Doris Duke

“The Butler Did It!”: The Legal Battle over the Estate of Doris Duke

“The Butler Did It!”: The Legal Battle over the Estate of Doris Duke

This was Doris Duke's predicament. She was worth $1.2 billion, but had no relatives or friends she particularly cared to enrich so massively when she died. Instead, she decided with immodesty befitting one of the world's richest women that her estate would go toward "the improvement of humanity," as her will said. Her money would allow dancers to dance, artists to paint, doctors to cure diseases, animals to escape the cruelty of people.

In Serving the Famous, Is a Ringside Seat Enough?

In Serving the Famous, Is a Ringside Seat Enough?

There is nothing like a will to give billionaire watchers something to gab about. And one morsel in Harry B. Helmsley's estate should keep them buzzing for quite a while.

The New York real-estate mogul, who by most accounts was golden-hearted compared with his wife, Leona, left Ceil Fried, his longtime secretary, $25,000, a minuscule part of his $1.7 billion estate. That is all that decades of dictation, menial tasks and juggling one of the world's busiest social schedules was worth to Helmsley.

Money Doris Duke Meant for Charity Is Making a Lot of Other People Rich

This was Doris Duke's predicament. She was worth $1.2 billion, but had no relatives or friends she particularly cared to enrich so massively when she died. Instead, she decided with immodesty befitting one of the world's richest women that her estate would go toward "the improvement of humanity," as her will said. Her money would allow dancers to dance, artists to paint, doctors to cure diseases, animals to escape the cruelty of people.

It was a wonderful vision. But it overlooked what turned out to be the first effect of Miss Duke's largess: It allowed lawyers to eat.

The 30-month fight over Miss Duke's estate was as full of mystery and intrigue as was the life of the reclusive, mistrustful tobacco heiress who died in October 1993 at 80. There was her alcoholic, barely literate butler who was named in her will as the executor of the estate, and one of her many former doctors who believed he deserved the job -- and the fees. The situation was resolved last year when a surrogate judge in Manhattan approved the creation of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, one of the nation's best-endowed charitable funds.

The dispute played out in Surrogate's Court was, in the words of one lawyer, "the World Series of litigation," with big-name law firms playing for big stakes. Now the contest over Miss Duke's estate has gone into extra innings. The prizes this time are legal and estate administration fees that already amount to $10 million and probably will more than double when all of the requests are filed with the court.

Lawyers flew across the country charging their hourly rate as they went, sometimes as high as $450 an hour. They stayed in New York City's finest hotels. And In court appearances and meetings, clients often were represented by multiple lawyers, causing a gridlock of expensive suits and large briefcases.

Consider the lawyers' bonanza of January 1996. When the State Court of Appeals issued a decision in the case, 14 lawyers from two firms spent a total of more than 40 hours reviewing it, and all submitted bills for their work, according to court papers.

The case involved dozens of lawyers in some of the nation's most prominent firms. One of the more noteworthy lawyers, Alexander D. Forger, the president of the Legal Services Corporation, has applied for $450,000 in fees. He was appointed a temporary administrator of the estate, but the appointment was stayed nine days later, according to legal papers filed by the New York State Attorney General, Dennis C. Vacco.

Mr. Forger, who did not return telephone calls, said in court papers that his responsibilities lasted for months, not days, and that "in any event, I have not been motivated by notions of compensation."

Since the fees will be paid out of the charitable money, the requests for payment are facing stiff opposition from two other sets of lawyers -- the State Attorney General, who represents beneficiaries of the charity, and lawyers representing the trustees of the charitable fund.

"This is a feeding frenzy," said a lawyer associated with the case, speaking on condition of anonymity.

On the record, the critism is only slightly more restrained.

"If one needs cause to question the legal profession, these excessive claims provide ample issue," Laura Werner, an assistant New York State Attorney General wrote in a Dec. 11 court filing.

But the lawyers seeking the fees insist they are justified.

