Doris Duke Bio | Shangri La's Founder

Independent, intelligent and adventurous, Doris Duke (1912–1993) was determined not to be defined by her wealth or to be confined by social expectations. 

 
  • Doris Duke

    Doris Duke traveled widely, immersed herself in other cultures and pursued a wide range of interests including the performing arts, historic preservation, environmental conservation and the preservation of wildlife. She was also a major collector of Islamic art, assembling a collection of more than 2,500 pieces and exhibiting it throughout her Honolulu home Shangri La—a sustained effort of nearly 60 years.

    Shangri La Historical Archives, Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i.

     
  • Childhood

    Born on November 22, 1912, in New York City, Doris Duke was the only child of James Buchanan (J. B.) Duke and his second wife, Nanaline Holt Inman Duke. J. B. Duke was a founder of the American Tobacco Company and Duke Energy Company and a benefactor of Duke University. His financial success catapulted the young Doris Duke into a world of wealth and privilege and made her the focus of intense media attention and public scrutiny throughout her life.

    Doris Duke Photograph Collection, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation Historical Archives, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

     
  • Schooling

    Doris Duke grew up in New York City and at Duke Farms, the 2,000-acre wooded estate her father bought, expanded and developed in Somerville, New Jersey. Summers were spent in Newport, Rhode Island, at Rough Point, the oceanfront home her father acquired in 1922. Like most young girls of her social class, Duke was tutored at home before the age of 10. She attended the Brearley School in New York City from 1922–1928 followed by a private boarding school, Fermata School for Girls, in Aiken, South Carolina, from which she graduated in 1930.

    Doris Duke Photograph Collection, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation Historical Archives, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

     
  • Early Travels

    In the summer of 1923, Doris Duke and her mother traveled through England and France and were eventually joined by her father. It was the first of the international travels that became a source of inspiration and shaped her deep interests in other cultures.

    Doris Duke Photograph Collection, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation Historical Archives, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

     
  • J. B. Duke (1856–1925)

    The central tragedy of Doris Duke’s young life was the death of her father when she was just 12. J. B. Duke’s principal heirs were his daughter and the Duke Endowment, a foundation he established to serve the people of the Carolinas. 

    Doris Duke Photograph Collection, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation Historical Archives, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

     
  • The Young Philanthropist

    On the occasion of her 21st birthday, Duke inherited a third of her share of her father’s estate. The following year she founded Independent Aid (which later became the Doris Duke Foundation) as an instrument of her philanthropy and a means to make charitable donations. The foundation reflected her early interests in the welfare of women and children, education, social work and mental health.

    Photograph by Cecil Beaton. Doris Duke Photograph Collection, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation Historical Archives, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

     
  • Honeymoon Travels Abroad

    On February 13, 1935, at the age of 22, Duke married James Cromwell, and they immediately embarked upon a honeymoon trip around the world. Their travels took them to Palestine, Jordan and Egypt, then to Karachi in British India, where they spent two months traveling in the north of the subcontinent. 

    Doris Duke Photograph Collection, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation Historical Archives, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

     
  • “Doris has fallen in love”

    From India, her husband wrote that Doris Duke “has fallen in love with the Taj Mahal and all the beautiful marble tile, with their lovely floral designs with some precious stones.” Inspired by historic monuments built by the Mughal dynasty, Duke placed a commission for a marble bedroom and bath suite based on traditional Mughal designs. She first began to collect Islamic art in India, purchasing jade objects with inlaid stones, Central Asian suzanis (embroideries), carpets and metalwork. 

    Doris Duke Photograph Collection, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation Historical Archives, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

     
  • Cultural Encounters

    Duke’s honeymoon travels through the Middle East and South Asia profoundly affected the rest of her life. She encountered people, cultures and places—in marked contrast to her upbringing—to which she was deeply attracted and to which she would return repeatedly throughout her life. 

    Doris Duke Photograph Collection, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation Historical Archives, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

     
  • “Honolulu has made a hit with the Cromwells ...”

    The Cromwells arrived at the final stop on their honeymoon tour—the U.S. Territory of Hawai‘i—on August 29, 1935. Attracted by the islands’ natural beauty and relaxed social environment, they extended their stay by four months and rented a house on the eastern slope of Diamond Head. As the Honolulu Advertiser reported, “Honolulu has made a hit with the Cromwells—because it has left them alone.”

    Hawai'i State Archives. (Photo: Nate Farbman.)

