10/2/2009 Founders Day

Fact Checker presents a review of the 2nd most interesting event around Duke this week -- right after Saturday's Durham International Beer Festival.

Hope you had a Happy Founders' Day, as we look at the history of the occasion (courtesy of the Gargoyle book) and then, after this slow start, move on to a fascinating, irreverent profile of the founding Duke family. Yes, salacious too.


√As touted in university press releases, Founders' Day can be traced back 108 years at Duke, a statement of heritage that neglects the struggle for format and date that mark this near-bacchanalia.

√In 1901 the Trinity College Board of Trustees resolved to set aside a day "to honor Washington Duke forever." Having given the college $344,250 over the years (about $8.8 million in today's dollars), he sat on stage, endured a reading of all the gifts the college had gotten in the past year, and got a serenade by a chorus from Durham and orchestra from Raleigh.

√Then Washington did precisely what the college hoped; he announced another gift -- $100,000 -- which works out to about $2.6 million today.

√Benefactors' Day existed until 1924, when the "tradition" apparently went on hiatus for one year. It emerged in 1926 to become Duke University Day, and was recast yet again in 1948 as Founders' Day.

√The date for this celebration has bounced around like a Duke basketball: originally it was in early October on the birthdate of one of Washington's grandsons -- a son of Ben and Sarah Duke who died in early childhood.

√Later it was shifted to December 11th, which is the date James B. Duke ceremoniously signed a document (called an Indenture) bound in an ornate brass cover, creating The Duke Endowment out of the turgid prose (one sentence: 250 words plus) of his personal lawyer, William R. Perkins. The document made provision for a school in North Carolina to be named Duke University.

√The December 11th date happened to ignore a more significant date -- December 29th -- when the trustees of Trinity met and accepted the option Buck Duke had given them to rename their college and collect the loot. December 29th would have drawn no audience, of course, since it fell during Christmas break, which is not to suggest that December 11th, even with cancellation of classes and summons of the carillon, ever brought more than an embarrassing trickle into Page Auditorium.

√When a shuffle of the academic calendar moved final exams from early January to mid-December, there was a collision: everyone was too busy with the reading period to participate in the tree plantings, worship services and speeches that had given life -- well you know what I mean -- to the December 11th occasion. So the first week of October was selected rather arbitrarily, the actual date shifting so it always falls on a Thursday. To lure more people, groups like the A. B. Duke Scholars, the Robertson Scholars and so forth are now recognized.

√With one exception, the annual programs have been pretty bad.

√This is not the exception, this is the example of pretty bad: George V. Allen (no relation to George G. Allen, Buck Duke's crony who lent his name to Allen Building) droned on and on. He was president of the lobbying arm of the tobacco industry, the Tobacco Institute, staking out the ground to oppose medical upstarts who were claiming a link between smoking and cancer. Really embarrassing, and even more so when you remember that President Kennedy spoke at UNC's celebration that year.

√The lone exception was Thomas L. Perkins, son of the aforementioned William and one of the truly brilliant, visionary men in Duke's history. He outlined an upward trajectory for Duke so that "within the lifetime of many people here today," North Carolina and the South would have a truly world class university. The year was 1962. Not only was Perkins inspiring and challenging, he was brief, for this captain of industry, law and public service literally trembled while addressing perhaps 200 people in Page.

Footnote: We're better off than Trustees of The Duke Endowment, who must endure an annual reading of the complete Indenture. Their only solace is that they are paid very handsomely for the tedium.


Fact Checker now moves on to a totally unauthorized, selective biography of the Duke family. Anyone complaining about the unbalanced tone of this should remember the Dukes have a platoon of PR men and lawyers devoted to their own presentation.

The patriarch, Washington Duke. Son of Taylor Duke of English heritage and Dicey Jones of Welch, the 8th of their ten children, born 1820.

Dicey Duke. How come there's nothing honoring her?

Fact Checker goes for the jugular: did our patriarch, Washington Duke, participate in and profit from the institution of slavery?