"This litigation undoubtedly was one of the most complicated probate matters in the history of the state of New York," said Rodney N. Houghton, one of the many lawyers representing Miss Duke's former doctor. "Its complexity was matched only by the intensity of the litigation, requiring us to work on many occasions on an around-the-clock basis to meet competing deadlines."

Even so, there were instances where it appears lawyers were stacked up like planes over La Guardia. When the charitable foundation questioned why lawyers from three different firms had to appear at court hearings on behalf of Miss Duke's former doctor, one of the lawyers answered in court papers that it was important for them to discuss matters in person after the court session and "to observe the reaction of the Court and co-counsel to various factual and legal issues."

Lawyers for the charitable foundation, who are trying to protect the estate's assets, were incredulous.

"It would plainly be wrong to require the Estate to foot the bill for multiple attorneys to 'observe the reaction of the Court,'" the foundation lawyers wrote in an Oct. 21 filing. "Presumably, one representative of the three firms could have attended proceedings to observe reactions and passed his or her observations on to other attorneys as necessary."

When several law firm partners charged the estate for attending depositionse, the charitable foundation lawyers wrote to the court that "the Estate should not be compelled to pay $465/hr. for one partner to watch other partners work."

In many respects, Miss Duke's will was straightforward, especially given the size of her fortune.

Miss Duke was twice married and twice divorced, and her closest relative when she died was a daughter, Charlene Gail Heffner, known as Chandi, whom Miss Duke adopted in 1988 when Ms. Heffner was 35. Their relationship fell apart a few years later and Ms. Heffner sued, seeking to become the beneficiary of Miss Duke's estate. The estate settled with her for $65 million last year.

In her final years, Miss Duke was unwavering in her decision to give her fortune to charity, but her estate became complicated because she repeatedly re-wrote her will, changing the executor of the estate -- a designation that would carry millions of dollars in fees. The rewriting of her will, those who knew her said, reflected her isolation from friends and relatives and her suspicion that those who were close to her were merely trying to get her money.

"We're here because of Miss Duke's personalities and eccentricities," said Don Howarth, a Los Angeles lawyer, explaining why the disposition of the estate had turned contentious. "This is a reflection of Miss Duke's vulnerability at not having close friends."

In the final years of her life, she signed a succession of wills, transferring control of her estate from her daughter to her diet doctor, Harry Demopoulos, then to her accountant, then to Bernard Lafferty, the butler whom many of Miss Duke's associates accused of isolating the heiress. (Mr. Lafferty died in November.)

The course of the estate through the court was complicated by two factors.

First, Dr. Demopoulos, and others, contended that Miss Duke, weak and disoriented, was coerced to sign her final will and suggested that her death may have been hastened to keep her from changing the will. An investigation ordered by the court found that Miss Duke's death was hastened by doses of morphine.

Dr. Demopoulos hired three law firms to press his case, and although no conspiracy to induce Miss Duke to change her will or to murder her were ever found, the lawyers say their request for more than $4 million in fees is justified. They say their work benefited the charitable fund by insuring that Mr. Lafferty would not be in control of the estate.

The other complicating factor was a May 1995 decision by Surrogate Eve Preminger to remove Mr. Lafferty and the United States Trust Company as co-executors of the estate. She said Mr. Lafferty used Miss Duke's fortune to finance his own "profligate life style" and she criticized the bank for giving him an unsecured $825,000 loan.

Surrogate Preminger installed as temporary administrators the Morgan Guaranty Trust Company and Mr. Forger. In addition to his job with the Legal Services Corporation, Mr. Forger is a veteran estates lawyer in New York and was a co-chairman of a lawyers' committee that ran advertisements backing Surrogate Preminger in the 1990 race for her court seat.

Although Surrogate Preminger's decision was stayed nine days later and ultimately reversed by the Court of Appeals, which criticized her for not giving the administrators a hearing before removing them, lawyers for Mr. Forger and Morgan Trust argue in court papers that their responsibilities lasted longer than nine days. The bills for their legal and administrative work, including fighting to defend their appointments, comes to more than $5.3 million.

