"Men who inherit great wealth are respected, but women who do the same are ridiculed. In The Silver Swan, Sallie Bingham rescues Doris Duke from this gendered prison and shows us just how brave, rebellious, and creative this unique woman really was, and how her generosity benefits us to this day.” —Gloria Steinem
A bold portrait of Doris Duke, the defiant and notorious tobacco heiress who was perhaps the greatest modern woman philanthropist
In The Silver Swan, Sallie Bingham chronicles one of the great underexplored lives of the twentieth century and the very archetype of the modern woman. “Don’t touch that girl, she’ll burn your fingers,” FBI director J. Edgar Hoover once said about Doris Duke, the inheritor of James Buchanan Duke’s billion-dollar tobacco fortune. During her lifetime, she would be blamed for scorching many, including her mother and various ex-lovers. She established her first foundation when she was twenty-one; cultivated friendships with the likes of Jackie Kennedy, Imelda Marcos, and Michael Jackson; flaunted interracial relationships; and adopted a thirty-two year-old woman she believed to be the reincarnation of her deceased daughter. This is also the story of the great houses she inhabited, including the classically proportioned limestone mansion on Fifth Avenue, the sprawling Duke Farms in New Jersey, the Gilded Age mansion Rough Point in Newport, Shangri La in Honolulu, and Falcon’s Lair overlooking Beverly Hills.
Even though Duke was the subject of constant scrutiny, little beyond the tabloid accounts of her behavior has been publicly known. In 2012, when eight hundred linear feet of her personal papers were made available, Sallie Bingham set out to probe her identity. She found an alluring woman whose life was forged in the Jazz Age, who was not only an early war correspondent but also an environmentalist, a surfer, a collector of Islamic art, a savvy businesswoman who tripled her father’s fortune, and a major philanthropist with wide-ranging passions from dance to historic preservation to human rights.
In The Silver Swan, Bingham is especially interested in dissecting the stereotypes that have defined Duke’s story while also confronting the disturbing questions that cleave to her legacy.
About the Author
Sallie Bingham is the author of numerous books--most notably her memoir Passion and Prejudice, but also novels, story collections, poetry collections, and several plays produced off-Broadway and regionally. She was book editor for The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky, has been a director of the National Book Critics Circle, and is the founder of The Kentucky Foundation for Women. She has received fellowships from Yaddo, McDowell Colony, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.
"Illuminating . . . Bingham is a generous biographer in this exacting, measured work." --Publishers Weekly
"Men who inherit great wealth are respected, but women who do the same are ridiculed. In The Silver Swan, Sallie Bingham rescues Doris Duke from this gendered prison and shows us just how brave, rebellious, and creative this unique woman really was, and how her generosity benefits us to this day.” —GLORIA STEINEM
“How to write about the fabulously rich? Sallie Bingham, an accomplished memoirist and fiction writer who is herself a notable philanthropist and a woman of great privilege, may be uniquely situated to present the life of the famed tobacco heiress Doris Duke. Writing of Duke’s unconventional love life, palatial estates, 150 employees, stacks of lawyers, pet camels, and billion-dollar philanthropic legacy, Bingham spikes her sympathetic account with wry asides and imperative critique.” —ALIX KATES SHULMAN, author of Memoirs of an Ex–Prom Queen
“Sallie Bingham went in search of a secretive Silver Swan and miraculously found sufficient information to gift us with the most significant, dramatic, and compelling biography of Doris Duke. Heiress, philanthropist, visionary, adventurer, Doris Duke did not keep journals or write letters. Nevertheless, Sallie Bingham’s imaginative persistence uncovered a twentieth-century journey of love and healing, of interracial activism for progress and justice, that will delight and inspire all readers concerned about a more humane future.” —BLANCHE WIESEN COOK, author of Eleanor Roosevelt (vols. I, II, III)
“Among the ranks of important American heiresses, Doris Duke has long remained an enigmatic figure. Thanks to Sallie Bingham’s assiduous research through never-before-used documents and her deft writing, we now have a clear and lucidly written account of Duke’s engaging life. And what a life it was! Adventuresome and sometimes impetuous, she was a spectacular spender of wealth for personal pleasure and for the public good, a surfer (who knew?), and the prototype of the modern woman, complete with an array of lovers. The Doris Duke who emerges from the pages of The Silver Swan is an empathetic and generous woman whose massive inherited fortune fueled a remarkable life but also kept her true nature hidden from the public.” —JAMES McGRATH MORRIS, author of Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power