The Secret History of Doris Duke's Famous Hawaiian Mansion, Shangri La

Sallie Bingham
Photo credit: Horst P. Horst

From Veranda

In 1935, Doris Duke, who was known as "the richest girl in the world," decided to build a house in Honolulu. The result was dubbed Shangri La and it remains one of the world’s most beautiful and storied homes. In her new biography, Silver Swan: The Search for Doris Duke, which is out today, biographer Sallie Bingham tells the story of the extraordinary property.

Through a combination of uneasiness with her mother-in-law’s interference, apprehension about the inescapable social whirl at Palm Beach, and the irritation produced by nine months of living with Jimmy [Cromwell, her husband] and his well-formed concept of the life they would lead as a married couple of extraordinary means, Doris Duke reached a major decision, one that would rock the foundations of her marriage.

In the spring of 1935, she decided to find land and build a house in Hawaii. On that land, the Taj Mahal–inspired wing, now called the Mughul Suite, would be incorporated into a new house, replacing earlier plans for Palm Beach. Duke's mother-in-law, Eva Roberts, must have been bitterly disappointed and perhaps a little annoyed: the change meant she would see less of her darling son.

Staying at the Royal Hawaiian while the plans for her house materialized, Doris made friends with the so-called Beach Boys, Hawaiian men who introduced the guests to surfing and outrigger-canoe racing. There, at the hotel and at the Outrigger Club, which she would later help finance, Doris met the band of five handsome brothers, the Kahanamokus, who would work to persuade her to extend her stay in Hawaii from two weeks to three months.

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Jimmy soon returned to the mainland to work on another book, but Doris stayed on in Hawaii to search for the site on which to build her house and to install the Mughul Suite when it arrived from India. After weeks of roaming the island with Sam Kahanamoku, she discovered a craggy, wind-blasted promontory over the Pacific, near Diamond Head. When Sam announced the price—$100,000 for 4.1 acres of oceanfront—Jimmy vowed he would not pay another penny of Doris’s money. Sam received a 5% finder’s fee.

Sam quickly became Doris’s chosen companion. Later, when he traveled with her to the mainland, she confronted the fact that only her status as an heiress allowed him to stay in the same hotels and visit the same nightclubs as she did. But nothing she could say or do would protect him from stares and sneers. On the mainland, native Hawaiians were seen as “Negroes.”

Sam’s older brother Duke faced the same discrimination. In 1911, when he broke the freestyle swimming record in the Amateur Athletic Union in Hawaii, the judges claimed that the floats marking the course had been moved closer together, and they refused to give Duke the medal. But in 1920, in Belgium, Duke won two Olympic gold medals, for the 100-meter freestyle and the 200-meter relay, becoming the first Hawaiian to do so. After retiring from competitive swimming, he supported himself by working at a gas station.

Doris was soon absorbed in plans for her new house, the design of which was influenced by the architecture she had recently seen in India. Because of many changes to the plans, it would take 250 workers five years to build the house, initially measuring about 14,000 square feet. The design specified only one guest room, which aligned with Doris’s notion of the house as her refuge rather than a site for massive entertaining. Her desire to avoid all of that was one reason she had quit Palm Beach.

Still, Cromwell insisted on a guest suite, to be located in a separate structure, the Playhouse, which was across from the main house and separated from it by the swimming pool. At that distance, he wrote, guests would not “get into our hair.”

Initially, Doris named her house Hale Kapu, meaning Forbidden House. But by June 1938, when Cromwell wrote to his banker friend Bill Cross, he referred to the house as Shangri La—certainly a more welcoming name, but one with no connection to Hawaiian language or tradition. Doris had named it for the mythical valley in the enormously popular 1937 film Lost Horizon, starring Jane Wyatt and Ronald Colman.

Doris had loved movies ever since childhood and would have seen this one as soon as it appeared in the Honolulu cinema. Based on the bestselling 1933 novel by James Hilton, it featured a place of beauty and harmony where people did not grow old.

In the movie’s first shot, the Tibetan mission’s façade previewed the plain white concrete facade Doris would choose for her Shangri La. The columns and stairs and pierced jali screens also appear at Doris’s Hawaiian house, as well as the large pool and fountains. More important than these details, however, was the film’s message, that human beings can only find inner peace and happiness in a complete retreat from the world.

The narrator intones at the start of the movie, “In this time of war and rumor of war, haven’t you dreamed of a place of tranquility? This place is called Shangri La.” In renaming her house, Doris may have believed, at least briefly, that she would find there the perfect peace represented by the High Lama, a venerated spiritual master who advocated peace.