While Mr. Forger's bill is relatively small, the tussle over it is particularly nasty.

In a December court filing, lawyers for Attorney General Vacco said it was worth considering "how it looks to the public when the president of the L.S.C. seeks $450,000 for 'outside work' while claiming to be working full-time to protect a federally funded program designed to assist the poor."

In a series of responses, Mr. Forger said that the Attorney General's statements were "flawed beyond carelessness," and that his contract allows him to do outside work. He also said that if the court agrees his reponsibility lasted just nine days, his fees should be substantially reduced.

"Whatever the compensation, however limited or modest, I shall not feel aggrieved," Mr. Forger wrote. "This mission was a worthy one and one -- in the long and unfortunate saga, not yet completed -- which I was privileged to undertake."

Judge to Approve Settlement in $1.2-Billion Duke Estate Battle

By John J. Goldman and Paul Lieberman
(Los Angeles Times, New York)

Courts: In end to 2 1/2-year fight, tobacco heiress' butler agrees to play no role in new foundation, which will be one of nation's largest.

A Surrogate's Court judge in Manhattan said Tuesday that she will approve a plan to finally send Doris Duke's $1.2-billion estate to charity--and end one of the biggest will fights of the century.

Culminating a week of behind-the-scenes negotiations, Judge Eve M. Preminger told lawyers in the case that she will consent to a revised settlement to conclude a 2 1/2-year battle fought by some of the nation's largest banks, law firms, armies of private detectives and the tobacco heiress' ponytailed former butler, Bernard Lafferty.

Lafferty, who was named executor of Duke's estate under her contested 1993 will, agreed to resign that position and play no role in the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation in return for a $4.5-million executor's fee and the $500,000 yearly bequest provided for him by the heiress.

"It's been rough. It's been the roughest time of my life. I never thought I'd see the end," said Lafferty, who faced a barrage of allegations from former Duke servants and others challenging the will--accusing him of everything from being an alcoholic spendthrift to murdering the 80-year-old Duke with overdoses of drugs.

"The reason why I step aside is because it will let the money go to the charities that Miss Duke wanted, [instead of] lawyers and all these people wanting to get big fees by keeping this case going," Lafferty said.

Just last week, the judge refused to approve an earlier settlement reached by the major parties in the case, complaining that it allowed "obscene" yearly fees of up to $300,000 to be paid to the trustees of the Duke foundation--and that it did not preclude Lafferty from a future role in the charity.

Under the deal Tuesday, the foundation board will be enlarged from six to seven members--to add a "nationally recognized" medical expert--and the yearly fees cut so that trustees get no more than $128,000. In addition, the judge will review future appointments to the board of what will be one of the nation's most powerful charities.

After indicating that the changes satisfied her concerns, the judge set a hearing for this afternoon to officially ratify the settlement.

One seat on the board will go to the New York physician who led the will challenge, Dr. Harry B. Demopoulos, a "longevity" and vitamin specialist who treated Duke for years and once was in line to be her executor, but was written out of her final will.

"I do believe it's a victory," said one of Demopoulos' attorneys, Don Howarth. "Our goals were to get Lafferty out [and] Harry in."

The settlement, however, leaves in place three trustees originally proposed by Lafferty: Nannerl O. Keohane, the president of Duke University, which is named for the heiress' father; J. Carter Brown, former chairman of the National Gallery of Art in Washington; and Marion Oates Charles, a society friend of Duke's.

The other seats will be taken by John J. Mack, president of the Morgan Stanley investment banking firm, and New York lawyer James Gill, who led Gov. George Pataki's effort to dismantle the Long Island Power Co.

Those members will name the final trustee requested by the judge, the medical expert, and appoint an executive director to oversee day-to-day operation of the foundation, which Duke created to benefit such causes as Islamic art, historic preservation, AIDS research and animal rights.

