Court Revisits The Last Days Of Doris Duke

By James C. McKinley, Jr,
(New York Times)

On April 5, 1993, the woman once called "the richest girl in the world" lay feverish and emaciated in a luxury hospital suite in Beverly Hills, suffering, of all things, from starvation.

Doris Duke, 80, the legendary tobacco heiress, looked more like a blond skeleton than the athletic debutante who had made her society debut in the 1930's at Buckingham Palace or the stately and private woman who only a few years before was socializing with Jacqueline Onassis and Imelda Marcos.

Her circle had shrunk to a few servants and a group of doctors and lawyers she had known only a short time. As she signed her last will that day with a shaky hand and turned her fortune over to her butler, not a single close friend or family member was present.

Her doctors and lawyers say they helped Miss Duke realize her final wish in a lifetime of unorthodox choices. The will gave control of her $1.2 billion fortune to her butler, Bernard Lafferty, a barely literate man with a drinking problem who had become Miss Duke's sole confidant.

But since her death October 28, 1993, Miss Duke's last will has been the center of a legal fight in Surrogate's Court in Manhattan and a criminal investigation in Los Angeles, tying up what Miss Duke intended to be a $1 billion fund for charity.

In the next few days, Surrogate Eve Preminger is expected to make the first in a series of crucial decisions that will determine who will run a charitable foundation that will rank among the nation's largest.

First she has to rule on whether Mr. Lafferty is responsible enough to be executor. Then she has to decide whether one of Miss Duke's former physicians has legal standing to challenge the will. Finally, the Surrogate has to decide whether to validate the final will -- and whether Miss Duke was coerced into signing it.

Several people who were named executors in earlier wills have accused Mr. Lafferty, a soft-spoken man with a ponytail and a penchant for diamonds and Italian suits, of worming his way into Miss Duke's confidence while her mind was crippled. And in Los Angeles, the District Attorney is investigating allegations by one of Miss Duke's private nurses and one of her former doctors that the butler conspired with other doctors and lawyers to murder Miss Duke with a drug overdose.

Aside from the question of foul play, hospital records and court papers paint a disturbing portrait of Miss Duke at the end and raise serious questions of how much control she had over her decisions.

The records show she was taking several medicines -- antidepressants, painkillers, sleeping pills -- which at least three doctors have said in affidavits might have interfered with her thinking. Also, two former servants now say that Miss Duke was often dazed and confused in her last year.

Two weeks ago, a lawyer appointed by Surrogate Preminger to help sort out the battle concluded that Miss Duke's primary doctor, Charles F. Kivowitz, purposely cut her nutrition and hastened her death with a morphine overdose.

The lawyer, Richard H. Kuh, a former Manhattan prosecutor, also determined that her mental state was "questionable" when she signed the will. His report cited hospital records showing Miss Duke often had a mild drug-induced delirium.

Lawyers for Miss Duke's estate have challenged the Kuh report with reams of affidavits from friends and business associates attesting to her mental competency.

The stakes are high. If the will holds up, Mr. Lafferty will get a $5 million executor's fee plus $500,000 a year for the rest of his life. The law firm that drew up the final will, Katten, Muchin & Zavis of Chicago, has already billed the estate $13.5 million and stands to get millions more. Heiress Lonely, Suspicious And Reclusive

In interviews and court papers, Miss Duke's friends and former employees describe a lonely old woman who grew more and more isolated from others and dependent on Mr. Lafferty in her dotage. As her health declined, they said, her natural suspicion of people's motives grew, and she changed her will four times in the last three years of her life.

Ever since her father, James Buchanan Duke, told her on his deathbed to "trust no one," she had been suspicious of those around her -- many of whom were sycophants and fortune hunters, they said. Time and again, she had cut people off at the first sign of disloyalty.

"She once said to me that she often felt that whenever some people looked at her, they saw her face as a dollar bill," Annabelle Kenessy, an old friend from Hawaii, said in a court affidavit.