Conscripted into the Confederate Army, the twice-widowed Washington arranged for relatives to care for his children and then placed the following classified ad in his local paper, The Hillsborough Recorder, on October 7 and 14, 1863:

"PUBLIC SALE. I will sell at my residence, on the 20th of this month, about one hundred bushels of corn, my entire stock of Cows, Hogs, Farming Tools and Wagon, Oats, Fodder, Hay, Wheat, and many other articles too tedious to mention; and perhaps some eight or ten likely NEGROES will be sold the same day."

Robert Durden, distinguished professor emeritus of history who has written several meticulous books about the Dukes and the university, argues Washington may have been advertising a neighbor's slaves, or just trying to attract more people to the sale of his other goods. Fact Checker calls this the Craig's List Emulation -- and quite frankly, Durden is not convincing.

But that is moot. Whether owned or not, there is no doubt Washington Duke and his family benefited from the institution of slavery by renting a "boy" -- Washington's word -- or two owned by neighbors.

Now that we are square on that, we move on to the hidden son.

Anyone who counts the statues on campus might reasonably conclude that Washington had two sons -- James Buchanan and Benjamin Newton. Ah hah, there was a third named Brody Leonidas Duke, by Washington's first wife, and no wonder he's tucked out of view.

Brodie Leonidas was the first to leave the family farm and move to the city of Durham where he bought real estate by the acre and women by the hour. Yes, Durham was like that, an important railroad hub that attracted a lot of bustle.

Brodie Leonidas had only modest business success but scored very well at the altar: he went on to marry, marry, marry and marry. At a time when divorce was very rare and required a showing of "fault," his second wife and he had a particularly lurid public trial that not only separated him from his wife, but from his family too. It was this episode that prompted Washington to summon James B. Duke who was 49 years old, warning his younger son to simmer down himself and goading him into his first marriage, to which we will return in a moment.

Though estranged from his family, there seems to be one aspect of Brodie Leonidas's passion that rubbed off on his father. Late in the patriarch's life, Washington took to cruising Durham streets on Sunday with his horse and buggy, picking up young women for a ride.

We conclude the Brodie Leonidas story with his fourth marriage in 1910 at age 63. His bride was 21.

And now Benjamin Newton Duke, namesake of the rich scholarships aimed at stopping the most talented students in the Carolinas from fleeing to the Ivy League.

We've heard more and more about Ben as the years have gone by, to the point where the university PR office has started to assert he was the co-founder, reaching back to President Robert Flowers to find a quote embracing the concept. Most likely Flowers was trying to butter Ben's descendants for a contribution, or affected by the senility that marked most of his tenure.

The first "fact" about Duke University presented on the school's website is that it was founded by James B. Duke. Period. And maybe the PR types can explain why the statue of Ben did not sprout on East Campus until 1999 if he were equal to James B himself.

Alone among the brothers, Ben Duke had one wife and a loving marriage. But there are so many dimensions of his life that are truly sad.

He was in ill health much of his life, and very feeble in his last years. He became the go-to man for Duke charity because he lacked the strength -- like James B. -- to follow the family's growing empire: London, the wilds of Canada, New York, New Jersey, Charlotte.

The Duke family tradition of age discordant marriages extended to his two children. His son Angier never outgrew his frat pin, and he was 32 years old when he took a teen bride from the Biddle family of Philadelphia. Not the weathy branch, but the kooky branch that kept an alligator or two in a stinking tank in its dining room.

The marriage ended as you'd expect.

Angier not only played hard, he was prone to accidents. In New York City with his custom-made Rolls Phantom, he squished a woman against a wall near Yankee Stadium. At the beach in his car, he ripped apart a utility pole near the family's Southampton "cottage" on Gin Lane, damn near electrocuting himself. In the wild, he shot off an arm in a hunting accident.

The worst occurred on the water of Long Island Sound. Divorced, spending a night drinking and dining on shore with three female and two male friends, they decided to steal a rowboat to reach Angier's 86-foot yacht, too big to be moored at the dock. (Accuracy footnote: some list his boat at 82 feet)

The rowboat capsized; everybody else made it to the yacht's deck where, oblivious (translation: drunk), they were resuming their party when Angier's body floated by, his head split open.

I hope you didn't think the Angier Buchanan Duke Scholarships were named for some big intellectual!