Although Lafferty in the past expressed frustration that the tangled case was costing the estate millions in legal fees and delaying formation of the foundation, he praised the judge Tuesday for helping limit future fees to Demopoulos and others who will direct the charity.

While admitting it was "painful" to play no role in the board himself, Lafferty said he was pleased with his financial settlement.

The hearing today is expected to be brief, but one party pledged to protest the settlement--Raymond Dowd, a New York lawyer representing three former Duke servants who have issued sensational allegations in the case, including the claim that Duke was murdered.

Duke, the only child of James Buchanan Duke, founder of the American Tobacco Co., died in October 1993 at her gated home above Beverly Hills. The fight over her will was waged here because it was filed for probate in Manhattan.

Authorities in Los Angeles still are investigating the allegation that doses of morphine and Demerol killed the heiress, who gained fame earlier in the century as "the richest girl in the world."

The challenge to Duke's last will originally was led by Chandi Heffner, the woman Duke adopted a decade ago and then tried to disown. But Heffner gave up her claims in return for a $65-million settlement from the estate.

Settlement Reached Over Duke Estate

By Paul Lieberman and John J. Goldman
(Los Angeles Times, New York)

Courts: Heiress' former butler loses executor role but will be paid millions. His foe gets seat on charitable foundation.

The central parties in the bitter fight over the $1.2-billion estate of Doris Duke announced Wednesday that they have reached a settlement that finally could send the tobacco heiress' fortune to charity more than two years after her death.

Under the agreement, the controversial executor named in Duke's last will--her former butler, Bernard Lafferty--would relinquish any role in administering the estate or the new Doris Duke Charitable Foundation but still would get a $4.5-million payment as well as the $500,000-a-year bequest provided for him in the will.

Meanwhile, Dr. Harry B. Demopoulos, the New York physician who led the challenge to the will, would get a seat on the foundation's board in return for dropping his legal challenge, which spawned a series of sensational allegations--including the charge that Duke was murdered with overdoses of drugs.

"The overriding objective was to get the billion and a quarter [dollars] to charity and get a [foundation] board that will withstand scrutiny," said New York Deputy Atty. Gen. John H. Carley, who helped mediate the proposed settlement.

Although the pact still must be approved by Manhattan Surrogate's Judge Eve M. Preminger, lawyers in the case said that they believed they had satisfied her main concern--that Lafferty should play no role in what will become one of the nation's largest charities.

Lafferty declined comment Wednesday. In the past, he has said that he would bow out only if that was "the only way to get the money to charity."

The proposed settlement would leave in place three members of the Duke foundation board originally proposed by Lafferty: Nannerl O. Keohane, the president of Duke University, which is named for the heiress' father; J. Carter Brown, former chairman of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, and Marion Oates Charles, a society friend of Duke's who was named in the will to oversee the heiress' charitable trusts.

Left off the board from Lafferty's original list were another old friend of Duke's, actress Elizabeth Taylor, and New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman.

Under the settlement, their places, along with Lafferty's, would be taken by Demopoulos, who once served as Duke's longevity and vitamin doctor but was frozen out of her final wills; John J. Mack, president of the Morgan Stanley investment banking firm, and New York lawyer James Gill, a strong supporter of Gov. George Pataki.

Though Demopoulos had sought restoration of an old will naming him Duke's executor, Don Howarth, one of his attorneys, said that the settlement was acceptable because it gets "the butler out of there [and] gives Harry [Demopoulos] a significant role."

The 80-year-old Duke died Oct. 28, 1993, at her home above Beverly Hills. Her will was filed for probate in Manhattan.

The dispute got front-page headlines last year when Demopoulos and others filed a series of affidavits alleging that Lafferty was a drunk illiterate who went on spending sprees with Duke's money.

Lafferty countered that he was being targeted unfairly by lawyers, bankers and others seeking "to slice up Miss Duke's estate like a pie."

The dispute seemed hopelessly mired in New York courts amid investigations, endless appeals and even a challenge to the partiality of Judge Preminger, which recently put the proceedings on hold.