Miss Duke was born on Nov. 22, 1912, the only child of the American Tobacco Company president, who had built a $300 million fortune.

But her acquaintances say she craved the things money could not buy: talent, love, friends. She took jazz piano lessons religiously and studied dance until she was well into her 60's. She loved gospel music, rare animals and Islamic art. She kept a pair of camels on her 2,700-acre main residence, Duke Farms in Somerville, N.J.

Her money could never protect her from unhappiness; she had two failed marriages and several unsuccessful relationships. In 1940, she bore one child, who lived less than 24 hours. In 1966, Eduardo Tirella, an interior decorator who was a close friend, was killed in an accident when the car she was driving slammed him against a gate on Rough Point, the Newport estate.

As she grew older, she became more reclusive, dividing her time between homes in New York City, New Jersey, Beverly Hills and Hawaii.

It was in Hawaii, in early 1984, that Miss Duke met the woman who would eventually become the daughter she never had -- Chandi Heffner.

Ms. Heffner was a follower of Hare Krishna who had rejected her middle-class upbringing in Baltimore and was living on a communal farm when she was introduced to Miss Duke through a mutual friend. The two shared an interest in dance, Eastern philosophy and animals, Miss Duke's friends said. Before long, they became close.

In 1985, Ms. Heffner moved in with Miss Duke at Somerville. The next year, the heiress bought Ms. Heffner a $1.5 million horse ranch in Oahu. They traveled the world together at Miss Duke's expense.

"She always wanted a daughter," said Peggy Lee, the singer, a longtime friend of Miss Duke. "Chandi filled an empty spot in Miss Duke's life."

Ms. Heffner introduced Miss Duke to Bernard Lafferty, former employees said. Orphaned at 17, Mr. Lafferty had emigrated from Ireland to Philadelphia, where he worked in hotels and theaters. In the 1980's, he became a personal assistant to Miss Lee, who met him on a singing tour.

Little by little, Ms. Heffner took a bigger advisory role in Miss Duke's finances, Miss Duke's associates said. In 1987, she persuaded the heiress to dismiss her business manager and hire Irwin Bloom, a New York accountant. That year Miss Duke signed a will making Ms. Heffner executor. In 1988, the heiress adopted her as her only heir.

But the relationship between the women began to sour a year later when Ms. Heffner became romantically involved with one of Miss Duke's bodyguards, James Burns. "Chandi's loyalty became divided and Doris could never stand that," said Liz McConville, who served as Miss Duke's secretary for 18 years. "She had bought and paid for Chandi 100 percent."

Soon Ms. Heffner began to alienate many servants, including Mr. Lafferty, with bossy demands, some of Miss Duke's associates say. "The day after the adoption she changed and became the little tyrant she really is," said Colin Shanley, who said he quit as Miss Duke's cook in 1989 because of Ms. Heffner. He and Ann Bostich, a housekeeper for Miss Duke in Beverly Hills from 1989 until her death, have sued the estate, charging breach of contract.

By February 1991, Miss Duke's disenchantment with Ms. Heffner peaked. She ordered her lawyer to tell Ms. Heffner to get out. They never saw each other again.

Ms. Heffner declined a request to be interviewed for this article. After suing three times, she reached a $65 million settlement with the Duke Estate last month. Part of the agreement is that she not talk about Miss Duke's life, her lawyers said. Staff Ex-Servants Accuse a Butler

Mr. Shanley, the cook, came back to work for Miss Duke in March 1991; he says he hardly recognized her. In 1989, she had been a vibrant older woman who swam laps every day, but now she looked emaciated and pale. Miss Duke told him she believed Ms. Heffner had poisoned her.

"She was frail, very frail," Mr. Shanley said in a recent interview.

