"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
A bold portrait of Doris Duke, the defiant and notorious tobacco heiress who was perhaps the greatest modern woman philanthropist
In The Silver Swan, Sallie Bingham chronicles one of the great underexplored lives of the twentieth century and the very archetype of the modern woman. “Don’t touch that girl, she’ll burn your fingers,” FBI director J. Edgar Hoover once said about Doris Duke, the inheritor of James Buchanan Duke’s billion-dollar tobacco fortune. During her lifetime, she would be blamed for scorching many, including her mother and various ex-lovers. She established her first foundation when she was twenty-one; cultivated friendships with the likes of Jackie Kennedy, Imelda Marcos, and Michael Jackson; flaunted interracial relationships; and adopted a thirty-two year-old woman she believed to be the reincarnation of her deceased daughter. This is also the story of the great houses she inhabited, including the classically proportioned limestone mansion on Fifth Avenue, the sprawling Duke Farms in New Jersey, the Gilded Age mansion Rough Point in Newport, Shangri La in Honolulu, and Falcon’s Lair overlooking Beverly Hills.
Even though Duke was the subject of constant scrutiny, little beyond the tabloid accounts of her behavior has been publicly known. In 2012, when eight hundred linear feet of her personal papers were made available, Sallie Bingham set out to probe her identity. She found an alluring woman whose life was forged in the Jazz Age, who was not only an early war correspondent but also an environmentalist, a surfer, a collector of Islamic art, a savvy businesswoman who tripled her father’s fortune, and a major philanthropist with wide-ranging passions from dance to historic preservation to human rights.
In The Silver Swan, Bingham is especially interested in dissecting the stereotypes that have defined Duke’s story while also confronting the disturbing questions that cleave to her legacy.
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.