Doris Duke was the only child of tobacco and electric energy tycoon James Buchanan Duke.
She received large bequests from her father’s will when she turned 21, 25, and 30; she was sometimes referred to as the “world’s richest girl.”
She also acquired a number of homes. Her principal residence was Duke Farms, her father’s 2,700-acre estate in Hillsborough Township, New Jersey. Here she created Duke Gardens, 60,000-square-foot public indoor botanical display that were among the largest in America.
She spent summer weekends working on her Newport Restoration Foundation projects while staying at Rough Point, the 49-room English manor-style mansion that she inherited in Newport, Rhode Island; she also had a home at “Falcon’s Lair” in Beverly Hills, California, once the home of Rudolph Valentino.
She also maintained two apartments in Manhattan: a 9-room penthouse with a 1,000-square-foot veranda at 475 Park Avenue and another apartment near Times Square that she used exclusively as an office for the management of her financial affairs.
In the late 1930s, Doris Duke built her Honolulu home, Shangri La, on five acres overlooking the Pacific Ocean and Diamond Head. Shangri La incorporates architectural features from the Islamic world and houses Duke’s extensive collection of Islamic art, which she assembled for nearly 60 years.
It was a retreat and sanctuary for a woman who greatly valued her privacy; she typically spent winters there.
From its inception, Doris Duke’s estate was envisioned by its founder as a home of Islamic art and architecture. As early as 1936, Shangri La was shaped by a symbiotic relationship between the built environment and the collection.
For nearly 60 years, Doris Duke commissioned and collected artifacts for Shangri La, ultimately forming a collection of about 3,500 objects, the majority of which were made in the Islamic world.
In the same manner that her father transformed Duke Farms from flat New Jersey farmland into his ideal of a magnificently landscaped country estate, Doris Duke transformed her own private Shangri La into a haven from the unwanted publicity that came with being one of the wealthiest women in the world.
Through an Exchange Deed dated December 8, 1938 between the Territorial Land Board of Hawai‘i and Ms. Duke, two underwater parcels (totaling approximately 0.6 acres) were added to the Duke property.
The transfer gave the Territory a perpetual easement of a four-foot right-of-way for a pedestrian causeway along the coastline.
At water’s edge below the estate, Duke then dynamited a small-boat harbor and a seventy-five-foot salt-water swimming pool into the rock. The harbor was built to protect Duke’s fleet of yachts, including Kailani Lahilahi, an ocean-going, 58-foot motor yacht and Kimo, the 26-foot mahogany runabout that Duke sometimes used to commute into Honolulu.
Doris Duke died at her Falcon’s Lair home on October 28, 1993, at the age of 80. In her will, Duke set in motion plans to open Shangri La to the public as a place for the study of Islamic art and culture.
Doris Duke’s philanthropic work extended throughout her lifetime; her estimated $1.3-billion fortune was largely left to charity. Duke’s legacy is now administered by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, dedicated to medical research, prevention of cruelty to children and animals, the performing arts, wildlife and ecology.
Today, Shangri La is open for guided, small group tours and educational programs. In partnership with the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art – which owns and supports Shangri La – the Honolulu Museum of Art serves as the orientation center for Shangri La tours.
Education programs such as residencies, lectures, performances, panel discussions, among other special events with a focus on Muslim arts and culture are offered. The estate can also be visited by public tour and by virtual tour.
The public shoreline access and small basin is a popular swimming hole (which the State recently took over); in addition, the harbor’s jetty serves as a jump-off point to get to two nearby surf breaks, Cromwells and Browns.