COSSETED AS SHE WAS IN HER world of limousines, private jets and gated mansions, there was much about ordinary life that tobacco heiress Doris Duke could never grasp. Rather than savoring the pleasures of work, family and friends, the woman once known as the Richest Girl in the World spent her days largely surrounded by servants, doctors, lawyers and assorted hangers-on. But one thing she learned a good deal about over the course of her 80 years was greed. “She used to say you can’t buy a person,” recalls her third cousin Angier St. George Biddle “Pony” Duke, “but you sure can rent one for a while.”
Now, a year and a half after her death, and with the fate of her $1.3 billion estate at stake, that sentiment is beginning to look as prescient as it was cynical. Almost from the moment Duke died in October 1993 at her $3 million Beverly Hills home, Falcon’s Lair, the battle over her money has grown increasingly heated. With no natural heirs, Duke left the bulk of her estate, one of the largest in the country, to charity. Yet one of her former friends, Dr. Harry B. Demopoulos, was aghast to learn that he had been named coexecutor of a previous will and then dropped—and that Bernard Lafferty, 50, Duke’s ponytailed butler, had hit the jackpot. Demopoulos accused Lafferty of influencing Duke to change her will shortly before her death so that he would become the new coexecutor, enabling him to collect millions of dollars in fees. “Bernard was always polite and respectful and deferential, but he was very much in a servant’s role in Miss Duke’s household,” says Suzelle Smith, attorney for Demopoulos. “It was a tremendous shock when we learned he had allegedly been named executor.”
Adding a macabre twist, a former nurse of Duke’s even came forward to allege that one of the heiress’s doctors, Charles Kivowitz, had in effect murdered the heiress by administering lethal levels of morphine. Lafferty and Kivowitz have vehemently denied any wrongdoing, though three weeks ago a special investigator appointed by the New York State surrogate’s court to look into the affair released a scathing report that raised new questions about their actions. (The New York court has jurisdiction because the probate documents were filed there.) Among other things, the investigation suggested that Lafferty and various lawyers may be bilking the estate of millions of dollars through enormous fees and expenses. Lafferty has tried to brush off the accusations as so much carping. “The butler word they like,” he told one reporter, “because the butler always ‘did it.’ ”
Even so, the surrogate’s court ordered the estate to cease making loans or payments to Lafferty and the lawyers until it could wade through the mass of paper—lawsuits, affidavits, depositions, motions—generated by those cut out of the will and added to it. Further, the LAPD, assisted by the Los Angeles County District Attorney, is investigating the possibility that Duke’s death was accelerated. For Pony Duke, 57, the whole mess has a sort of sad inevitability about it. “Doris had an instinct for choosing objects of the highest quality,” he says. “Unfortunately, she didn’t have the same gift in choosing people.”
Her upbringing may have had something to do with that. She was born the only child of James Buchanan “Buck” Duke (founder of the American Tobacco Co.), for whom Duke University is named. Doris adored her father but loathed her aloof mother, Nanaline. When Buck died in 1925 he left $100 million of his $300 million estate to 12-year-old Doris. Three years later the youngster got an early taste of litigation when she sued her mother to prevent her from selling off the 2,700-acre Duke Farms in New Jersey.
The rest of her life, as it turned out, was to be filled with unhappiness and tragedy. She tried marriage twice. Her first husband, whom she wed against her mother’s wishes at age 22, was a 38-year-old playboy named Jimmy Cromwell. The union lasted eight years, until Duke grew weary of Cromwell’s spendthrift ways and numerous dalliances with other women—though Duke had a few affairs of her own. In 1941 she bore her only child, a daughter, Arden, who died at birth. She dumped her second husband, the internationally known polo-playing roué Porfirio Rubirosa, a year after their wedding in 1947.
As an adult she hobnobbed with everyone from British royals to Elizabeth Taylor to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. In later years she traveled in her own Boeing 737 jet and helicopter, and in 1988 she posted $5 million bail for former Philippine First Lady Imelda Marcos, who, with her husband, the late President Ferdinand Marcos, was facing charges of looting her homeland of $100 million. Duke also acquired some magnificent real estate. Along with Falcon’s Lair, once the home of Rudolph Valentino, and Duke Farms, she owned a 34-room oceanfront estate in Newport, R.I., known as Rough Point, and her favorite retreat, Shangri-La, on Diamond Head in Hawaii.
