If you believe the recent CBS miniseries version of the Doris Duke story (“Too Rich,” starring Lauren Bacall as the aging Doris), neither money nor philanthropy can buy happiness. Miss Duke is portrayed as a victim many times over (although the most sophisticated, well-informed, and frequently-warned victim in modern docudrama).
Her beloved father, James Duke, founder of the Duke tobacco and power fortunes, dies when she is only twelve (CBS says she was ten, presumably for dramatic effect); her first husband proves a selfish golddigger; all her other liaisons (except for a late-life awakening of environmental conscience in the company of Louis Bromfield, who soon dies anyway) are with cads, scoundrels, and womanizers.
To top it all off, at least in the CBS version, her last years are plagued by Duke’s misplaced trust in an adopted daughter, whom Doris ultimately rejects, and über-butler Bernard Lafferty, who became her executor (qualifying for a fat $5 million fee) after slowly, slowly killing her through the administration of various “medications.”
While there is no excuse for CBS taking four hours to tell this tawdry tale, it does have important implications for philanthropy. Really!
Just consider what we can learn from the Doris Duke experience:
I.—Lusting after foundation money is not just a venial sin of grantseekers; it can lead to mortal sin as well. “Too Rich” portrays butler Lafferty as manipulating Duke’s legal and financial advisers to help him become estate executor, promising fat stipends and trusteeships to those who lend a hand, and gloating “I’ll have control of the Duke Foundation.”
II.—If you can’t trust a trustee, who can you trust? “Too Rich” shows the Lafferty-recruited advisors cheerfully lending a hand in replacing the many wills, powers of attorney, and other unidentified documents which Lafferty methodically shreds with new versions that name Lafferty as Numero Uno in the Doris Duke power universe.
III.—Lawyers are what keep the gears of philanthropy grinding. As soon as her father dies, Doris is ready to resort to litigation to protect his philanthropic legacy against possible encroachment by her mother. “Daddy loved Duke Farms [a heavily landscaped park-preserve] and I’m not selling it.” This may also be the seed of Duke’s environmental awareness, which otherwise does not sprout until sometime in the 1970s. From that point on, lawyers keep showing up, sometimes recommending prenuptial agreements, but usually manipulating the Duke fortune and occasionally its charitable purposes. Doris Duke always has strong views, but usually goes along with the lawyers.
IV.—Even the wealthiest children of great philanthropists (as James Duke, Doris’s father, clearly was) have to develop the philanthropic instinct on their own. CBS shows Doris as primarily a party girl until, sometime after a failed pregnancy, she suddenly commits herself to “war work” during World War II by volunteering as a nursing aid in London. As Doris says, she wants to “give back”—“I’ve been given more than anyone deserves.” Still, one has to wonder whether a nice grant to the Red Cross or the USO wouldn’t have done at least as much good.
V.—Great philanthropists are never so easily manipulated as when they isolate themselves. The CBS portrayal shows Doris’s hyperactive social life, yet she really relied on only a small inner circle in making decisions. Bernard Lafferty is not the only manipulator; adopted daughter Shandee runs a close second, until she is outmanipulated by Lafferty himself. James Duke warns Doris on his deathbed to beware of people who “love you for what you have and can give them,” a warning Doris seems to take to heart but never acts on. Since James continues his deathbed discourse by saying he is putting money in trust “for Duke University,” you’d think Doris would get the message on donor intent. But apparently not.
VI.—Speaking of donor intent, it’s not just a problem for dead people. Sometimes donors forget their intent during their own lifetimes. Not only does Doris cede control of her affairs to Lafferty late in life, she flirts with socially conscious investing (when adopted daughter Shandee complains about tobacco products) and giving (unspecified proto-New Age causes Shandee is into). And as Martin Morse Wooster told Philanthropy readers in the November-December 1998 issue [“Dead Man Talking,” review of Robert Durden’s Lasting Legacy to the Carolinas: The Duke Endowment, 1924-1994], “Doris Duke, like far too many philanthropists, left vague instructions on how she wanted her wealth to be used. Most of the officials chosen to lead the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation did not know Duke and had to guess what she believed in.”
Is there any uplifting philanthropic moral in all this? Obviously children should listen more carefully to their parents, but that’s true of life in general. At least we can give Doris Duke credit for not squandering her father’s wealth on good times and stupid investments. And Lafferty, whatever the truth about his role, outlived Doris by only three years, and the entire estate reverted to the foundation. So in the long run, it seems that higher purposes won out.
George Pieler is a contributing editor to Philanthropy.