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For Life, When in Newport: “Rough Point”

I am starting this series here, at Rough Point, because the lady of this manor is largely responsible for preserving of all the other sites I hold so dear when I am in Newport, Rhode Island. 

The Newport Restoration Foundation was founded by Doris Duke in 1968 to preserve many of the eighteen century mansions Newport was famous for as they were about to be redeveloped. Duke initially purchased eighty-three homes. Upon her death, her home at Rough Point was left to the foundation including all of her possessions to allow visitors to see what it was truly like to live in that home.

Rough Point was the summer home of the Duke family. Mr. James Duke and his wife Nanaline bought the home in 1922 which was originally built for the Vanderbilt family by Frederick Law Olmsted in 1891. You will recognize this architect by his notable works in Central Park as well as the city plan of our nation’s capital Washington D.C. 

The Dukes lived in this home with their sole child, daughter, and eventual heiress Doris Duke. James Duke had made his wealth in the tobacco business and passed away when Doris was only twelve years old. This was an even greater tragedy considering how close he was with his daughter. His death left her to be raised by a mother with whom she had a contentious relationship with. 

As she grew older, Nanaline would hate to summer here due to the hurricane season, as the title of home indicates it is right on the rough seas of the ocean. However for Doris is would be one of her primary residences besides her homes in Hawaii, Beverly Hills, and New York City. Her main base was Duke Farms, in New Jersey. Duke Farms remains open to the public now as well so I will have to add that on to my to do list for the future. 

We walked through the great hall, the dining room, and the music room. But I was a fan of her more personal rooms. Her study was intimate and included a Sony recorder system that she used to tape her performances on the piano (in the music room) so that she could play it back to learn what to improve upon.

Nearby was her bedroom. The colors here where what really drew me in. The gorgeous mother of pearl furniture surrounded with the bold purple and gold touches were sites I would gladly wake up to any day.

My second favorite room had to be the formal sitting room. I am always bowed over by French designs and the Louis XVI couch!! I was beyond memorized. So my style of furniture says the girl with champagne taste and beer money. A nice finishing touch was the end tables from Catherine the Great that Doris Duke purchased at auction. 

Out of all of the ornate mansions I have visited this was the first one I saw that looked more like a home. You could picture family dinners, holidays, and everyday life. Sure the Dukes were doing it on a much nicer scale than the rest of us but still it was a fully functioning home. 

The best example of that is when I learned about her pets. Since Doris lived alone with only her staff she was a huge animal lover. She had a tribe of huge dogs, with breeds like Great Danes and Mastiffs but those seem as average as goldfish when you compare them to her most exotic creatures: camels! Yep the ones with the humps on their backs and everything. She had two: Princess and Baby. She loved them so much they were actually allowed INSIDE the bloody house! Well, at least inside her solarium. I was devastated that room was closed for renovations but there were pictures showing what it was like and when we walked around the grounds I could see through the glass to get a feel for the room. While much of Rough Point’s charm is that ocean view it has also caused much damage over the years from the wind, rain, and terrible storms. 

Another note about the camels, they too only summered here in Newport. Every winter they boarded horse trailers to return to Duke Farms in New Jersey. They had more homes than I do now. Just incredible. These pets help explain why there are bushes carved into this shape at the front her property.

Doris Duke was a brave, strong, independent woman. There is no better example of this then how she went upon swimming in the ocean. This sounds odd I know, but the camels pale in comparison, trust me. When your home is called “Rough Point” I suppose it makes sense that there is no beaten path to the water. Sure you can see the ocean out of any of the many beautiful windows that surround the house. But although it looks close enough to touch that is not the case. She had to walk down a treacherous steep hill and then leap from some huge ass rocks. Although I thought it sounded scary when I heard about it, seeing it made me think she was related to Evil Knievel. The photographs prove it and keep in mind they are taken from atop the hill nearest to the back of her house. 

Prior to this visit, the majority of what I already knew about Doris Duke came from a Lifetime television movie staring Lauren Bacall as Doris. It was called “Too Rich: The Secret Life of Doris Duke”. It paints a sad picture as a woman who was never truly loved for who she was just for what she could provide. She had two failed marriages and lost her only biological child shortly after it was born. At the end of her life her main companion was her butler who many believe took advantage of Doris. For a woman who had everything she had very little. 

It is no wonder that with a biography like this that Doris created a foundation dedicated to helping others. The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation provides grants for causes like the arts, environmental conservation, medical research, and societies that come to the aide of children. 

My tour concluded with an informative chat with my guide who informed me of a great tour I am now in need of taking around the Christmas holiday season. It is known as the “UnDecked Halls” but my tour guide said she’d prefer to call it the “Beneath the Sheets” tour. I agree that is far more catchy. 

Either way, the tour features never before seen sites as the house it set to resemble what it looked like when the house was not in use. There is the staff dining room, which is not on the normal tour, where refreshments are served. The tour will feature a festively decorated home as you learn the details behind the maintenance of the estate in the off season. There is also a slideshow of the heiress during her holidays spent at Shangri-La, her Hawaiian getaway. 

You know what they say: “When the cats away the mice will play”. And I really want to be apart of that.

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  1. Thanks for taking me on yet another great blog trip. I treasure these times we share together. xo


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