November 18, 1996 12:00 PM

LIVING WELL MAY BE THE BEST revenge, but dying well may be the greater challenge—as the case of Bernard Lafferty might illustrate. In recent months the 51-year-old Lafferty, florid butler to the late tobacco heiress Doris Duke and central figure in the long-running imbroglio over her $1.5 billion estate, had moved into a $2 million Bel Air mansion. He had been increasingly visible on the Los Angeles social scene, playing the role of quasi-celebrity. He often visited Drai’s and Eclipse, his favorite restaurants, where his indulgence for fine food had caused his weight to swell to nearly 250 pounds. In September he attended a charity auction, where he spent $26,000 for a dress Sharon Stone wore in Casino.

But Lafferty’s public show came to an untimely end Nov. 4. A friend found him dead in his baronial bedroom with the 20-foot ceiling, red-velvet drapes and an enormous bed whose headboard had been fashioned from a door that once graced a Vanderbilt estate. The cause of death was still unclear as of Wednesday, but this much is known: Lafferty was a heavy drinker with a notorious taste for prescription drugs. Yet for all the splendor of his surroundings, Lafferty also died in a kind of spiritual squalor—mournful, despondent and legally embattled. “He walked into my office last week and sat in the chair with tears in his eyes,” recalls Lafferty’s assistant Victoria Tarazi. “He said, ‘My Miss Duke is gone and somebody took her.’ ” In the end, like his benefactor, a quiet, dignified passing was the one luxury he could not afford.

Not that many could have been surprised at his unhappy ending, given the taint of scandal that had followed him almost everywhere in recent years. His notoriety began in October 1993, when Duke—whose father, James Buchanan Duke, had founded the American Tobacco Co.—died at home in Los Angeles at 80 after a long illness. It turned out that not long before her death, the famously eccentric heiress had changed her will and named Lafferty—a ponytailed high-school dropout who had been her butler and aide-de-camp for six years—as her executor. With most of the estate going to a trust, Lafferty stood to inherit millions of dollars and to preside over one of the largest private philanthropic organizations in the country.

But almost immediately, one of Duke’s confidants, Dr. Harry B. Demopoulos, cried foul, claiming that she had been tricked. Within months, a former Duke nurse leveled far more serious allegations, claiming that Lafferty and Dr. Charles Kivowitz, a prominent Beverly Hills internist, had conspired to murder Duke through the use of “massive sedation.” As Lafferty told it, his life became a nightmare, despite the support he received from Duke friends such as Elizabeth Taylor. “It was a hard time, but it makes you a better person,” he told PEOPLE earlier this year. “You can see how awful the world is and how it really works when there is a lot of money involved. Greed is an awful thing.”

After being named executor of the Duke estate, Lafferty, who had been born poor in Ireland and orphaned when he was 16, exhibited a little bit of greed himself—he went on a wild spending spree, purchasing a $35,000 diamond-encrusted watch, a $50,000 Cadillac and $320,000 in renovations on Duke’s five homes. But the most questionable—not to mention bizarre—expenditure was the $2,600 he shelled out to buy two miniature horses to “provide companionship” for a camel being kept at Duke’s New Jersey estate. Amid the ensuing uproar and various lawsuits, a New York State surrogate judge temporarily removed Lafferty from his executorship.

But lately, Lafferty had gotten himself out of legal limbo. In April a New York State court accepted a deal under which he would relinquish control of the estate in return for a lump sum of $4.5 million and $500,000 a year for life. With his newfound fortune, Lafferty bought his Bel Air mansion and even hired a butler of his own. “He was just getting his life into pleasant order,” says singer Peggy Lee, who once employed Lafferty as an assistant. As an added bonus, in July the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office announced that it had found “no credible evidence” that foul play by either Lafferty or Kivowitz was involved in Duke’s death.

Looking back over his ordeal and the controversy he had stirred, Lafferty tried to be upbeat. “I have no bitterness,” he told PEOPLE in January. “I have to keep looking forward.” But there was reason to think he did otherwise. He suffered crying jags and seemed to yearn for a simpler time in his life. Lafferty, whose inheritance will now revert back to the Duke trust, was found on his deathbed lying on his side, curled almost in a fetal position. Arrayed around his body were photographs of himself as a young boy in Ireland, before he had ever been touched by the curse of the wealthy.



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