A Heaven in Hawaii

A Heaven in Hawaii

By Sheila O’Connor

IF YOU THINK of Hawaii, you probably imagine only sand and beaches. But what about a touch of Islam on Oahu? Doesn’t exist, you say? Think again. One of the island’s best-kept secrets is the 1930s estate known as Shangri La. It has the most diverse and extensive collections of Islamic art in the United States, and it’s all set in a tropical hideaway.

The late Doris Duke is the reason the hideaway is in Oahu. The tobacco and electricity heiress was the only child of James Buchanan Duke, founder of the American Tobacco Company and son of the main benefactor of Duke University, and his second wife, Southern aristocrat Nanaline Holt Inman. When he died, James Buchanan Duke left Doris, who was 12, half of his estate, estimated at $100 million (equivalent to more than $1 billion today).

Doris Duke lived a very sheltered life in New York, had few dealings with her cold mother and was driven to a private school in a limousine. Her maids even had photographs of her clothes to help plan her wardrobe each day. Security guards surrounded her everywhere, so great was the fear that she might be kidnapped and held to ransom. After finishing school, Duke traveled and studied art. She also lived in Paris for a while.

Despite such a reclusive life, she fell in love with and married James Cromwell in 1935. Cromwell, the son of Palm Beach, Florida, society doyenne Eva Stotesbury, later used his wife’s money to enter politics and became ambassador to Canada in 1940. They toured the world for their honeymoon, ending it in Hawaii. Duke fell in love with the islands’ wild beauty and the couple extended their stay for four months. When they returned to the mainland, Duke decided that the peace and privacy she found on Oahu was enough to make the island her home. Although she owned other houses, including one that once belonged to actor Rudolph Valentino in Beverly Hills, and two in Manhattan, her first love was always Hawaii.
During their travels, the heiress and was captivated with Islamic cultural tradi- tions – the art and architecture captivated her imagination and she decided to com- bine both her new loves. She built Shangri La – a captivating retreat away from the public eye that she could fill with her exqui- site Islamic art collection. She could dis- tance herself not only from the public eye, but also her privileged upbringing, which she never felt totally comfortable with. She managed to use her wealth to her advantage, for instance, buying her own Boeing 737 jet so she could easily travel between her homes and go on trips.

Duke’s wealth gave her ready access to many items most people had never seen up close and personal, let alone buy. These exotic purchases are evident everywhere in Shangri La. A visit to the Taj Mahal, for instance, led her to commission a marble bedroom and bathroom suite from a firm in New Delhi. Although neither room is open to the public, one can take a virtual tour of the rooms at www.shangrilahawaii.org. Various media, time periods, cultures and regions of the Islamic world are all juxtaposed in different rooms around the house. This was Duke’s unique style. Many works of art are even physically embedded in the structure itself. After two years of construction, the house was finally finished in 1938. At the time, it was the most extensive residential project in the then Territory of Hawaii.

The Cromwells separated in 1940. Duke had a baby during the marriage, but the child died after a day and Duke was told she could never have children again. She had a lifelong love for dogs and owned several; they, in effect, became her “children”.

“She had 24 dogs who all swam with her every day,” says 79-year-old Jin DeSilva, a 20-year caretaker of the home. “They swam in the Olympic-size pool and every one of them is buried in the garden.”

In 1947, Duke married again, this time in France, to Porfirio Rubirosa, a diplomat from the Dominican Republic and a notorious playboy. It’s reported that Duke paid his wife $1 million to agree to an uncontested divorce. But before long, Duke and Rubirosa themselves divorced and despite their prenuptial, she gave him several million dollars in gifts, including a stable of polo horses, sports cars, a converted B-25 bomber and a 17th-century house in Paris in the divorce settlement. Two marriages were clearly enough and Doris never married again.

She did, however, adopt a daughter. In 1988, at the age of 75, Duke legally adopted Chandi Heffher, a 35-year-old HaTe Krishna devotee whom Duke had met at a dancing class. The two women later fell out and Duke’s will stated that Chandi would not benefit from the Duke estate and that she regretted the adoption. Chandi sued the trustees of the will and settled for $65 million.

Duke, unlucky in love and, despite her great wealth, often unlucky in life, did certainly know how to use her great wealth to give back to society. She did a great deal of philanthropic work and was a major benefactor of medical research and child welfare. At 21, she even established her own foundation, Independent Aid, now known as the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.

Duke’s mental competence at the time she signed her will was later called into question. By the time she died in 1993. after a series of debilitating strokes at the age of 80, she had given her fortune (estimated at $1.3 billion) to a foundation that was presided over by her hard-drinking Irish butler, Bernard Lafferty. According to rumoT, Lafferty was responsible for murdering the bedridden Duke to get to her money; this was never proven. But he had moved into her mansion and traveled in her chauffeured Cadillac and private jet at estate expenses.

The circumstances surrounding Duke’s death have remained a mystery. Her private nurse said the doctor had given her a lethal overdose of morphine. That nurse, however, was later arrested for stealing artwork from another wealthy patient as well as stealing over $400,000 in valuables from several other patients.
The New York Times reported that Duke, one of the richest ladies in the world, who had made her society debut at Buckingham Palace and socialized with the likes of Jackie Onassis and Imelda Marcos, had been dying from starvation. She was cremated within 24 hours of her death and an autopsy was never performed.