In 1966 Duke was involved in a bizarre car accident with her interior designer Eduardo Tirella at the Newport mansion. Driving up to her house, Duke stopped the car and let Tirella out to open the front gate. The car lurched forward and crushed him to death. An investigation later found Duke to be blameless, but the tragedy seemed to haunt her for years afterward.
By and large, however, Duke was not so much an innocent victim of circumstances as she was an agent of her own unhappiness. Brusque, vain and manipulative, she had a knack for offending others. “She could be eminently unlikable,” says Jason Thomas, who, with Pony Duke, has cowritten a memoir, Doris Duke: The Family Secrets, due out later this year. “If you were wearing something she didn’t like, she told you.”
Yet she had some remarkable talents. For one thing, she was an accomplished pianist who was especially devoted to jazz and gospel music. In her way, she was also a formidable businesswoman. “She didn’t have hobbies, she had obsessions,” says Pony. “And she turned all her interests into businesses.” From her love of orchids, she started one of the world’s most successful orchid cultivation operations. Even today she is considered one of the key figures in the history of the orchid industry, with hundreds of varieties named after her. Her childhood love of cows led her to build a huge dairy operation in New Jersey. She became an expert in Asian art, and over the years quietly accumulated thousands of pieces. Today her collection, which is part of the estate, is reputed to be one of the best in the world.
Some of her enthusiasms were slightly more eccentric. She met and befriended Dr. Demopoulos, a pathologist by training, who has done research on warding off disease through vitamins. (Among his patients: Clint Eastwood and Sylvester Stallone.) Demopoulos devised a dietary regimen for both Duke and her beloved dogs. A devoted vegetarian, she was known to whip up a tasty eggplant parmesan. Indeed, Duke’s fondness for animals apparently exceeded her esteem for humans. In the 1980s, Saudi Arabian billionaire Adnan Khashoggi gave her a pair of camels, Princess and Baby. Duke was so enchanted with the gift that she had a special trailer built, at a cost of $150,000, to transport the animals to Newport. Unfortunately, local officials there informed Duke that city ordinances prohibited keeping the camels in the yard. Rather than get rid of her beloved pets, Duke allowed them in the house, where the staff spent the summer cleaning dung off the Aubusson carpets.
Duke could be the most demanding of dowagers. “She never retained anyone for very long—lawyers, lovers or anyone else,” says cousin Pony. When she hired Bernard Lafferty as the butler for her New Jersey estate, no one could have imagined that he would end up as anything but another transient member of her entourage. Born on a farm in Ireland, Lafferty was orphaned at 17 and came to the U.S. to live with an aunt in Philadelphia. A high school dropout, he later worked at a series of hotels before becoming a personal assistant to singer Peggy Lee, who passed him along to her pal Duke in 1987. When his new employer later discovered that Lafferty had been drinking heavily, she sent him to dry out in a New Jersey hospital and took him back when he joined Alcoholics Anonymous. Over the next several years, Lafferty worked his way into Duke’s inner circle, traveling with her as a combination gofer and aide-decamp, for which he was paid $40,000 a year.
Lafferty’s growing influence seemed checked by Chandi Heffner, a member of the Hare Krishna sect, whom Duke had met in 1984 through a mutual friend in Hawaii. Four years later, apparently out of loneliness, Duke adopted Chandi, who was then 35. In 1991, though, Duke and Heffner had a falling out. The trouble apparently stemmed partly from the fact that Heffner had become romantically involved with James Burns, then 25, a martial arts expert who worked as part of Duke’s security detail at Shangri-La. But Los Angeles physician Dr. Rolando Atiga also told Duke that Heffner may have been trying to poison her, an accusation Heffner later vehemently denied.
