Home Arts and Leisure Rough Point: Not Your Ordinary Newport Mansion

Rough Point: Not Your Ordinary Newport Mansion

Doris Duke was not your ordinary Gilded Age socialite

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Doris Duke at the age of 12 inherited a baronial mansion in Newport, R.I., along with many millions of dollars. She was the only child of American Tobacco Co. magnate James B. Duke, and throughout her life her romances, philanthropies and eccentricities became fodder for gossip columns.

Duke was plenty eccentric. She had two pet camels at Rough Point, Princess and Baby, who slept in a tent on the patio. A Middle Eastern businessmen threw them into a deal for a B-25 bomber she bought from him. During the 1991 storm Hurricane Bob, the camels came into the house after she had hay strewn on the floor. One broke a mirror.

She hated being photographed, traveled under aliases and always minded her father’s dying words, “Trust no one.”

She had two husbands, diplomat James H.R. Cromwell and playboy Porfirio Rubirosa. Rumors abounded about her affairs with other men. Her only child, Arden, died at one day old. In her 70s she adopted a 35-year-old belly dancer and Hare Krishna, Chandi Heffner, but then disinherited her.

Doris Duke

Philanthropy

Her wealth multiplied during her lifetime and she gave away five times her original inheritance. She donated $1 million to her friend Elizabeth Taylor’s AIDS Foundation. She also supported animal rights and environmental causes.

And she cared about historic preservation, paying to save 83 historic buildings, including the Samuel Whitehorne HousePrescott Farm, the Buloid-Perry House, the King’s Arms Tavern, the Baptist Meetinghouse and the Cotton House. Along with her friend Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, she saved Newport’s early American architecture through the Newport Restoration Foundation, which she established in 1968.

Duke was an accomplished pianist and practiced twice a day. She especially loved jazz and gospel music. After the Newport Jazz Festival, she invited musicians to jam at Rough Point, and she was even said to have played incognito at the festival. A tour of the house includes a recording  of Doris singing.

Rough Point

Rough Point is a 39,000-square-foot mansion on what many believe is the best piece of real estate in Newport. Its original owner, Frederick Vanderbilt, bought two villas, tore them down and hired the architectural firm of Peabody & Stearns to design a baronial manor house. It took five years to build, starting in 1887. When Duke’s father bought it, he expanded it further.

Frederick Law Olmsted designed the grounds, with panoramic views of the Atlantic Ocean. Newport’s famed Cliff Walk runs along the edge of the property.

The Music Room

Doris Duke traveled widely and collected art and antiques. Rough Point is filled with them: British portraits, Ming vases; 16th-century Flemish tapestries, antique French furniture. But the mansion also retains a sense of hominess, unlike some of the neighboring mansions in Newport. Visitors say they like getting a sense of who Doris Duke really was.

Other Newport mansions were left uninhabited for 60 years, but Doris Duke lived in Rough Point until she died in 1993. The mansion was left as it was, and visitors find the rooms inviting. They still have her priceless art and antiques, as well as purple bedroom draperies by J.C. Penney, silver trophies from her childhood and a throw pillow with the words, “Familiarity breeds” on it. The kitchen even has a microwave oven.

She didn’t let guests sit on her Louis XVI chairs (which Louis himself had sat on), but her dogs would sleep on them. Once a staff member objected and Duke replied, “They live here. You only work here.”

Rough Point

Five things you’ll remember about Rough Point

Camel topiaries.

From a distance you might think camels are roaming the front lawn until you realize they’re green and stationary. They aren’t actually topiaries, but living statues created with sedums and hens-and-chicks over chicken wire and steel rebar. They’re an homage to Duke’s camels.

Furniture actually owned by Doris Duke.

Not until 1958 did she really take an interest in furnishing the house. And then she went wild. Inside you’ll find a pair of wrought iron console tables with gilding, Dutch Rococo marquetry chairs, French armchairs with tapestry seats, a cigar storage case and William and Mary wingchairs, along with ceramics, paintings, centerpieces, candlesticks and a disco ball.

Table owned by Catherine the Great

A pair of 18th century steel-and-ivory inlaid occasional tables are perhaps the most impressive of the royal furniture in Rough Point. They belong in the Yellow Sitting Room, and they bear the monogram of Catherine the Great.

Renoir in the bedroom

Doris Duke’s bedroom, with its purple curtains and girlhood trophies, also has a Renoir on the wall. Her art collection includes paintings by Gainsborough and Van Dykes in the house.

Chinese vase.

The single most expensive object in the house is a porcelain Ming vase. Its value probably fluctuates by day, but one visitor reported its worth at $15 million.

If you visit…

Rough Point is not part of the standard ticket offered by the Newport Preservation Society.

To take a guided tour of Rough Point, it’s a good idea to call ahead for a time-limited reservation.

Tours go from May to November and are limited to 12 people. Since 2003, the foundation staged an annual exhibit of Duke’s clothing, jewelry, silver or furniture. But Rough Point has no gift shop because Duke thought they were in bad taste.

The house is fully accessible with an elevator to the second floor and a lift to the third. The property has ample free parking.

Images: Rough Point exterior (featured image) By John Phelan – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15208189. Rough Point By Pi3.124 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=105547283. Music room by By Pi3.124 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=105547281.

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