Ben and Sarah also had a daughter - Mary Duke -- who became Mary Duke Biddle. Associated with the fine arts and surrounded by blooming flowers (including a vase in her limo), these disguise the long and deep depression that griped her when her marriage collapsed. This marriage was also never going to work, for Mary was pushing 30 and her husband was still a teenager.

The divorce left great scars on her two children, who are important descendants of Washington.

Her 12 year old son -- named Anthony for his father -- had family lawyers go to court to expunge this, assuming the name Nicholas, for whom a gallery in the Nasher is named.

Her daughter (today Mrs. Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans) had to be rescued by her widowed grandmother Sarah and brought from New York to live in Durham. That's another story for another time.

And now the big kahuna, James Buchanan Duke, known as Buck.

The statue that greets everyone on the Main Quad of West Campus -- and the 30-ton marble sarcophagus inside the Chapel -- belie how rotund Buck was, particularly in later life. Moreover, both monuments are surrounded by clean air, while Buck smoked cigars incessantly and was enveloped in vulgar smoke. The smell of ammonia and bleach also permeated the air around him, for he was a germ freak who had everything swabbed day and night. He had bad leg pain (gout?) that caused him to walk with a significant limp and sometimes not walk at all.

His first wife Lillian and he were together just nine months before he delivered divorce papers. Like Leonidas Brody, Lillian and Buck went through a saucy trial to assign blame. He cheated, she cheated, but his lawyers got the jump on hers and his investigators turned up Frank Huntoon, who responded to Lillian's needs when summoned via classified ads placed in a Paris newspaper.

Lillian was sent packing with only a token of the family wealth, and a stock broker soon fleeced her out of that.

Lillian pleaded and pleaded over the years for help, all ignored by Buck. On the eve of his second marriage, extortion having failed, she filed a lawsuit that asserted their divorce was not valid.

Buck would never speak about Lillian again, not even to his lawyers. She remained obsessed -- caught by a New York Times reporter standing on a knoll in Central Park watching Buck's funeral cortege leave his marble Fifth Avenue palace.

Lillian's health declined immediately. She was no longer able to eke out even a frugal living as a singing teacher and she died alone, "nearly destitute" as the Times put it. Other reports say she starved and froze to death in a tenement.

Buck's second wife, Nanaline, presented him with the greatest joy of his life, a daughter Doris, born when he was 56 years old. Doris later told a story that her second cousin spilled in his autobiography: she overheard her father and his brother Ben discussing sex. Kinky sex. Wife number 2 would plant strawberries in her body and Buck would forage for them.

Ah those founders!

Contrary to belief, Buck did not make most of his money from tobacco. He started Duke Power (now Duke Energy) to deliver electricity to cotton mills he had snapped up, leaving previous owners and competitors dismayed at his tactics. He was also involved in founding other major companies -- notably Alcoa (aluminum and pollution) and American Cyanamid (chemicals, pharmaceuticals and pollution, strategically located downstream on the Raritan River from his getaway manor.)

Buck died just ten months after setting up this University; had he lived, plans for a grand fountain in front of the Chapel and a jet spraying high into the air at the West traffic circle might have been fulfilled. Also a lake, in the wide ravine that ultimately became home for Duke Gardens. Buck Duke loved displays of water, as anyone visiting his Charlotte or New Jersey homes can attest.

We associate Buck with the Methodist Church. His foundation continues to give millions to build rural places of worship and to help supplement pensions of retired ministers, to say nothing of vital annual gifts to sustain Duke Divinity School with its Methodist ties. This omits a key element of his spirituality: Buck believed in reincarnation and for all you know he's the guy who super-sized your lunch at McDonald's today.

Doris inherited enough money to merit the title "the richest girl in the world." Fact Checker admires Doris a great deal, for significant personal achievements that have remained hidden from public view and for her "fuck em" attitude when it came to people -- including family members -- who disparaged her lifestyle.

Oh boy, disparage they did. At age 75 Doris adopted a daughter, Chandi Heffner, a 35-year-old Hare Krishna chanter.