Whatever the case, Duke decided to end her relationship with Heffner in typically unconventional fashion. While staying at Shangri-La, she informed her adopted daughter that she was going to the dentist. She did—then hopped onto her private jet and headed to Los Angeles. There she instructed her staff to have Heffner evicted from the mansion. She later asked her lawyers about the possibility of “disadopting” Heffner. She was told that would be virtually impossible. “What do you mean?” Duke exclaimed. “I’ve divorced two husbands.”
From that point on, Lafferty became an even closer companion. “He knew just what buttons to push and what things to say,” recalls Ann Bostich, a former housekeeper for Duke. “Miss Duke considered herself 29 and holding——-He told her she could wear miniskirts again.” He even grew a ponytail at her behest.
In April 1992, at 79, Duke had a facelift performed by Dr. Harry Glassman, a prominent Beverly Hills plastic surgeon who is married to actress Victoria Principal. Two days after the operation, Duke fell and broke her hip at Falcon’s Lair. Glassman referred her to Dr. Charles F. Kivowitz, another Beverly Hills physician, to be Duke’s personal internist. Less than a year later, in February 1993, Duke was back in Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, this time plagued by malnourishment and arthritic knees. She had also apparently suffered a stroke.
Earlier, seeing her frail state, Kivowitz had asked if she had her affairs in order. In fact, Duke had changed her will at least half a dozen times in recent years. At one point, in 1991, she had designated Demopoulos as her co-executor, a post that could have earned him some $25 million in fees (though Demopoulos insists he never knew this). Now she wanted another change. On the recommendation of Glassman, she hired the Chicago-based firm of Katten Muchin & Zavis, which brought in its top estate specialist, William Doyle. In the new will she essentially gave total control over her estate to Lafferty, who was to reap some $5 million in executor’s fees, plus a $500,000 annual stipend for life. In April 1993, Duke signed the documents in an unsteady hand, spelling her name out in block letters while sitting up in her hospital bed.
Duke soon regained some of her strength and went home. But in July she decided to have another knee replacement surgery, partly because she wanted to dance again. It was more than her body could take. Five days after the procedure she apparently suffered another stroke at home. After a two-month stay at Cedars-Sinai, she returned to Falcon’s Lair.
What happened over the next several weeks, in September and October of 1993, has become the subject of bitter dispute. According to Kivowitz, Duke was in terminal decline, and his main goal was to see that she was pain-free and comfortable. Her condition steadily deteriorated. On Oct. 27, Kivowitz prescribed that morphine be administered intravenously, through a tube that Duke had nicknamed Tallulah. Lafferty and Kivowitz were frequently at her bedside. On Oct. 28, shortly before 6 a.m., she died. Her body was cremated less than 24 hours later, with what the New York surrogate’s court investigator later called “quite unusual, but not entirely unique, swiftness.” There was no autopsy.
Later, in accordance with her wishes, her ashes were brought to each of her residences for at least one night. (Duke also stipulated that she wanted her houses kept staffed, because she thought she would be reincarnated and would need places to stay.) Family and friends have lined up on both sides of the question of whether Duke wanted to be cremated at all. But Lafferty’s attorney Howard Weitzman argues, “It’s pretty ludicrous to think she expected her fully embalmed body to be carted around from house to house.”
Lafferty maintains he first learned he had been named coexecutor of the estate and would be receiving his bonanza when KMZ’s Doyle told him on the way back to Falcon’s Lair from the mortuary. “I just sat there and took a deep breath,” Lafferty later told the Los Angeles Times.
The reaction of others, ever since the will was unsealed on Nov. 1, has been slightly more animated. Housekeeper Bostich and her husband, Mariano de Velasco, who had been introduced to Duke by actor Paul Reubens—better known as Pee-wee Herman—and had worked for her for five years, joined with chef Colin Shanley in filing a $30 million breach of contract suit against Lafferty and the estate lawyers, arguing that they have been ordered to perform tasks outside of their job descriptions. Last week a New York State supreme court justice dismissed the suit on the grounds that the three had not shown they had suffered sufficient “emotional harm.”
