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In Newport, R.I., echoes of an eccentric heiress

An aerial view of Doris Duke’s Newport estate, Rough Point. The grounds were designed by Frederick Law Olmsted.

The Newport Restoration Foundation

An aerial view of Doris Duke’s Newport estate, Rough Point. The grounds were designed by Frederick Law Olmsted.

NEWPORT — Rough Point, the Newport estate of heiress Doris Duke, overflows with enough antiques and old master paintings to rival a world-class museum. Then there is the architectural pedigree of the 10.8-acre estate: The prominent Boston firm of Peabody & Stearns designed the 105-room mansion for a member of the Vanderbilt family in 1887, and Horace Trumbauer of Philadelphia enlarged it for Doris’s father, James Buchanan Duke, in the early 1920s. Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of American landscape architecture, designed the grounds, which reach to the edge of the harbor’s famous Cliff Walk. Spanning a rocky cleft, a stone bridge, rebuilt from Olmsted’s original design, frames the chop of Newport Harbor in its perfect arch.

Yet even today, 20 years after Doris Duke’s death, it is not these material marvels that make visiting Rough Point so memorable. It is the colorful stories about this independent-minded woman that haunt every room.

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For instance, Duke enjoyed animals, big ones, and had no reservations about sharing her home with them. Over the years she adopted several large dogs, all from shelters. They roamed the house, with its Turkish carpets, Louis XVI furniture, Chinese porcelains, doing what dogs do. That included toppling the occasional priceless vase with a wagging tail.

Then there were Duke’s pet camels, Princess and Baby, which she haggled into the deal when buying a jet from a Middle Eastern businessman. The two unlikely Newporters spent many summers roaming the grounds. Duke set up a tent for them on the patio outside the solarium. They needed to stay warm, after all, and the patio, besides offering the most stunning view in the house, becomes a sun-drenched oasis on days when the ocean wind turns bracing. The critters spent winters at Duke Farms, her 2,740-acre estate in New Jersey, now a public conservation area. Princess is still alive and spending her elder years at a New Jersey zoo. Today, on Rough Point’s front lawn, three topiary camels, sprouting colorful sedums and thymes, commemorate the camels’ summers here.

Duke posed an enigma to some of her high-society peers, perhaps because she put social conventions aside to follow her passions. Athletic, intellectually curious, and confident, she loved to explore and wasn’t afraid to buckle down and study. Music — especially gospel and jazz — was among her enduring interests. Visitors who tour Rough Point learn that Duke invited musicians from the Newport Jazz Festival back to the mansion’s vast music room to jam after the stage went dark. Not content to be a passive listener, Duke studied jazz piano with Hall Overton and dance with modernist maestro Martha Graham. For several years she also sang in a Baptist gospel choir in Nutley, N.J. In 1968 she even founded a record company, Clover Records, at her Los Angeles home, one of five that she owned, including Rough Point.

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Another of Duke’s joys was saltwater swimming, which she indulged in every day when she was near an ocean. Standing 5-foot-10, Duke possessed the trim, athletic build of a swimmer. In her 20s, she participated in outrigger canoe and surfing competitions. She especially enjoyed swimming off the rocks at Rough Point, where the sea is anything but tame. In her later years, she installed a saltwater pool in the basement to keep up her daily regimen. She died in 1993 at 80.

Collecting art and decorative objects, studying spiritual practices, roving the world — these were among the other interests Duke pursued during a long life lived in far-flung places. Vast wealth made this lifestyle possible, of course. This year, the 20th anniversary of her death, Rough Point’s gallery is showing an exhibit about the causes she supported. The photos and narrative there illuminate more about her multifaceted life than some of the museum-quality art she collected.

Doris was just 12, an only child, when her father died in 1925, leaving her an $80 million fortune he had built as the founder of American Tobacco Co., Duke Energy, and other businesses. The wealth multiplied, and during her lifetime, she gave away about five times the amount of her original inheritance. Married twice — once for eight years, once for 11 months — she had no children and left her fortune to the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, which supports the performing arts, environmental conservation, medical research, and the prevention of child abuse.

Honoring her environmental concerns, Rough Point’s staff uses organic and other sustainable techniques to manage the thriving gardens, lawns, and trees. The kitchen garden, a long rectangle enclosed by high privet hedges, still grows flowers, herbs, and vegetables according to Duke’s original list, but instead of winding up on her table, they go to local charities or educational programs on site.

The original Olmsted landscape put the ocean views front and center and left the rolling forms of the underlying ledge intact — the sweeping lawns tame it only at the surface. The green expanse invites meandering strolls. On the opposite side of the house from the water, secret gardens added by the property’s second owner (Doris’s father was the third) occupy three hedged bays screened behind more high privet on the inland side of the house. A veritable tunnel through the old privet takes visitors into the gardens, a child’s journey into a wonderland. A stand of hardwoods shading the northeast corner survives from Olmsted’s design. Lined out beside them, a row of dwarf Elberta peach trees parallels a long rose arbor.

Rough Point is one of three of her former properties that Duke left to be preserved for the public. Her interest in historic preservation extended beyond her own boundaries: She founded the Newport Restoration Foundation in 1968 to protect Newport’s 18th- and 19th-century buildings. At the time, when cities typically viewed old structures as a form of blight, this was more radical than it may seem today.

Newport Restoration Foundation now owns 70 historic buildings, most of which it rents to private “tenant stewards.” Its house museums open to the public are Whitehorne House, a Federal-style mansion housing a collection of 18th-century Newport furniture, and Prescott Farm, where structures including a windmill date from 1730 to 1960. And, of course, Rough Point, where the onetime “richest girl in the world” found something of a safe harbor.

Jane Roy Brown can be reached at brownjaneroy@gmail.com.
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