In 1996, after an 18-month investigation, the Los Angeles district attorney’s office said there was no credible evidence that Duke was murdered. With all this intrigue, it’s no wonder filmmakers got in on the act, and in 1999, a four-hour mini-series was aired, Too Rich: The Secret Life of Doris Duke. Her life was also the topic in the 2006 film, Bernard and Doris, in which she is seen to have had a face-lift at the ripe old age of 79. It seems that in life and death, people associated Duke with great wealth and bizarre happenings.

Duke, however, couldn’t care less what society thought. Early on, she realized that future generations could study and understand Islamic art and culture through her Shangri La home and her will stated that most of the 14,000-square-foot, 4-9-acre estate be open to the public. Visitors can admire her extensive collection of tilework, painted ceilings, carved doors, marble screens, textiles, ceramics and paintings, more than 3,500 objects in all.

One thing that is constantly admired is the beautiful setting of the estate itself. On a bluff on Oahu’s Diamond Head coast, it’s nothing short of spectacular. Sun-drenched with the wild beauty of a windswept coastline, this retreat is a fitting home for the artworks Duke passionately gathered over 60 years.

In the garden, it seems you step into another world – one in which time doesn’t matter. An age-old banyan tree, one of the oldest plantings, stands testament to the timelessness of the treasures inside. The mottled shades of the central courtyard offer an elegant place for rest and reflection. Here the breezes are a cool relief to what can often be oppressive heat on the island.

The hanging lamps in the courtyard originate from Iran but Duke had two of them sent to India, leaving her short, so she had the remaining two pieces copied. If she didn’t buy an item or have it copied, Duke was often known to commission her artwork. She worked extensively with architect Marion Sims Wyeth to get the house just as she liked it, adding in architectural elements from Iran, Morocco, Turkey, Spain, Syria, Egypt and India. Shangri La is, in fact, the only one of Duke’s three homes that she personally had a hand in furnishing.

The most modern room in the house is the living room. The glass wall at the front with its dramatic views to the ocean uniquely lowers to the basement at the touch of a button, letting the “outdoors” come in. Ceilings, doors and screens throughout the property set off the Islamic artwork very well. These were commissioned by Moroccan designer Rene Martin, who used ceramic, plaster and wood extensively. It’s worth noting that it was customary to build flaws into the artwork, since only God can create something perfect and man should deliberately not try to compete.

One of the most-loved rooms and one where Duke often hosted her guests is the Turkish Room, where some of the furnishings date to the 1800s. The interior came from the home of the Quwwatlis, a prosperous family who had lived in Damascus for more than seven centuries. In the 1920s, the family sold the interior, which passed through several dealers’ hands before ending up at Duke’s home. Its installation required major structural renovations including the removal of a billiards room, bathroom and office – to raise the ceiling and lower the floor.

Duke personally cleaned the artwork on the Turkish Room’s walls, taking time to restore the dull wall coverings to life. The ceiling is 100 years older than the rest of the room. Duke brought her dinner guests here after their meal. No doubt much of their conversation revolved around how glorious the house was.

The Mihrab Room is a passageway from the Living Room to the Dining Room. The mihrab (prayer niche) dates to 1265; it looks silver but is in fact ceramic and painted by hand. Although mihrabs generally point toward Mecca, this mihrab points to Diamond Head. Originally made for a tomb, the mihrab was dismantled and arrived in 60 numbered pieces at Shangri La, where the parts were re-assembled. It was so precious that during World War II, it was stored in the basement for safekeeping.

What no doubt stayed safe during the war were the manicured gardens. It’s well worth taking a walk around them. From there, one can see the ocean, swimming pool, vistas of water terraces and steps of white marble. The landscaped Mughal Garden was inspired by the Shalimar Garden in Lahore, Pakistan. There’s also the Playhouse, a veritable feast for the eyes. It has two guestrooms and a central living space, all fashioned after the Chehel Sotun, a royal pavilion built in Isfahan, Iran, in 1647.

Not everything in Shangri La cost a small fortune to acquire, even in Duke’s day. The two stone camels that flank the front door were actually purchased at a Honolulu department store. Among the home’s priceless treasures, there’s a decided absence of photographs or other personal effects on display. Duke was happy to display her artwork, but nothing from her personal life; that’s how private she was.

Shangri La is well tended by the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art. “We’re grateful to have this extraordinary resource for building understanding of Islam and the beauty, diversity and complexity of Islamic art and culture,” says Deborah Pope, executive director of Shangri La. Duke willed that her Foundation for Islamic Art be used “to promote the study and understanding of Middle Eastern art and culture.”

Shangri La has been described as “a place-somewhere between east and westwhere borders dissolve and the senses delight.” It’s no surprise that Shangri La, named after the fictional place in the 1933 novel Lost Horizon by lames Hilton, evokes visions of paradise on earth and a place whose location is kept secret. The name couldn’t be more accurate for this most private of retreats and oasis of calm.

See our Current issue


Join our Newsletter

Follow us on