But that still leaves Demopoulos. “The 1993 will is both a fraud and was procured by undue influence,” says attorney Suzelle Smith. “Doris Duke did not have the mental capacity to make a will. She was not of sound mind. She was on drugs at the time.” In court papers, Demopoulos blasted Lafferty as “an illiterate, unstable and even dangerous person” who had no business running a vast charitable foundation.
But the real bombshell came when the litigants produced an affidavit from Tammy Payette, 28, a nurse who had attended to Duke in her final weeks. Payette maintained that Kivowitz and Lafferty had conspired to murder Duke through the use of “massive sedation,” including morphine and Demerol.
With that, New York Surrogate Eve Preminger appointed Richard Kuh, a former Manhattan district attorney, to explore the allegations. In his 64-page report, released on April 25, Kuh noted that Dr. Nicholas Macris, an outside expert who had reviewed Duke’s medical records, agreed that the heiress was clearly terminally ill in the fall of 1993. Macris concluded, however, that by up-ping Duke’s dosage of morphine, Kivowitz had essentially stopped “Ms. Duke’s breathing and cause[d] her death.” In his deposition, Kivowitz insisted that he had only done what was necessary so that his patient would “not linger and suffer in any way at all.” As for Payette, she did herself and her credibility no good when she was arrested in Beverly Hills on March 31, on one count of grand theft.
Whatever the continuing questions about the circumstances surrounding Duke’s death, Kuh uncovered some very curious facts. It turned out, for example, that shortly before Duke died her longtime friend Glassman received a check for $500,000 as a “gift.” Glassman adamantly insists that Duke gave him the money personally. But Kuh said he could find no documentary proof that she had ever authorized the payment. What’s more, near the end of Duke’s life, Kivowitz was charging her roughly $50,000 a month. But the grand prize for sticker shock went to the lawyers at KMZ, who have billed the Duke estate for a staggering $9 million in legal fees in the past 18 months. As Surrogate Preminger dryly observed, “To say the court is astounded by many of these matters is to state the obvious.”
Nor has Lafferty been neglecting his own needs. Kuh found that shortly after Duke died, Lafferty embarked on a spending spree at such Beverly Hills boutiques as Armani, Cartier and Louis Vuitton, buying, among other things, a $35,000 diamond-encrusted watch. After he wrecked a Cadillac belonging to the Duke estate, he treated himself to a $50,000 replacement. Lafferty spent $320,000 on renovations to Duke’s homes, including $60,000 to remodel and expand her bedroom at Falcon’s Lair, where he has been staying since her death. He borrowed $825,000 “to maintain his lifestyle” from U.S. Trust, the coexecutor Duke had chosen to administer her estate.
But perhaps most bizarre, he authorized the expenditure of $2,600 to buy two miniature horses to “provide companionship” for the surviving camel that resides at Duke’s New Jersey estate. As for Lafferty’s fitness to manage more than $1 billion in assets, Kuh noted that the onetime butler had gone on four drinking binges over the past 18 months, one of which required hospitalization, and was currently taking at least three types of sleeping pills, seven antidepressants and three antipsychotic and six antianxiety medications, many of them simultaneously. Still, some celebrities have cast tacit support to Lafferty, among them Elizabeth Taylor, whom Lafferty named one of the Duke foundation’s trustees. Taylor maintained that Duke was “entirely lucid” when she spoke to the heiress a month before she died.
Surrogate Preminger is expected to schedule a hearing to determine whether the Duke will should be approved and whether Lafferty should be removed from his post as coexecutor. Surprisingly, one person who is hoping the will does go through is Chandi Heffner, who reached a $65 million settlement with the estate in return for not contesting its terms.
Unfortunately for Duke herself, even death hasn’t freed her from predators. Aside from the unseemly squabble over her money, her hasty cremation prevented her body from being dumped in the sea off Diamond Head to be devoured by sharks (though her ashes were eventually scattered there), as cousin Pony Duke says she had hoped it would be. Then again, all she possessed, and her last earthly wishes, have set off a feeding frenzy of impressive proportions. The land sharks continue to circle.
DANELLE MORTON, LYNDON STAMBLER and LORENZO BENET in Los Angeles, LORNA GRISBY, MARIA EFTIMIADES and NANCY JO SALES in New York City, and bureau reports