Mr. Lafferty's role also changed after the falling out between Miss Duke and Ms. Heffner, Mr. Shanley and Ms. Bostich said. Before 1991, he had been a traditional butler, serving tea and answering doors. Now, they said, he gave orders to the staff and often said he spoke for Miss Duke.

Mr. Shanley said Mr. Lafferty began to isolate Miss Duke. He intercepted her calls, and friends and relatives said in interviews and affidavits that it became nearly impossible to reach her on the telephone.

"He made it clear that everyone had to go through him first to speak to Miss Duke about anything," Mr. Shanley said.

Mr. Lafferty declined a request to be interviewed for this article. In affidavits, he has denied having exerted any influence on Miss Duke's decisions.

Over the next 12 months, Miss Duke changed her will three times, court papers say. After meeting several times in the spring of 1991 with Dr. Harry B. Demopoulos, a diet specialist from Scarsdale, N.Y., who had treated her for a decade, she hired the law firm that represented the doctor and signed a new codicil naming him and Chemical Bank as co-executors. Dr. Demopoulos and the bank were to get $25 million each.

"She was definitely motivated by a fear that Chandi or Burns were going to harm her," recalled Suzelle Smith, a lawyer for Dr. Demopoulos. Miss Duke went so far as to have tests run on the food and sherry at Shangri-La, her house on the coast of Oahu, she said. No poison was found.

In November 1991, Miss Duke had a new will drafted that made Mr. Bloom, the accountant, the executor. After a trip to Vietnam and Thailand in April, 1992, she changed course again, signing another codicil that made Mr. Lafferty co-executor along with Walker Inman, her half-nephew and closest relative. She confided to friends during the trip that she no longer trusted Mr. Bloom, court papers say. Health Spending Sprees And Operations

Miss Duke's medical disasters started in April 1992, when she decided to have a facelift and asked her servants to seek out Dr. Harry A. Glassman, a well-known Hollywood surgeon. Two days after the operation in his office, she fell out of bed and broke her hip, her employees said. She was taken to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, where Dr. Glassman recommended she seek treatment from Dr. Kivowitz and an orthopedic surgeon, Barry M. Braiker.

That summer while she recovered, Dr. Kivowitz and Dr. Glassman started visiting her frequently at home, Ms. Bostich and Mr. Shanley said. The cook said the two doctors would arrive in the late afternoon and drink $100 bottles of Louis Roederer Cristal champagne with Miss Duke. She grew especially fond of Dr. Glassman, her friends said.

Sometime that fall, Miss Duke decided to have her arthritic knees replaced with artificial joints. She told friends she wanted to dance again. The surgery was done in January 1993, and Miss Duke went to Shangri-La, in Hawaii, to recover.

Mr. Shanley said Miss Duke "did not know where she was or what day it was" while they were in Hawaii. She took strong narcotics for pain -- Percodan and Demerol -- plus several sleeping medicines and anti-depressants, court papers said. She also drank wine daily, and took laxatives to stay thin, her servants said.

By late February, she had become so malnourished and dehydrated that her life was in danger, court papers say. She flew back to Los Angeles and was admitted to Cedars-Sinai.

Her nurses noted she was intermittently disoriented and confused, sometimes hallucinating that she was in a noisy apartment in Brooklyn.

A staff neurologist, Dr. Clarke D. Espy, examined her on March 2 and said in his report that she suffered from a mild delirium "possibly exacerbated" by prescription drugs. He said later in an affidavit that once she was taken off certain medications, her mental state improved. Hospital records for the days on which she later signed documents suggest she was alert and oriented.

Whatever her mental state, in early March Ms. Duke called Angier Biddle Duke, her cousin and a former ambassador, and asked if he could recommend a lawyer. (Mr. Duke died three weeks ago.)

She also asked her plastic surgeon, Dr. Glassman, to put her in touch with Alan Croll, a neighbor of his. Mr. Croll referred her to William M. Doyle Jr., one of his partners in the Katten, Muchin firm. Mr. Doyle, their leading estate specialist, flew from Chicago to Los Angeles the next day.