Indeed, in announcing their proposed settlement, parties in the case had to request formally this week that a March 5 stay on the proceedings be lifted--so the judge could review the terms. Preminger was expected to set a hearing on them for early May.

"We anticipate the thing will be wrapped up quickly [but] she has to approve it," noted Carley, who oversees charity matters for the state.

Objections could still be filed, however, by two financial giants--the Bank of New York and Chemical Bank--which were in line to handle Duke's funds in earlier wills and have been seeking standing to challenge her final one.

The proposed settlement gives the lucrative job of managing the Duke funds to United States Trust Co. of New York, the bank brought in by Lafferty a few months before Duke's death. As part of the deal, U.S. Trust would pay the former butler's executive fees to date--the $4.5 million--if they are not approved by the court.

Deal Reached Over the Estate of Doris Duke

By Don Van Natta, Jr.
(The New York Times)

A tentative settlement was announced yesterday that would end the war over Doris Duke's $1.2 billion estate and pay Bernard Lafferty, her high-spending, ponytailed butler, millions of dollars to give up his role in overseeing her fortune.

Mr. Lafferty, whom Miss Duke wrote into her will less than a year before she died, has agreed to resign as co-executor of the estate and relinquish a powerful seat on the board of the charitable foundation that would control Miss Duke's wealth. But while he would lose the power and prestige of those roles, Mr. Lafferty who is 46, an admitted alcoholic and barely literate would not give up any money. He would be paid his executors fee of $4.5 million, plus $500,000 a year for the rest of his life, according to the proposed settlement submitted yesterday in Surrogate's Court in Manhattan.

If the settlement is approved by the court which is by no means certain it would end more than two years of litigation over the estate of the late tobacco heiress, who left most of her fortune to charity. The will has been challenged by one of Miss Duke's doctors, former employees and others, and the bitter battle has led to charges and countercharges, including an affidavit contending that Mr. Lafferty and a doctor hastened Miss Duke's death with a drug overdose.

After Miss Duke died in 1993 at the age of 80, Mr. Lafferty moved into her mansions and traveled around in her chauffeured Cadillac and her private Boeing 737 at estate expense. His "profligate life style" was criticized last year by Surrogate Eve M. Preminger, who dismissed him from managing Miss Duke's estate a decision that was later overturned.

"Mr. Lafferty has agreed to step aside when the will is admitted to probate to fulfill Doris Duke's wishes that this money go to charity," said Robert Y. Sperling, a lawyer for Mr. Lafferty. "He saw no reason to continue litigation that would be costly to the estate and further delay Miss Duke's wishes that the money be used for charitable purposes." Yesterday, Surrogate Preminger was asked by the parties to approve the proposed agreement. A legal assistant said yesterday that the surrogate would hold a hearing on the matter on May 6 in her courtroom.

"This is an opportunity to resolve all possible litigation and get the money to charity and end enormous unnecessary legal bills and other expenses," said Deputy State Attorney General John H. Carley, who helped negotiate a settlement.

Surrogate Preminger rejected another proposed settlement in January, but that agreement had a key difference: It would have allowed Mr. Lafferty to keep his seat on the board of the Duke charitable foundation.

Last May, Surrogate Preminger removed Mr. Lafferty and the United States Trust Company from managing the estate, saying that the bank's executives should have reined in Mr. Lafferty's prolific spending habits. She also sharply criticized the bankers for lending Mr. Lafferty more than $825,000 at a time when he had no personal assets.

But the State Court of Appeals reversed that decision in January, saying the removal of U.S. Trust and Mr. Lafferty as co-executors was based largely on "untested hearsay."

Several lawyers and a spokeswoman for U.S. Trust, Allison Cooke Kellogg, declined to discuss the case yesterday. But according to court papers describing the settlement, all challenges to Miss Duke's disputed will, which she signed on April 5, 1993, would be dropped. One of Miss Duke’s doctor’s, Harry J. Demopoulos, who had been named executor in an earlier will, would give up his challenge; in exchange, he would get a seat on the Duke Foundation board of trustees.

