Guest Post: A Career of Giving: The Surprising Legacy of Doris Duke

We’re happy to present this guest blog post by Kristen Costa, Assistant Curator at the Newport Restoration Foundation.  

Greetings from one of Doris Duke’s other houses!

Rough Point was Doris Duke’s Newport, Rhode Island, home; at the time of her death in 1993, she left the house to the Newport Restoration Foundation, which she founded in 1968 to restore eighteenth-century properties in the city. Her generosity and extraordinary vision in saving the physical structures of colonial history in Newport had an impact on the city in a way that is still evident today.

While her work in the city is easily seen and appreciated, we here at the NRF wanted to learn more about Duke as a philanthropist. We know so much about the causes she was passionate about, the organizations she founded and the great work of the foundation in her name, but we did not realize the depth, diversity and wide reach of her charitable giving throughout her life. In order to honor and explore this aspect of her life, we decided to focus our yearly exhibit at Rough Point on the topic. “A Career of Giving: The Surprising Legacy of Doris Duke” explores how Duke, a renaissance woman with such diverse interests and abilities, turned her substantial wealth into a philanthropic empire that was her life’s work.

A Career of Giving: The Surprising Legacy of Doris Duke. Photo courtesy of Newport Restoration Foundation.
A Career of Giving: The Surprising Legacy of Doris Duke. Photo courtesy of Newport Restoration Foundation.

It is estimated that during her lifetime, Duke donated over $400 million to charitable causes, much of it anonymously. Our exhibit focuses not only on the timeline of her giving, but highlights the Duke family’s tradition of philanthropy, beginning with her grandfather, Washington Duke, and continuing through her father, James B. Duke. We look at some of the causes that she gave frequently to: the arts, women & child welfare, medical research, and the environment. In doing research for the exhibit, we uncovered so many interesting stories of Duke’s philanthropy, including providing funds for individuals to attend music school; giving money to the British government in the early days of World War II to help their war effort; funding Russian Studies academic programs at numerous United States universities; contributing money to the United States Olympic Committee, and so much more.

Dress made for Doris Duke by the Rosebud Sioux. Photo courtesy of the Newport Restoration Foundation.
Dress made for Doris Duke by the Rosebud Sioux. Photo courtesy of the Newport Restoration Foundation.

Perhaps one of her least known philanthropic endeavors was her work with the American Indian population, including funding the American Indian Oral History Project. From 1966 to the 1980s, Duke made donations to universities in the United States for the collection of oral histories of American Indian tribe members. They included the universities of Arizona, Florida, Illinois, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Utah, and the University of California at Los Angeles.  More than 5,000 interviews were recorded capturing important spoken histories of American Indian life and culture, including the heroic work of the Navajo Code Talkers who served in the United States military during World War II. In addition, Duke made donations of Jersey cattle to the people of the Rosebud Sioux reservation in South Dakota. As a thank you, the tribe honored Duke at a naming ceremony in 1960 with the name “Wa-cantki-ye-win,” which translates to “Princess Charity.” We are lucky enough to have the dress the Sioux made for Duke for the ceremony, as well as a number of custom-made thank-you belts, moccasins and accessories on display as part of the exhibit.

“A Career of Giving: The Surprising Legacy of Doris Duke” is open at Rough Point for the 2013 season, from April to November 9 and is part of the regular house tour. More information is available at our website.