November 15, 1993 12:00 PM

Duke’s life was a blend of elegance and despair

DORIS DUKE BORE THE TITLE RICHEST Girl in the World like a bejeweled cross. The only child of James B. Duke, founder of the American Tobacco Company, she inherited a personal fortune of $30 million, control of a $40 million fund, a scattering of baronial estates and a private railway car. When she died last week in Beverly Hills of pulmonary edema at 80, Duke left behind an estate of $1.2 billion, two failed marriages, an estranged adopted daughter and a lifetime of uneasiness with a world that wouldn’t allow her to be ordinary.

Born Nov. 22, 1912, to Duke and his second wife, Nanaline Lee Holt Inman Duke, young Doris was brought up in a 54-room town house on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue. A bright child, she took quickly to her tutors’ lessons, though not to the pleasures of the Jazz Age. The death of her father (in 1925, when she was 12) desolated her, and her height—she was 6’1″—further undermined her self-confidence. As she once said, “After I’ve gone out with a man a few times, he starts to tell me he loves me. But how can I ever be sure?”

Faced with uncertainty, she often chose badly. Duke’s first marriage was to James Cromwell, a businessman 16 years her senior, when she was 22. They settled at Duke Farms in Somerville, N.J., and built a retreat in Hawaii. There in 1940, her only child, a girl, died in a Honolulu hospital 24 hours after birth.

Duke divorced Cromwell in 1943, citing cruelty, then threw herself into war work for the United Seaman’s Service. After the war she met Dominican playboy Porfirio Rubirosa, celebrated for his reputed conquests of Susan Hayward, Joan Crawford and Zsa Zsa Gabor. They married in 1947—and were divorced a year later.

Duke never married again but became a figure left over from the Victorian age: the spinster philanthropist. She donated millions to medical research; supported animal-rights and environmental causes; restored some of the grand old houses of Newport, R.I.; and left $10 million to the school endowed by her father, Duke University. Equally generous with friends, she loaned Imelda Marcos $5 million in 1989 to defend herself against federal racketeering charges and in 1991, Duke took in her actor friend Paul Reubens (Pee-wee Herman) following his arrest on indecent exposure charges in Florida. She also made her erstwhile butler, Bernard Lafferty, now 48, her closest confidant; her will makes him a trustee of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, established with a bequest of more than $1 billion, and provides him a lifetime annuity of $500,000.

For herself, Duke amassed a fabulous jewel collection and flew about in a renovated B-25 bomber. Yet she couldn’t elude tragedy or troubled relationships. In 1966 Duke accidentally slammed her car into her friend Eduardo Tirella, an interior designer, at the gale of her Newport estate, killing him instantly. In 1988 she adopted Charlene “Chandi” Gail Heffner, then 35, a former Hare Krishna disciple, but later called the adoption “the biggest mistake I ever made” and disinherited Heffner, who is contesting Duke’s will.

When she died, there were just a few close friends and relatives left to mourn the passing of the Richest Girl in the World. Said one, her pal Paul Reubens: “She was a wonderful person, a great friend, and I’ll miss her.”

MARK GOODMAN

LOIS ARMSTRONG in Beverly Hills

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