According to the tentative settlement, six people would sit as trustees of the charitable foundations established by Miss Duke's will. Besides Dr. Demopoulos, these are the trustees:

J. Carter Brown, former chairman of the National Gallery of Art in Washington; Marion Oates Charles, a friend of Miss Duke's who was named as a trustee in her last will; James Gill, a partner in the law firm of Robinson, Silverman, Pearce, Aronsohn & Berman; Nannerl O. Keohane, president of Duke University, and John Mack, president of Morgan Stanley.

The dispute over Miss Duke's last will has become so tangled that more than loo separate allegations of wrongdoing have been made. The allegations range from failure by U.S. Trust to reign in Mr. Lafferty's spending to allegations that Mr. Lafferty wormed his way into Miss Duke's confidence while her mind, addled by prescription drugs, was failing.

The most scandalous allegation, leveled last year by one of Miss Duke's private nurses, is that Mr. Lafferty conspired with others to kill Miss Duke with a drug overdose. The Los Angeles District Attorney's office is investigating, but no mention is made of any of those allegations in the proposed settlement.

Another subplot came as several lawyers tried to remove Surrogate Preminger from hearing the case. After she rejected the first proposed settlement, lawyers for Mr. Lafferty and U.S. Trust asked her to recuse herself, ci-ting the harsh criticism she leveled at their administration of the estate last year.

But the surrogate refused to step aside, and the lawyers appealed. That appeal would be moot if she accepts the new settlement plan.

Even if the settlement is accepted, the case will be far from over. Still to come are applications for legal fees from more than 40 lawyers at 10 different law firms who have been involved in -two and a half years of litigation.

One lawyer estimated that the fees for all the lawyers would easily exceed $10 million, which would be paid by the Duke estate.

Deal Being Crafted to Settle Fight Over Heiress' Estate

By John J. Goldman and Paul Lieberman
(Los Angeles Times)

NEW YORK — Lawyers in the bitter fight over the $1.2-billion estate of Doris Duke met Thursday in Manhattan Surrogate's Court to work out a settlement that could finally send the tobacco heiress' money to charity more than two years after her death.

While no final agreement was reached during the closed-door meetings before Surrogate Judge Eve M. Preminger, attorneys in the case said they were negotiating details of a deal under which Duke's former butler, Bernard Lafferty, would step aside as co-executor of the estate but still play a role in the charity created by Duke's last will.

Also slated to get a place on the board of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation is Dr. Harry B. Demopoulos, a New York physician who has led the legal challenge to the 1993 will signed by Duke in a Los Angeles hospital bed. Another member would be a Newport, R.I., society friend of Duke, Marian Oates Charles, with two other trustees to be determined.

The settlement talks were pushed by the New York state attorney general's office after a ruling by the state's highest court that Preminger had improperly removed Lafferty as executor. Preminger had removed Lafferty after hearing allegations that the butler went on spending sprees and drinking binges.

Under the heiress' 1993 will, Lafferty was to receive $500,000 a year plus $5 million in executors' fees and have the power to appoint the five-member board of the charitable foundation.

Under the tentative settlement, the 50-year-old Lafferty would step down as co-executor, but the bank he brought in to help manage the estate, United States Trust Co. of New York, would remain a co-executor along with an individual still to be named.

Attorneys for Demopoulos said they would not object to the former butler having some position in the Duke foundation.

But "it cannot be a Lafferty-controlled thing," said Don Howarth, a Los Angeles lawyer for the physician, who once was in line to be Duke's executor under a 1991 codicil. "Basically there were two critical things: that Lafferty not control [the board] and that Dr. Demopoulos should have a significant role."

Lafferty would not comment Thursday, but he said recently that he was anxious "to get the money to the charities," and might agree to a reduced position--as long as he had some role in the foundation.

One unresolved issue is the size of "surcharges" that may be owed the estate by Lafferty or U.S. Trust because of alleged mismanagement. One lawyer at the meetings said a huge range was mentioned--from $500,000 to $18 million--but that the bank may pay whatever Lafferty owes.

