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Biographer: Legacy of tobacco heiress Doris Duke has been erased from the history books

The Duke family fortune was grown right here in the tobacco fields of North Carolina. When Doris Duke was born, newspapers christened her "The Richest Little Girl In The World."

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Mikaya Thurmond
, WRAL anchor/reporter
DURHAM, N.C. — Doris Duke's legendary last name adorns schools and streets across the Triangle. As the late James Duke's only child, ​the tobacco heiress inherited $100 million at the age of 12.

Her story is something out of a movie, and rarely seen home movies shared with WRAL News bring her to life. Duke rubbed shoulders with presidents and spent her free time filling the pages of her passport.

Sallie Bingham, Doris Duke's only authorized biographer, said, "Because she inherited this enormous fortune at a very early age, she had some big decisions to make probably before she was old enough to make them."

Bingham's new book, The Silver Swan, details Duke's work as a journalist, art collector and philanthropist advocating for diversity well before it was popular.

"She actually was one of 2 or 3 people who started the Newport Jazz Festival, which was the first great opportunity for African American musicians to reach a primarily upper class white audience," said Bingham.

But, Bingham says people won't see Doris Duke's face around the campus that her father endowed.

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"There are these black marble busts of all the male Dukes, and Doris is no where to be found. She was the daughter of the founder and a major benefactor of Duke (University) ... and, I thought, this is too weird ... I'm fascinated with the way women can be erased," Bingham said.

Duke University says Doris Duke's name can be found on a garden center, marker, professorship and fellowship.

While her story may not be well known, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation based in New York is valued at $1.3 billion – providing support to the performing arts, environmental conservation, medical research and child well-being.

Bingham said, "If we could summon here today all the people she has benefited, it would be a mass of people, thousands of people, often people who would not otherwise have been able to do what they were set on this earth to do."

Bingham believes that more than her money or famous family, it's that philanthropy that will be Doris Duke's legacy for decades to come.


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