Today, the linked rooms of Shangri La gleam dimly, lighted by faraway chandeliers and sconces. The slightly stale smell of a house the owner has not lived in for more than two decades reminds one of forgotten closets with their dead sachets.

Swathed in protective coverings, Doris’s bedroom and bathroom were almost completely hidden as they underwent restoration. The marble panels, designed and carved in India and inlaid with semiprecious stones, were visible only here and there, where a bright bit of color leapt out: a bud or leaf at the top of a tendril, the design beautifully simplified from what Doris had seen at the Taj Mahal.

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Silvery dolphin-shaped faucets and her mother’s sunken marble tub, transported to Shangri La after [her mother] Nanaline’s death in April 1962, create the impression of a watery grotto. Doris hid her toilet at the back of her clothes closet, with a wall safe installed above it.

Shangri La would become, in time, the beautiful vessel for Doris’s collection of Islamic art, ultimately one of the great collections in the world. (In 2014, select objects traveled to museums all over the United States.) Although several experts advised Doris as she assembled the magnificent tiles, ceramic vases, and textiles that would adorn Shangri La, their influence was minimal. She knew, from the beginning, what she wanted, based not on deep study but on a mysterious and intuitive sense of the beautiful. Creation of beauty, Doris believed, was the goal of her life.

An unattributed snapshot of Doris, her back to the camera, shows her studying a row of seemingly identical mother-of-pearl-inlaid bureaus in the courtyard of the antiquities dealers Asfar and Sarkis in Damacus in 1939. Would-be advisers stand at a distance as she makes her choice. On the receipt for her purchase of three of the bureaus, Sarkis wrote, “Only forty-three dollars!”

The remoteness of Islamic art, in her eyes, from her own heritage may explain her lifelong attraction to it. Islamic art lay far beyond the confines of her upbringing and the conventional aesthetic of her family and peers. In the case of the bureaus she acquired, although they were familiar items in the houses of her childhood, the exotic inlay of those she was assessing in Damascus transcended the familiar.

Doris did not subscribe to the twentieth-century view of the Islamic world as a monoculture. Her collection exhibits a great variety of styles, from the seventh century to the twentieth, from South and Central Asia, Europe, the Near and Middle East, and North Africa. She especially favored ceramics, which make up a substantial portion of her collection at Shangri La.

In her Shangri La living room, plates, basins, and jugs in niches are not glassed in, as they would be in other valuable collections, but are vulnerable to touch. Over the fireplace, the medieval shield and lances from her father’s collection, which should seem out of place on this tropical island, join in the aesthetic dance.

In the early 1960s, Doris turned her Hawaiian-themed dining room into a version of an Islamic tent. Egyptian and Indian wall hangings blaze, and the ornate crystal chandelier, rather than looking as though it belongs in a Paris ballroom, seems perfectly placed. In the Baby Turkish Room (as Doris named it), Syrian-style niches combine painted wood, marble, and ceramics that swirl together. Mosaic panels remind one of the skirts of hula dancers.

A throng of warriors, feasters, and dancers—one of them cavorting upside down—turn the tile Playhouse fireplace surround into a circus of brilliant color and energy. In Doris’s life, as in her collection, dynamism ruled; there was no room for stasis, for the status quo. Everything was evaluated by her incredible eye. Earlier, at Duke Farms, she had astonished a contractor by observing that one of the walls he was building was two degrees out of plumb; he didn’t believe her until he measured it.

At Shangri La, surrounded by a horde of workers, advisers, contractors, and architects, Doris was, perhaps for the first time in her life, firmly in control.

Doris left behind tape recordings of the music she played and sang at Shangri La. These featured the Hawaiian musicians who were becoming her close friends. The recordings are scratchy, the words hard to hear, but the ambience is unmistakable: romantic Hawaii, her land of dreams.

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After Jimmy left Hawaii in what would prove to be the first step in their ultimate separation, these songs were perhaps Doris’s way of exploring her feelings. On one tape, she tells her guests, “I just had to play this number for you.” She then launches into “He’s the Healer of Broken Hearts” in her frail, silvery soprano, accompanied by her own piano playing and Sam Kahanamoku and one of his brothers on ukulele and guitar. The song ends with the promise that broken hearts would be healed by Jesus of Galilee.

After other voices sing traditional Hawaiian songs, Doris, now closer to the microphone, belts out “It Had to Be You,” her piano thumping away in the background. The tape ends with Doris’s wavering giggle and her childlike voice, saying, “Don’t play it back, it’s so flat. It’s terrible.”

Then, sounding more confident, she whistles another tune, though whistling was slightly transgressive for a woman of her time. Perhaps she heard her Southern mother comment, “A whistling woman and a crowing hen never come to any good end.”

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