"There is no settlement [yet]," New York Deputy Atty. Gen. John H. Carley said as he left court.

A roadblock could be financial giant Chemical Bank of New York, which was in line to manage Duke's fortune until she moved her money to U.S. Trust months before her death in October 1993.

After the meetings ended Thursday, Chemical obtained a court order setting a hearing next week to determine if it should have standing to challenge Duke's last will and any settlement that freezes it out of the lucrative job.

Lawyers for the bank charged that Duke was medicated and suffering from "cognitive impairment" when she changed banks.

"It now seems clear that the firing of Chemical was likely to have been part of Mr. Lafferty's orchestrated efforts, as assisted by [Duke's attorneys] to completely take over Miss Duke's affairs," the bank charged. "Chemical Bank, as well as Miss Duke herself, was duped by this scheme."

Also ready to object is Raymond J. Dowd, the lawyer for three former Duke servants who have leveled a series of highly publicized charges since her death, at 80, in her home above Beverly Hills. They reportedly are being denied any monetary settlement from the estate.

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.

The Heiress

(The American Lawyer)

"At thirteen she inherited a $100 million tobacco fortune," exclaims the breathless back cover copy of The Richest Girl in the World, Stephanie Mansfield’s 1992 biography of Duke. "By the time she was thirty, she’d lavished millions on her lovers and husbands, ranging from a gold-digging sexual athlete to a member of British Parliament, from Hawaiian beachboys to Hollywood starts."

Duke, the notoriously eccentric daughter of American Tobacco Company tycoon J.B. Duke, led the life of the fabulously rich. And depending on her mood or the season, she spent her time shuttling among Beverly Hills, Newport, Rhode Island; and Shangri-La" and "Duke Farms," her Hawaiian and New Jersey estates.

The twice-divorced, childless Duke displayed some wandering spirit in choosing a caretaker for her fortune. After 1987, when she discarded her previous will to name her soon-to-be adopted daughter – the then-33-year-old Chandi Heffner – as her primary executor, there came a quick succession of codicils and wills. In March 1991, after a bitter falling-out with Duke, Heffner was replaced as executor by Duke physician and vitamin guru Harry Demopoulos. Demopoulos was ousted eight months later by Duke’s then-accountant, who in turn was bumped by three new co-executors – Duke’s butler, Lafferty; her half-nephew Walker Inman, Jr.; and The Bank of New York – in early 1992.

The dizzying changes in Duke’s wills were a high stakes game of musical chairs, given the hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees her executors would earn, not to mention the enormous power they would have in naming trustees to Duke’s foundations and in meting out her fortune.

The game, however, finally ended on April 5, 1993, with what would become Duke’s final will, drafted by Katten Muchin partner William Doyle. Both the bank and Duke’s half-nephew Inman were dumped as co-executors. Bernard Lafferty, Duke’s ponytailed Irish-born butler, walked away with nearly absolute control over her legacy.

Did Duke’s attending physician, for instance, increase her dose of morphine even though he now admits she wasn’t in pain? Why was Duke’s lawyer, Katten Muchin trusts and estate partner Doyle, at her bedside when she died? Did Doyle, as a former Duke nurse has alleged, disappear with Duke’s medical records shortly after her death?

Demopoulos has been relentlessly pursuing these and other questions related to Duke’s October 1993 demise. He has hired three law firms – New York’s Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, Newark’s McCarter & English and Los Angeles’ Howarth & Smith – and a private investigative agency in his fight to prove Duke’s will was a sham.

Katten Muchin has responded in kind, bringing in New York’s Wilkie Farr & Gallagher; Roseland, New Jersey’s Stern & Greenberg; New York’s Carter, Ledyard & Milburn; Rochester’s Nixon, Hargrave, Devans & Doyle. "They’re trying to hire every lawyer in America with estate money," declares Manhatten solo practitioner Raymond Dowd, who is representing the former chef and housekeeper in their contracts claim. "This is the lawyers’ full employment act."

