Book 30 of 52: The Silver Swan: In Search of Doris Duke by Sallie Bingham

Last month, a friend and I met up at Duke Farms, a 2,700-acre environmental center in Hillsborough, N.J. We spent the morning biking around the its car-free roads, looking at orchids, talking about…whatever, and then had a nice lunch in their farm’s cafe.

Then last week, I stopped by my dad’s house in Avalon, N.J. and saw a copy of The Silver Swan: In Search of Doris Duke by Sallie Bingham in the give a book/take a book pile. I know I’d left it there (the publisher had sent me a copy in 2020). But hadn’t realized that this Duke was the name behind Duke Farms — or even that Duke Farms existed.

If you’re an NPR listener, you probably know of her too. She’s the Doris Duke of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. She was also the heiress to a tobacco fortune. Her father, James Buchanan Duke, created the kind of cigarette manufacturing and marketing that lead to the global rise in smoking and everything bad that came after it (and a lot of other stuff, but this is book about Doris, not “Bud,” as he was known)

Doris Duke inherited that fortune at 13 years old. The Silver Swan is about what she did with it.

The problem with writing about her is that there isn’t much of her personal life to be mined by a biographer. Tabloid stories? Yes, many. But her own reflections about her life? Not much. “Since Doris chose to protect herself by leaving no diaries or journals and few letters, nothing that has been written or said about her can be proved — or disproven,” Bingham writes.

Bingham has written more than a dozen books, and from what I can tell, this is her first biography. Perhaps someone with more experience in that genre might have been able to fill in the gaps about Duke’s life. Because Silver Swan feels light (and feels light too: 280 pages, with whole pages left blank between chapters).

Bingham tries to build up a story around Duke by writing about the environment in which she lived, and historical moments she most likely witnessed, but it doesn’t quite work. Catherine Dior, subject of Miss Dior by Justine Picardie (Book 21 of 2022), didn’t leave a lot of letters behind either, but she was part of the French Resistance, imprisoned in a concentration camp, and part of the life of her very famous brother, Christian. Picardie had all that to pull from, where Duke lived in a pretty rarefied world, one that wasn’t documented nearly as closely by so many people. Bingham didn’t have a lot to start with, but her attempts to fill in the gaps just didn’t do enough to make this a thorough read.

I’m not mad I read The Silver Swan. At least I know more about that farm I visited, which only opened to the public in its current form in 2012 (I’m guessing is why I hadn’t heard about it before as that’s about when I stopped writing so much about New Jersey tourism). But as a picture of a person, this biography is still too fuzzy.

Nail polish: Coastal Sand-tuary by OPI

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Jen Miller

Jen Miller

Jen A. Miller is a an author and freelance writer. Her memoir, Running a Love Story, was a Philadelphia Inquirer best book of the year. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, SELF, Buzzfeed and the Guardian, among others.

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