SOMERVILLE, NJ – When she was born in 1912, newspaper society columnists christened her "The Richest Little Girl in the World" and thus began an obsession and love affair with philanthropist, art collector, bon vivant and horticulturist Doris Duke.
Duke was larger than life, destined to live a life of extravagance and elegance; as a young teenager she inherited her father’s wealth, his tobacco empire and his beloved mansion in Hillsborough alongside the Raritan River, the spoils from a bitter custody battle with her estranged mother.
Some called her eccentric and enigmatic, while others who worked for the billionaire and who lived on the grounds of the expansive 2,700-acre estate knew her to be compassionate, generous and down-to-earth, not afraid to get her hands dirty working chores in the fields, the barns and the greenhouses surrounding the mansion.
Duke touched thousands of lives and had a huge impact on the world stage and in the towns that surrounded her majestic mansion in Hillsborough; her benevolence stretched across the country and around the world, but she always took care of the grass roots organizations in the communities close to home: the Hillsborough Boys’ Football Association, Hillsborough fire departments and rescue squads; the Manville First Aid Squad, the Raritan Police Department, the Franklin Township Food Bank, the Somerset County Salvation Army unit, the United Way of Somerset County and many others.
An adventurous globe trotter who fancied the world’s cultures, at times dripping in diamonds, with palatial homes across the country and Hawaii, the heiress had a profound impact on those who knew her.
For those who only know of her through the photos, news stories and gossip columns from the past, there is a continuing fascination with the wealthiest person to have ever lived in Hillsborough.
One such person is Hillsborough resident Rikki Lyn Hauss, a 22-year-old grad school student born two years after Duke died in 1993 at the age of 80.
A 2012 graduate of Hillsborough High School, Hauss has written a book, “The Duchess of South Somerville,” which chronicles Duke’s life, including first-person reminisces from those who worked for her over the years, and a chronology of the controversy leading up to and surrounding the demolition of the mansion in 2016.
The 179-page book includes hundreds of vintage and color photographs, including pictures that were taken inside the mansion shortly before it was leveled.
Hauss was the youngest member of DORIS – Destruction of Residence is Senseless – a ragtag, grass-roots group of historic preservationists, people who had worked for Duke, people who had lived on the property and others, like Hauss, who couldn’t understand, and wouldn’t accept the fact that the mansion, built in the early 1900s, was beyond restoration or that the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, owner of Duke Farms, was determined to level the mansion built by her father.
DORIS mounted a spirited effort to halt the demolition through a series of lawsuits that extended over a year’s time, but eventually, all legal remedies were exhausted, with the demolition taking place in March and April of 2016.
“Our fight was to spare heritage, history, and a sense of home that this billionaire tried so hard to maintain. My head still spins over how much work was put into the Estate . . . and how quickly it all reduced to rubble and memory,” Hauss writes in her book.
It took Hauss 10 months to complete the book. She said the experience was most gratifying because so many of the contributors to the book were open and generous with their time.
“Being welcomed into peoples’ homes and learning why Doris Duke was special to them, and the mark she left on people, it was very humbling for them to trust me with that information and for me to provide a venue,” Hauss said.
Hauss and other members of DORIS will be at the Dragonfly Café, 14 E. Main St., Somerville, on Sunday, March 5 from 2-4 p.m. to share their reminisces of Duke and life on the estate.
Copies of her self-published book will be available for purchase.
“It will be an open forum, a chance for people to get to know the DORIS group and why we fought so hard; we did not do this to get rich or famous, we did this because we miss Doris Duke and the way she did things,” Hauss said. “We’d like to bring back her sense of community to the area.”
The back cover of the book reads: “Imagine yourself encompassed in thousands of acres of open space, surrounded by pleasant faces of a small community, natural beauty across all seasons, stately buildings from an era bygone, and a 67,000 square foot mansion in your father’s fond memory.
“Such was the home of Doris Duke, the ‘richest girl in the world’ thanks to her father’s tobacco empire of the 1800s. She became a Duchess in Somerset, NJ and enchanted the world with her constant charity and eccentric, fascinating life.
“But what had Miss Duke always returning to her humble South Somerville home? What was life like behind the stone walls that etch out the borders of the Dukes’ Farm? ‘The Duchess of South Somerville’ will take you back in time to the Gilded Age onward to experience life as it was at the grand Duke Estate.
“The Duchess of South Somerville is also available online through the Duchess Bookstore: https://sites.google.com/site/theduchessbookstore/home.