     
  • At Home in Hawai'i

    The Cromwells quickly fell into an easy friendship with the extended Kahanamoku family, who introduced them to contemporary Hawaiian culture of the late 1930s and shared the relaxed outdoor lifestyle that Duke loved. The Kahanamokus formed the nucleus of Duke’s social circle in Hawai‘i for many years. Together they enjoyed surfing, paddling canoes, sailing, fishing and playing Hawaiian music. When Duke sailed for the U.S. mainland on December 26, 1935, she had already decided to buy property in Hawai‘i and build a home.  

    Left to right: Sam Kahanamoku, Doris Duke, Bill and Sargent Kahanamoku at the start of a race.

    Hawai'i State Archives. (Photo: Nate Farbman.)

     
  • Building Shangri La

    In April 1936 Duke purchased a 4.9-acre property at Ka‘alāwai on the south shore of O‘ahu, with its dramatic views of the Pacific and Diamond Head. Soon thereafter she hired architect Marion Sims Wyeth and began working with him to design a home that would marry her new love of Islamic art and architecture with Hawai‘i’s tropical landscape. Duke devoted the next 50 years to building her collection of Islamic art and periodically renovating Shangri La to accommodate the growing collection. 

    Doris Duke Photograph Collection, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation Historical Archives, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

     
  • Travels in the Middle East

    With the design of Shangri La underway, the Cromwells traveled to Morocco in 1937 and throughout the Middle East—including Egypt, Syria, Iran and Istanbul—for six weeks in the spring of 1938. In each place they studied, filmed and photographed historical architectural details and provided images to the architects that would inform Shangri La’s final design.

    Doris Duke Photograph Collection, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation Historical Archives, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

     
  • Collecting Islamic Art

    The objects Duke collected on her early travels formed the core of the Islamic art collection that she continued to build throughout her life. Here, Duke admires mother-of-pearl bureaus in a courtyard home used by the antiques firm Asfar & Sarkis in Damascus, from whom she both purchased and commissioned work. 

    Doris Duke Photograph Collection, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation Historical Archives, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

     
  • Commissions

    Duke also commissioned new work from living artisans in Morocco, Iran and Syria, as she had on the honeymoon in India. The commissioned ceilings, furnishings, doors, ceramic tiles and decorative screens, such as these marble jalis made in India, provide architectural elements and decoration that give Shangri La its unique character, incorporating traditions from different cultures throughout the Islamic world. The Cromwells moved into Shangri La in December 1938; construction was complete in early 1939; and the couple separated in the spring of 1940.  

    Photo by Martin Munkácsi. Doris Duke Photograph Collection, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation Historical Archives, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

     
  • Working Abroad

    With the outbreak of World War II, Duke enlisted in the United Seamen’s Service and was posted to Alexandria, Egypt, in 1944. From 1945–1947 she worked as a reporter for the International News Service in Italy, filing articles on topics such as the losses and damage to Italian historical monuments and art objects during the war.

    Doris Duke Photograph Collection, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation Historical Archives, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

     
  • Transformation and Renovations

    In the second half of her life, Duke carried out a number of renovations that demonstrated her increased confidence as a collector and her continued engagement with Shangri La as a means of creative expression. The renovation of the dining room as a tented interior in the mid-1960s and the acquisition and installation of two Syrian interiors in 1953–1955 and the late 1970s are clear evidence of Doris Duke at work: deliberate, thoughtful and unconstrained by narrow thinking. 

    Photo by Cecil Beaton. Doris Duke Photograph Collection, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation Historical Archives, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

     
  • Building the Collection

    Duke’s encounters with the Islamic world were transformative, and she continued to travel and to expand the collection through the end of her life in 1993.  The last major acquisition was an Iranian mihrab (prayer niche 48.422), which she installed in 1992. 

    Doris Duke Papers, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation Historical Archives, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

     
  • Doris Duke’s Will

    In her will, Doris Duke purposefully opened the doors to Shangri La by establishing the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art to own and manage the site and collections and to “promote the study and understanding of Middle Eastern Art and Culture.” Among her many legacies—as a joyful participant and patron of the performing arts, an environmentalist, historic preservationist and philanthropist—Duke’s foresight in creating Shangri La and dedicating it to improving public understanding of Islamic arts and cultures was nothing short of visionary. 

    Doris Duke on Lamu Island, Kenya, c. 1986

    Doris Duke Photograph Collection, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation Historical Archives, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

     
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