The Fatal Crash That Plunged Doris Duke Into Scandal

Dark Capital is a series that explores the intersection of business, wealth and crime

Doris Duke and James Cromwell arrived in Honolulu in August 1935
Photo: Nate Farbman. Hawai'i State Archives
Doris Duke and James Cromwell arrived in Honolulu in August 1935

It was about 5 p.m. on a Friday in October 1966 when the millionaire heiress Doris Duke—hounded by gossip columns for decades—drove her car into infamy. 

Duke, then 53, was leaving her Newport, Rhode Island, estate with her close companion of ten years, the interior designer Eduardo Tirella, 42, according to reports at the time. Tirella drove the two down the driveway before getting out to open the mansion’s front gates, as Duke slid over to the driver’s side. 

“It was something we’d done a hundred times before,” she reportedly told police. As he opened the gates, she would then usually drive the car through as he closed them. This time, though, it all went terribly wrong. As the New York Daily News recounted at the time, the car “struck the heavy, 15-foot high, 20-foot wide wrought iron gate with such force that the gate sprang open. Several inch-square, five-foot long sections of iron were torn out. The car, dragging Tirella’s crumpled body, lurched across two-laned Bellevue Ave. and hit a large tree.”

Tirella reportedly died instantly. Duke was found nearby seemingly in a fog, bleeding from head wounds. She was released from the hospital after 30 stitches treating cuts to her lip and chin, but would not be interviewed by police until nearly two days after the event, as questions—and a blinding media glare—only grew more intense.

“An extraordinary case”

An autopsy reportedly showed that Tirella died from a brain hemorrhage, multiple fractures and internal injuriesNewport police chief Joseph Radice told reporters that she told them that “suddenly the car leaped forward and I was on top of him.”

Duke was released from the hospital. Her physician, Dr. Philip K. McAllister, told reporters she was in shock, and officers wouldn’t formally interview Duke until Sunday afternoon. McAllister told the New York Daily News that subjecting Duke to police questions so soon after the tragedy would have been “inhumane.”

“This is an extraordinary case. I can make a judgment independent of the police in the matter if necessary.”

But the slow speed of the police investigation clearly concerned the Rhode Island attorney general, J. Joseph Nugent, who soon announced he would ask police for a full report. “This is an extraordinary case,” Nugent told reporters. “I can make a judgment independent of the police in the matter if necessary.”

And the rumors grew quickly. As the New York Times would later report, there was speculation that Duke had been drunk behind the wheel and that it wasn’t an accident after all.

When asked about such a possibility, Duke’s doctor, McAllister, pronounced it “unthinkable,” according to the Daily News, saying the two “were devoted.” Besides, there was “no evidence of alcohol in the blood of either Miss Duke or Tirella,” according to McAllister—who just happened to also be the state’s acting medical examiner, according to New York magazine.

The voluble doctor didn’t stop there. “Wealth does not bring happiness,” he told a reporter. “And I’m convinced that enormous wealth brings great handicaps.”

Building her own Shangri-La

If anyone understood the handicaps of wealth, it was likely to be Duke. The American Tobacco Company heiress belonged to a well-known American aristocracy with names like Vanderbilt, Rockefeller and du Pont, her every move scrutinized by gossip columnists, and she always had to be on high alert to people who might just be looking for a payday. “They must guard against fast friendship for fear the friend is only a friend of the dollar,” as the Daily News put it.

She began getting media attention after she made her society debut in 1930, and she was later presented at Buckingham Palace. By 1935, at age 22, she married James H. R. Cromwell, a diplomat who was soon named U.S. minister to Canada. Duke would spend much of her time in Hawaii, where she poured money into a second home she somewhat uncreatively named Shangri-La, near Diamond Head, on Oahu. She kept her 55-foot yacht docked nearby.

But her only child, a daughter, was born three months premature and died, according to reports at the time. Her marriage ended shortly after. She would marry again, this time to Porfirio Rubirosa, a “Dominican diplomat and international playboy,” as he was frequently described in the tabloids. Rubirosa would become notorious for all the famous women he was said to have romanced, including Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland, Joan Crawford, Rita Hayworth, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Evita herself, Eva Perón. He and Duke would divorce within a year, and he would marry another famous society figure: Woolworth heiress and longtime Duke frenemy Barbara Hutton.

“An unfortunate accident”

After Tirella died, Barbara Hutton acidly commented, according to Town and Country: “Perhaps Doris didn’t like his taste. She certainly didn’t care for mine.”

Rumors notwithstanding, Police Chief Radice would rule Tirella’s death “an unfortunate accident.” He added, “As far as I am concerned, the case is closed.” Nugent, the attorney general, never apparently questioned the investigation, and the case was closed.

Eventually, all evidence at the site that there had been an accident vanished. The station wagon was hauled away, the gates were repaired and the media disappeared. One of Tirella’s eight siblings, Alice Romano, filed two negligence suits of $1.25 million each, one against Duke and another against Avis, which provided the rental car Duke had been driving. Duke was found negligent in a civil trial and was ordered to pay $75,000 to Tirella’s family. Romano appealed the court’s decision, alleging that the jury’s award was inadequate, but it was dismissed.

“All that money is a problem sometimes”

When Duke died in 1993 at age 80, she left the majority of her fortune, her properties and art collections to the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, endowing it with approximately $1.81 billion, which is doled out in grants and supports three museums and centers on properties that Duke owned in Honolulu, Newport, and Hillsborough, New Jersey.

If Duke’s money had been a curse to herself while she was alive, it seems to have had the same effect on her distant relatives. Duke was said to change her will often, replacing her nephew Walker Inman Jr. as executor with her butler, Bernard Lafferty. Lafferty was set to receive a $5 million fee and $500,000 a year for life (Duke’s dogs were left a $100,000 trust fund), but he died in 1996, and she reportedly left Inman only $7 million in a trust. And after he died of a drug overdose in 2010, there was great mystery over how his fortune—once believed to be $1 billion—had dwindled to possibly just $60 million

Duke might not have been surprised. As she once told a journalist in 1945 over a glass of wine at the Hassler Hotel in Italy, “All that money is a problem sometimes.”

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20 октября родились
Ахметжан Шардинов
председатель совета директоров ТОО «Алматинский завод мостовых конструкций»
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