"The only change she was making was to replace Irwin Bloom with Bernard Lafferty," Mr. Doyle said. "She said Mr. Bloom had lost his sense of territory and had violated the cardinal sin of somehow thinking that he had become Mr. Duke."

Mr. Doyle said he proposed other trustees and pointed out Mr. Lafferty's lack of education. "She told me that he wasn't college educated, but nor was she," Mr. Doyle recalled. "He had been by her side 24 hours a day for six years. He was intimately familiar with her view of life."

On March 9, 1993, Miss Duke signed the codicil, so weak that Mr. Doyle had to guide her hand, witnesses said. Mr. Doyle said he knew the will would be challenged. "It was clear she was disinheriting her daughter," he said. "Any third grader would realize this was going to be a contested estate." The Last Months No Extra Measure To Sustain Life

The months that followed her release from the hospital on April 15, 1993, were hard for her, her employees said. She was often forgetful and disoriented, and still had problems with her artificial knees. She made short trips to Hawaii and New Jersey before returning to Los Angeles to have another knee operation in July.

Dr. Kivowitz said in court papers that he advised her against the operation. So did Eleanor Lawson, her longtime friend and dance teacher. But Miss Duke insisted. Two days after she went home from the hospital, she had a stroke and nearly died.

She returned to Cedars-Sinai, where she stayed two months before being sent home on Sept. 20, for the last time.

Her bedroom was converted for intensive care, with two nurses on duty round the clock. She had a stomach tube for feeding and a tracheotomy tube for breathing.

On Oct. 7, Dr. Kivowitz said in court papers, Miss Duke told him that she did not want to go on living if her health could not improve. The next day, he ordered nurses to take no special measures to keep her alive.

From that point, Miss Duke was heavily sedated, the nurses' notes and court documents say. On Oct. 18, a nurse noted that Miss Duke had told her: "I want to die."

During this time, Mr. Lafferty was running up Miss Duke's credit card accounts, court records show, spending lavishly on gifts for nurses and, in October 1993 alone, buying $20,000 worth of clothes.

Mr. Lafferty and Miss Duke's business manager, George Reed, also doled out several large gifts to the doctors and to charity in the month before Miss Duke died, saying they had been authorized by Miss Duke, the records show. Dr. Glassman received $500,000, and Dr. Kivowitz got $10,000 in addition to his fees.

On Oct. 26, Dr. Kivowitz stopped Miss Duke's feedings and oxygen.

On Oct. 27, Dr. Kivowitz, Dr. Glassman and Mr. Doyle all visited the Beverly Hills house. Mr. Shanley said that when a package of medication arrived in the kitchen that afternoon, Mr. Lafferty grabbed it from him, saying: "Miss Duke is going to die tonight."

At 4 P.M. on the 27th, Dr. Kivowitz ordered her to receive a morphine drip, starting at 5 milligrams. His order said to increase the flow 1 milligram an hour as needed.

But for some reason, the dosage of morphine was increased to 10 milligrams per hour at 6:30 P.M., then 15 milligrams at 7:30, and finally, at 4 A.M., to 25 milligrams, according to the nurses' notes. Dr. Kivowitz also gave her an additional injection of 10 milligrams before he went home for the night, the records show.

The drug slowed her breathing. Her lungs filled with fluid. At 5:15 A.M. on Oct. 28, her nurses gave her an injection of 100 milligrams of Demerol. Their notes indicate Dr. Glassman ordered the extra painkiller over the telephone at the request of Dr. Kivowitz. At 5:48 A.M., Miss Duke stopped breathing.

Mr. Lafferty and Mr. Doyle were at her bedside. Soon afterward, Dr. Kivowitz's partner, Dr. Joshua Trabulus, signed a death certificate, saying the cause was fluid in the lungs and infection. A few hours later, the butler and the lawyer took the body to Westwood mortuary for cremation.