Doris Duke's Islamic Art Retreat

The Honolulu hideaway built by "the richest girl in the world" is now a museum showcasing her unique collection of Islamic art

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

In 1938, American tobacco heiress Doris Duke embarked on one of her periodic shopping trips to Europe and Asia. Then 25, “the richest girl in the world”—as newspapers had dubbed her when she was a child—was eagerly acquiring antiques and fragments of old buildings to outfit her lavish new home in Hawaii, which she called Shangri La. “It seems almost incredible,” wrote New York Daily News society editor Nancy Randolph, “that there can be a square inch of space left . . . for another bit of bric-a-brac, after the months and months Doris has spent scouring Europe and the Far East for furnishings and knickknacks.”

Today those “knickknacks” form the nucleus of one of the most spectacular collections of Islamic art in America. Duke, who died in 1993 at age 80, spent nearly 60 years filling her secluded Hawaiian home with more than 3,500 art objects, almost all from the Muslim world: ceramics, textiles, carved wood and stone architectural details, metalwork and paintings. The oldest pieces date from the 7th century, but the majority come from the 17th to 19th centuries.

Having no direct heirs, Duke left the bulk of her billiondollar estate to charity. Among other bequests, her will established the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art to “promote the study and understanding of Middle Eastern art and culture.” The foundation transformed her Hawaiian hideaway into a museum, which opened in November 2002. Tours have been sold out ever since, hardly surprising in light of Americans’ newfound hunger to understand the Islamic world. An additional lure is the chance to step inside the dream house of one of the wealthiest, most eccentric and most reclusive public figures of the 20th century.

“For most Islamic art historians, Shangri La was a kind of rumor, a shadowy place everyone had heard about but few people had actually seen,” says Thomas Lentz, director of the Harvard University Art Museums, who visited the new museum last year. “Walking into that building for the first time was an amazing experience. It’s a kind of marvelous jumble of mediums, periods and quality you wouldn’t find anywhere else. To see an imitation of a 17th-century Safavid palace facing a huge swimming pool on a spectacular site on the coast of Hawaii—after a while, the mind starts to whirl.” Shangri La’s five acres are tucked into an upscale Honolulu neighborhood near the promontory Diamond Head on Oahu. Access is limited to a dozen visitors at a time, who arrive by van four to six times a day from the Honolulu Academy of Arts, about six miles away, where a new Duke Foundation-funded gallery of Islamic art serves as an introduction to the museum.

Duke, born November 22, 1912, was the only child of Nanaline Lee Holt Inman Duke, a chilly, distant figure, and James Buchanan Duke, the hot-tempered, high-living founder of the American Tobacco Company (original maker of Lucky Strike cigarettes) and the Duke Power Company, as well as the benefactor and namesake of DukeUniversity. The press welcomed Doris as “the Million Dollar Baby” and claimed that she ate from a 14-carat-gold dish. Her father lavished the little girl with gifts (a pony, a harp, furs) and named his private railway car Doris.

At his death in 1925, “Buck” Duke left 12-year-old Doris a $50 million fortune. (His widow had to make do with a $100,000 annual allowance.) Doris asserted her independence early on. At 14, she took her mother to court to stop the sale of Duke Farms, the family’s baronial estate in New Jersey— and won. When she received the first chunk of her inheritance on her 21st birthday (along with an accordion, which she’d requested from her mother), photographers laid siege to the family’s 54-room Fifth Avenue mansion. Newsweek was already calling her a “legendary figure.”

As a young woman, Duke was unpretentious, headstrong, adventurous and reserved, even reclusive. The ferocious press attention she endured from childhood fed a lifelong mania for privacy. She refused virtually all interviews and booked hotel rooms under assumed names. Slender and leggy with exotically large eyes and a prominent chin, she was self-conscious about her height (6 foot 1)—in photographs with shorter companions, she often slouched or leaned. She inevitably made good copy. She converted a B-25 bomber into her own private luxury airliner and for years kept a pair of Mongolian camels at one of her estates. When local officials forbade camel ranching, she gave the animals the run of the mansion’s ground floor, carpets be damned.

“She had a very soft voice,” says Emma Veary, 73, a longtime friend who was often a guest at Duke’s homes. (Besides Shangri La and Duke Farms, there were estates in Rhode Island, New York and California.) “We called her ‘Lahi Lahi,’ which means fragile in Hawaiian, because of her voice.” But she wasn’t mousy, Veary says. “In her quiet way, Doris was very strong. She knew what she wanted, and she had the wherewithal to get it.”

In 1935, at 22, Duke married James H.R. Cromwell, a 38- year-old sportsman and gambler who was going through his own inheritance at a furious clip. The couple set sail on a tenmonth, much-publicized round-the-world honeymoon, with stops in Europe, Egypt, India, Indonesia and China and meetings with both Stalin and Gandhi.

For Duke, the honeymoon was a life-changing experience— no thanks to Cromwell, to whom she quickly cooled (starting when his check for the first leg of the honeymoon bounced). She developed a passion for Islamic art, especially the graceful royal architecture of Mogul India. She was especially moved by the Taj Mahal, the Muslim mausoleum completed in 1647 in Agra, India, by the emperor Shah Jahan. Inspired by motifs she saw there, Duke immediately ordered a sumptuous marble bedroom-bathroom suite, inlaid with jade, malachite and lapis lazuli. The couple intended it for a wing they planned to add to El Mirasol, the Palm Beach estate of the groom’s mother, Eva Stotesbury. (Critics referred to the proposed addition as the Garaj Mahal.)


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus