ’81, head of Duke University Archives. “Even though we don’t think of her as a feminist in the current understanding of that term, she was a trailblazer who did things her own way. She was a complex woman, and this collection will help contribute to a deeper understanding of who she was.”