Doris Duke | Victim of Elder Financial Abuse
You’ve certainly heard the old trope from Hollywood mystery movies that ‘The butler did it,’ and over the years that saying has become a cliché. But cliché or not, the saying may have actually been prescient, as it preceded by several decades a famous elder financial abuse case where the butler did do it.
Here is a picture of the billionaire heiress, Doris Duke.
Duke died in 1993 at the age of 81, so maybe you don’t remember who she is, but she was the heiress to the James Duke tobacco fortune, $40 million of which was donated in 1924 to what was then called Trinity College. Today we know it as Duke University, one of the top ranked and most prestigious universities in the world.
James Duke may have left Trinity College $40 Million, but he left his 12-year-old daughter the lion’s share of his fortune, which at the time was nearly $100 Million.
Despite a luxurious and extravagant lifestyle that included homes in 5 states including Hawaii, Beverly Hills, Park Avenue – New York, and a full-time staff of 200, Duke’s inheritance continued to grow. By the time she was in her 70’s, she had a net worth of more than a billion dollars. Fortunately, she could not spend her money fast enough, so she ultimately decided to set up the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation which supported environmental causes and worked to prevent cruelty to children and animals.
As with many cases of elder financial abuse, the catalyst for Doris Duke’s case came through an association with dubious people. Divorced and with no close family of her own, Duke befriended a young woman named Chandi, who claimed to be the reincarnation of Duke’s prematurely born baby girl. Chandi and her boyfriend, who served as Duke’s bodyguard, ingratiated themselves into her life, and were richly rewarded. Duke gave Chandi a million-dollar home in Hawaii, among many other lavish gifts. And it was Chandi who introduced Duke to a man named Bernard Lafferty, who went on to serve as Duke’s butler for 6 years, and who became her closest friend and confidant.
The story of Doris Duke and Bernard Lafferty was made into a wonderful 2006 movie called ‘Bernard and Doris’ starring Susan Sarandon as Duke and Ralph Fiennes as Lafferty. While we could never believe that Ralph Fiennes would ever be guilty of elder financial abuse, the real Bernard Lafferty was far less credible.
In 1990, when Duke was 78, she became mysteriously ill at her home in Hawaii, and Lafferty persuaded her that Chandi and her boyfriend were conspiring against her. They moved back to Beverly Hills, where Duke became clinically depressed and turned over the management of her life and affairs to Lafferty. Just 6 months before she died, she installed Lafferty as the executor of her will, and put him in charge of the Doris Duke Foundation, all of which amounted to a gift of more than $10 Million. For months, Duke was in and out of hospitals, taking multiple painkillers, and isolated from everyone except Lafferty. She reportedly started choking at one point, but Lafferty refused to call an ambulance. She died on October 28, 1993, after painful months of suffering.
The former executor of Duke’s estate, her medical doctor, immediately contested the validity of Duke’s new will, claiming that Lafferty had used undue influence to put himself in charge. The litigation lasted for 3 years, involved 40 lawyers, and ultimately consumed $10 Million in legal fees, but Lafferty took a payout, renounced his seat on the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation board, and stepped down as executor.
No charges were ever filed against Lafferty, but his life did not end happily. After Duke’s death, he lived at her Bel Air estate until November 1996, at which point he died as a result of alcohol and drug abuse.
So, yes, in this case the butler did it, but he did not get away with it.
Today, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation is a thriving non-profit with nearly $2 Billion in assets, and supports many worthy causes around the world.