A beautiful heiress with 5 houses is not the usual neighbor. And for the locals who grew up in her Hillsborough, NJ nabe, the reclusive Doris Duke was not exactly a household word, or at least while she was alive. But once the televised summation of her will hit the airwaves, everyone had a story to tell about the kooky rich babe who built multi-story access ramps for her many dogs to let themselves in and out of the rambling mansion. Doris Duke spent a certain amount of down time in rural NJ, when she wasn't jetting to her homes in Hawaii, Newport RI, sunny California and elsewhere. But unfortunately right now some of what is left of her NJ presence is quietly being ushered out, to ready her estate for its next big thing.
In 1925 when she was only 12 years old, Doris Duke inherited $80 million of a family fortune, the other half mostly going to her father's foundation and namesake, Duke University. Born in NYC she continued into her teenage years in a townhouse that is now home to the fine arts department of NYU. In between several unsuccessful marriages and the 'accidental' death of a date, whom she pinned to a tree with a car in Newport, Doris Duke fell head over heels in love with horticulture and all of its leafy greatness. She designed many greenhouses on her Hillsborough property, recreating gardens she had seen in Europe and Asia. Duke opened these gardens to the public in 1964. These greenhouse display gardens are still open to the public, free of charge right now, but only until the 25th of May. After that they will be closed indefinitely while the Duke Farm steers a new path into the future. Housed in Victorian styled glass mansions, these gardens are meticulous in attention to age old detail, and lush in growing splendor. Even the desert scape is designed to make you feel a bit thirsty around the edges.
When I first visited the greenhouses, in the mid 90's, her aging Irish butler, Bernard, had inherited a chunk of Doris's estate after she died, and was still living on the property. As a result, the grounds were kept under mission-impossible style surveillance. Visitors parked in a small lot by the front gate and were driven to our destination in a unmarked van, blindfolded. Naaah, but it sounded good... Today the massive grounds are open to walking, bike tours and family events.
Besides her 2,700 acre NJ refuge, Doris kept herself busy with jazz piano, gospel choirs, high fashion and amassing a huge Asian and Islamic art collection, most of it housed at Shangri-la, in Hawaii. But some did end up in NJ, and a small Thai village is in half-erected storage on what used to be the indoor tennis court, right next to the pool. Unfortunately most of the furniture was sold off to add funds to her charitable foundations, so the house isn't quite a replica of her time, but a strange tour all the same. Photos prompt a bit of what life was like under Doris, but it is best to get the guides who are willing to share some of the gossip. When I toured Rough Point, Duke's Newport home, our tasteful confessor filled us in on the camels sleeping in the sun room during hurricanes and stories of the Saudi prince that she got them from, as a gift with the purchase of his private jet. And if all of this house touring just isn't enough, HBO just showed an imaginary what-if-this-was-how-it-was-movie called Bernard and Doris starring Susan Sarandon and Ray Fiennes as the out of the closet butler, and confidant .
Doris Duke surfed with Duke Kahanamoku, adopted a 35 year old Hare Krishna woman she met at a dance class - only to 'regret' it later, and stole into the Newport Jazz Festival to invite jazz greats to jam at her ocean side mansion. It's not nearly as impressive as having a NJ rest stop named after you, but Doris did have access to better fashion designers than Molly Pitcher.