Thanks to its juicy depiction of the duel between Hollywood divas Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) and Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon), Ryan Murphy’s buzzed-about FX series high-society
Born in Manhattan within a week of one another in 1912, Barbara (“Babs”) Hutton and Doris Duke spent almost their entire lives in competition. Hutton was the chubby Woolworth heiress who inherited a fortune at the age of five after her mother committed suicide. Her inheritance was reported to be $70 million.
Barbara Hutton in 1915
Doris—tall and awkward with a protruding chin—was the only daughter of American tobacco king James B. Duke. When he died in 1925, telling her on his death bed to trust no one, she inherited an estimated $100 million.
Doris Duke at age 14
Doris and Barbara (who were friendly as teenagers) lived in separate gilded cages, with teams of bodyguards, servants, nannies, private railroad cars, and other trappings of unprecedented wealth at a time when the annual income per capita was under $2000. Both girls made their debuts in 1930, at the height of the Great Depression. Their lavish affairs (the bill for Barbara’s was $80,000) were singled out as examples of wildly inappropriate spending during the grim period of breadlines and massive unemployment.
Barbara (who was anorexic her entire life) was the more free-spending of the two—buying mansions, strings of polo ponies, and precious jewels. She gave away money to friends and hangers-on. She was not as smart as Doris, and often denigrated her rival as “cheap.“ Barbara became infamous for her extravagance. (On one occasion, spying a large rock crystal chandelier in Doris’ home, actor Errol Flynn quipped, “Doris, what are you doing with one of Barbara’s earrings?”)
They developed, over the years, an intense rivalry, fueled by gossip columnists who tracked their every move and relished any real or imagined slights. The two were dubbed “The Gold Dust Twins.” They both made the Best Dressed List and were dropped by the New York Social Register for their maverick ways.
Doris envied Barbara’s beauty. Barbara called Doris “cheap.” When Doris invited her rival to stay at her home in Hawaii, Barbara decided to redecorate, hauling out all the priceless Asian artwork and antiques and installing modern Japanese furnishings more to her taste. When Doris returned, she was furious and gave Barbara the boot.
Barbara Hutton in 1948
They were fascinated by psychics and faith healers, and of course, the many lovers and big
Doris married twice: the first to gold digging socialite James Cromwell, and the second, in 1947, to legendary Dominican playboy Porfirio "Rubi" Rubirosa who was said to be extremely well-endowed. (In Paris, waiters would be asked for the tall pepper mills: “Pass me the Rubi.”)
Doris Duke and Porfirio Rubirosa in 1948
The marriage was rocky from the start. A year later, they divorced after Doris tried to commit suicide by slitting her wrists. Rubi got alimony ($25,000 per year until remarriage), a fishing fleet off Africa, several sports cars, a converted B-25 bomber (La Ganza), and a 17th-century house in Rue de Bellechasse, Paris.
Barbara was married and divorced seven times, including a baron, three princes, a count, a playboy, and actor Cary Grant. The press dubbed them “Cash n’ Cary.”
On New Year’s Day 1954, Doris was in Geneva when she read the international newspaper headline: RUBI AND BARBARA HUTTON WED. A friend tried to console her, but Doris—furious and inebriated—began hurling obscenities about Barbara. She said her rival had always been jealous of her. “She always wanted what I have.”
Barbara Hutton and Porfirio Rubirosa a week after their wedding in 1954.
Barbara gifted her new husband (who was conducting a clandestine affair with actress Zsa Zsa Gabor) with a check for $1 million. Their marriage lasted 53 days. Barbara gave him a coffee plantation in the Dominican Republic, another B-25, polo ponies, jewelry, and a reported $2.5 million as a settlement.
Meanwhile, Doris retaliated by flirting with Barbara’s ex, Cary Grant. Nothing came of it, much to Doris’ regret.
Later, when Doris—looking youthful after a series of plastic surgeries—was dating much younger jazz musician Joe Castro, Barbara telephoned him. She said, “I’d give you more than she would. If you were with me you’d have a symphony orchestra.”
The two little rich girls didn’t speak for years. Once, Doris and Joe ran into Hutton in Tahiti at a restaurant. The women sat across the room from one another. “America’s two wealthiest heiresses,” wrote columnist Leonard Lyons, “like China and the USA, are aware of each other’s existence but do not recognize each other.”
By now, Barbara was burning through her cash and addicted to drugs and alcohol. She had to be carried everywhere, and as she said, she could pay someone to do it. One morning, arriving at Los Angeles Airport, Doris was met at the gate by an airline employee with a wheelchair. “You’ve got the wrong one,” she snapped. “I’m Doris Duke. The other one’s in Mexico.”
Hutton carried off a plane in London, 1971.
They both weathered scandals and saucy tabloid headlines. Perhaps the most devastating story involved Edward Tirella, a handsome interior decorator who was doing some work for Doris at Rough Point in Newport. In the fall of 1965, when Tirella got out of the car to open the gates of the estate, a drunken Doris took her foot off the brake and onto the gas. The car leaped forward, crushing Tirella against the gates, killing him instantly.
Tow truck hauling Duke's station wagon after the crash.
While the official investigation deemed the whole affair an accident and a $75,000 payment kept Tirella’s family from filing a wrongful death suit, the media called Barbara for a quote. “Perhaps Doris didn’t like his taste,” she deadpanned. “She certainly didn’t care for mine.”
Doris was becoming more eccentric, and a recluse. She allowed her pet camels to defecate on her priceless Persian carpets and “adopted” a belly dancer.
Doris Duke, 1987
Barbara, nearly blind at 66, died bedridden and alone of a heart attack in 1979 in the penthouse of The Beverly Wilshire Hotel. She had $3,500 in the bank.
By 1993, after complications from a fall, Doris, 81, was in a hospital bed in her Los Angeles home, cut off from any friends or associates. She was addicted to antidepressants, painkillers, sleeping pills, and alcohol. Dazed and confused, she was skeletal. She died on October 28, 1993. In the days before her death, she had rewritten her will to install her Irish butler as executor of her $1.2 billion
The long-running feud was finally over.
Stephanie Mansfield is the author of The Richest Girl in The World: The Extravagant Life and Fast Times of Doris Duke (G.P. Putnam’s Sons 1992)
This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the