Rumors flew: some said Doris saw in Chandi the face of her only biological child, Arden, born out of wedlock and believed to be bi-racial, who died in Hawaii on her second day of life. Others said Doris and Chandi were lesbians, and indeed, their gay chef has written a tell-all book: when he made a routine visit to Doris's bedroom (a huge salon where she virtually lived) to review the day's menu, the chef encountered Doris flung back on the sofa in ecstasy, Chandi sucking her toes.

All this happened in New Jersey, at the 700-foot-long country manor with pale green ceilings (Doris hated rooms with white ceilings) that Doris selected as her legal domicile over three other mansions -- and at a Park Avenue penthouse painted pink and black, designed so the party could rage long after Studio 54, the legendary New York disco of the 70's and 80's with a giant cocaine spoon hanging over its dance floor, closed at noon.

New Jersey confers every right upon an adopted child, forever. When Doris and Chandi had a falling out, Doris was able to excise her daughter from her own will. But there was no undoing Chandi's legal status as her only lineal descendant and beneficiary of a separate trust that Buck had established.

When Doris died in 1993, Chandi walked off with $65 million . That's $6.5 million per toe.

As a going away present for the family and its lawyers, Doris picked her illiterate Irish butler as her executor, deliberately listing Bernie Lafferty as Rafferty in the type of jab she would laugh at. Lafferty, quite a spectacle in pony tail and sandals, and Doris's clothes and jewelry after her death, took to heavy drinking and could be found faithfully each night at an upscale gay bar in New York until he either fell off his bar stool near the piano or the joint closed, signals for a bartender to lift Bernie into a cab. The butler was also famous for his loud use of the N-word.

Bernie showed up unannounced at the Metropolitan Museum of Art with a $10 million bequest, which was a happy surprise. He showed up at Duke University with $10 million too, which was a bitter surprise since many on campus had hoped for the entire $1.2 billion that Doris lodged in her own foundation. That number is deceptive as to her wealth, for Doris tied up as least as much by giving her homes, square miles of open land in a prime suburb of New Jersey, and her priceless art to other public trusts.

University President Nan Keohane chummed Bernie when he delivered the $10 million check and parlayed a photo-op into a paid Trustee's job at Doris' new foundation. When a judge ruled Lafferty incompetent (and also ruled Doris had all her bubbles when she gave Lafferty a $500,000 a year lifetime salary) Keohane ascended to leadership of the foundation in 1994, a part time sinecure she still holds.

Foundation tax returns for a typical year show Keohane worked 72 hours and grossed $126,078. Calculation: $1,751 per hour for working for a charitable organization. Yes this is the same Nan Keohane who insisted her university salary be kept down (to $500,000 or so) in order to achieve "parity" with the lowest paid employees.

As Fact Checker readers can surely conclude, Doris is iconoclastic, surely interesting enough for a complete essay some day. For now, suffice it to say that she too may be around. You see, Doris, like her beloved father, believed in reincarnation. She attributed her strong swim stroke to her previous life as a fish, but apparently had no prediction where she'd wind up in succeeding go-arounds.

For all you know, she might be the Fact Checker, watching over the university that daddy founded.

"...for Doris tied up as least as much by giving her homes, square miles of open land in a prime suburb of New Jersey, and her priceless art to other public trusts."

Keohane, among others, is responsible for destroying Doris Duke's gardens "Duke Farm" in New Jersey.


Some history: 11 Trustees and 11 Gardens
Updated April 2009:

Miss Duke's Gardens in central NJ were closed to the public in May 2008. Many people hoped that with the structures still intact and the statuary still present, future Trustees would remedy the closure and restore the cultural legacy of Doris Duke.

Over 5,230 protesters wrote personal letters to the Trustees or signed petitions asking them not to destroy the the Gardens. Over 600 people wrote to Governor Corzine asking him to intercede for New Jersey's heritage.

The Trustees replied: "[our] decisions about the future opportunities for Duke Farms have been properly vetted and are totally within the discretion of the boards under New York state law, as approved by the New York Attorney General."

Doris Duke personally designed and created these Gardens to honor the father she adored, who died when she was twelve. Duke Gardens are equal in size to the Haupt Conservatory, the centerpiece of the New York Botanical Gardens. They were opened to the public in 1964, and were a major tourist destination despite no advertising.

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