There is no denying, however, that Katten Muchin, as both counsel and a defendant, may have the most to lose of any of the law firms involved in the snarl of Duke litigation. As Demopoulos lawyer Don Howarth puts it, Katten Muchin "is up to their hips" in trouble.

Doyle’s partner Croll, who was present when Duke signed the two March codicils, says he also remembers thinking that Duke was "very much with it."

"She was sharp and had a sense of humor," Croll now says. A distinctly different impression, however, comes across in medical records obtained by lawyers for former Duke executor Demopoulos. A March 12 report by pulmonologist Dr. Robert Wolfe, for instance, notes that Duke on admission to Cedars-Sinai February 25 "had poor mental status with confusion and lethargy." The report goes on to state that an MRI brain scan "showed evidence of cortical atrophy" (degeneration of a portion of the brain) and notes that Duke neurologist Dr. Charles Espy "felt that her abnormal mental status was possibly related to a toxic metabolic encephalopathy" (blood poisoning that damages the brain).

One explanation for the discrepancy in the signatures is that Duke, at least according to a July 1993 letter from physical therapist Ketty Lawrence to Kivowitz, had suffered several strokes during March, the very time she was executing the will documents. Demopoulos lawyer Howarth contends that this letter and other medical reports prove that Duke could not have been of "sound mind and memory" – as Katten Muchin’s Doyle swore in a 1994 affidavit.

Moreover, in papers filed by Howarth in New York surrogate’s court, Demopoulos alleges that "Lafferty and his accomplices" tried to hide this fact by attempting to "sanitize" Duke’s medical records. As proof, they point out that Kivowitz, Duke’s attending physician and witness to her April 1993 will, has admitted in depositions that he was aware that Glassman, Duke’s plastic surgeon, had temporarily removed – and later returned – part of her neurologist’s reports.

"It was clear to everyone that this was a dying person," stated Kivowitz in a January deposition with Howarth, the lawyer for former Duke executor Demopoulos, "and dying because of ... a long hospitalization that was – was punctuated by an extended period of respiratory failure."

Howarth, in questioning Kivowitz, though, drove home the point that Duke’s discharge records from Cedars-Sinai make no explicit reference to any "terminal" prognosis. That discharge summary, written by Kivowitz, states: "After this very long hospital course, the patient was felt to be reasonably suited for transfer and home care, and essentially a hospital situation was established at the home."

Howarth: Does it indicate that she was terminal or being sent home to die?

Kivowitz: It does not specify that she was being sent home to die.

Howarth: Does it say that she was terminal or was in critical condition when she was being sent home?

Kivowitz: I think it [implies] quite clearly that she was in a critical situation . . . and this is again a – certainly an understatement of her situation . . .

Howarth: I am asking you now a question about what the records that were made at the time say, Dr. Kivowitz. They don’t say "critical condition" or "terminal," do they?

Kivowitz: There is no reference to "critical condition" or "terminal." However, critical condition is inferred . . . [and] it is my contention and my testimony that she was in critical condition at the time she was sent home.

Howarth notes that that testimony doesn’t square with a report written by two pulmonary specialists after a September 15 consultation with Duke. Among their recommendations was a note to "continue aggressive measures to get patient out of bed, increasing activity level for rehabilitation."

When investigators "interview all the necessary people" they will "conclude that no crime was committed," claims Katten Muchin’s Weitzman. He dismisses the allegations as nothing more that "a straight squeeze to try to get money out of [Duke’s] estate. Ultimately, this is all going to go away."

Demopoulos lawyer Rodney Houghton of McCarter & English counters that Katten Muchin’s efforts to appeal the surrogate’s court’s investigation are a sure sign that the firm is worried. And if he and other Demopoulos lawyers hope for a fat settlement, they aren’t letting on. "I would be reluctant to crawl in bed with them," asserts Demopoulos lawyer Howarth.