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Former Employees of Doris Duke Share Reminisces of Growing Up, Living and Working on Massive Hillsborough Estate

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Elisabeth McConville spent more than 20 years as a confidant and assistant to Doris Duke. Credits: Rod Hirsch
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Carl Suk was born and lived in a cottage on the Doris Duke estate; he led Jackie Kennedy on a tour of the orchids in the greenhouses maintained by Duke. Credits: Rod Hirsch
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This Bull Durham 14K gold necklace was gifted to Elisabeth McConville by Doris Duke. Credits: Rod Hirsch
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Shown is the reverse side of the 14K gold Bull Durham necklace gifted to Elisabeth McConville by Doris Duke. Credits: Rod Hirsch
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David Brook is the attorney for DORIS - Demolition of Residence is Senseless - and spoke at yesterday's forum. Credits: Rod Hirsch
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Vintage postcard depicts the Doris Duke mansion as it appeared in 1915.
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SOMERVILLE, NJ – Carl Suk grew up and lived in a cottage on the Duke Farms estate, tending to livestock and propagating rare orchids while Elisabeth McConville tended to Doris Duke’s daily affairs, from handling correspondence to tagging along on shopping binges in Beverly Hills.

Both were younger then, with Suk spending the early years of his life at the Hillsborough compound before heading overseas in 1969 to fight in Vietnam. Growing up, he worked with his uncle and grandfather, who were in charge of livestock and agriculture.

McConville, now director of the Raritan Valley Community College Foundation, was recruited as a young woman in her 20s to work closely with the wealthy heiress, then in her 60s. She described her job with Duke as “curator.”

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She, too, lived on the expansive grounds along Route 206, and worked in the 67,000 square foot 19th-century mansion for more than 20 years, from the mid-1960s until the mid ‘80s.

McConville says the mansion was Duke’s favorite home.

Duke maintained lavish residences in California, Newport, R.I., Hawaii and an apartment in New York City, but the Hillsborough mansion was her preferred residence, her true home, according to McConville.

McConville and Suk shared their memories and reminisces with a group of 75 people at on Saturday at United Reformed Church on Main Street. The event was sponsored by DORIS, a dedicated group of local preservationists fighting to prevent the demolition of the Duke mansion.

“I grew up on the estate. This was my boyhood home,” Suk said.

The voice of DORIS – Demolition of Residence Is Senseless – is attorney David Brook, a Hillsborough resident, who has been leading the legal challenge. He urged those in attendance yesterday to become more involved in their campaign.

The Duke Farms Foundation has secured a demolition permit from Hillsborough Township, but has agreed to hold off pending the outcome of a decision by Superior Court Judge Ciccone expected by March 4th.

The mansion has fallen into disrepair, and has not been used since 2008. The foundation estimates it would cost as much as $20 million to restore the structure.

Doris Duke died in 1993, with an estate estimated at $1.8 billion now being managed by the Doris Duke Charitable Trust, based in New York City. The Duke Farms Foundation manages the Hillsborough property which is being transformed into a nature preserve and ecological education center, with more than 500,000 visitors annually.

The foundation has stripped the mansion of doors, wood panels, chandeliers, floorboards, indoor fountains, fireplace mantels and other architectural fixtures which have been or are being sold at auction.

The foundation argues the original mansion has no historical value, as Duke made additions and alterations to the structure over the years. The township’s Historic Commission agreed after several hearings that were held last summer and fall, voting to approve the demolition permit by a 6-1 vote.

Suk and McConville both were overcome with tears at times as they shared anecdotes collected over the years, much as their famous - and eccentric - employer collected priceless jewelry, exquisite wines and exotic animals, including a few camels that lived on the Hillsborough estate.

“We owe it to her to keep fighting for her mansion,” McConville said. “This is just wrong. This was her favorite house, the one she considered her home. I know what Doris wanted,” she continued. “It would be a travesty to tear down the one place she loved.”

Once a source of pride for Duke was the labyrinth of greenhouses where she tended to her orchids and other exotic fauna imported from around the world; the heiress oftentimes spent time with those who worked there, including Suk.

“I remember one Friday afternoon we were working in the potting shed and she walked in with a couple cases of beer; she sat down and drank with us,” Suk recalled.

Suk also remembers hanging out in the cow barn with his grandfather and uncle as a youngster.

“I could almost milk a cow before I could walk,” he said.

Both have their memories and precious gifts from their time spent working with Duke.

McConville wore a gold chain around her neck, with a 14K gold pendant gifted to her by Duke. The pendant is a replica of the Bull Durham logo, a tobacco company that grew from the ashes of the Civil War that was owned by the Duke family and ultimately managed by Doris Duke’s father, James Buchanan Duke. She was 12 when he died in 1925 and wrested control of the estate from her mother by 1932.

Duke continued the philanthropy her father practiced, giving untold millions to individuals and causes anonymously, according to McConville, who received and read most of the letters requesting Duke’s support.

“I opened the letters; I gave the requests to her,” she explained.

Duke was a world traveler, but was an ardent supporter of local causes, McConville noted, donating the acreage in Branchburg where the Raritan Valley Community College campus was built. She donated money for buses at Rutgers University, and helped the Branchburg Rescue Squad and Hillsborough fire departments.

She enjoyed gospel music and would convince pastors to let her sing with church choirs; eager to repay those favors, she donated organs and pianos to churches in New Jersey and the southern United States, according to McConville.

She also donated 250 livestock to the Rosebud Sioux Tribe Reservation in South Dakota, according to Suk.

A woman of power and influence, world traveler, bon vivant and philanthropist, Duke was also a jazz pianist; another one of her pursuits was surfing.

Suk elaborated on Duke’s passion for her orchids and the temperature-controlled greenhouses where the delicate plants thrived. Suk was eventually placed in charge of some of the greenhouses. Duke hosted tours of the greenhouses, and entrusted Suk to lead those tours, a point of pride for the 69-year old wood carver, who now lives in Kentucky.

He was still a teenager when Duke asked him to lead some special guests through the greenhouses – Jackie Kennedy, the former First Lady of the Philippines, Imelda Marcos, and Madame Chiang Kai-shek, the former First Lady of China.

One treasure Suk salvaged from his time spent working at the estate are timbers from some of the barns on the property. He’s using the wood to make pens and pen and pencil sets.

He presented one of the sets to Brook yesterday, thanking the attorney for the work he has put in on behalf of DORIS.

He is selling the pens and sets online, with half of the proceeds being donated to DORIS. Contact Suk at nolinlakescrafts@gmail.com.

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