There are beach houses…and then there are beach houses. And in 1935, tobacco heiress Doris Duke—known in those days as the richest girl in the world—decided to build hers on a secluded ocean overlook at the base of Oahu’s Diamond Head. She was all of 22, newly married to rising politico James Cromwell and visiting Honolulu for the first time that summer as the final stop on her way back from a ten-month honeymoon through the Middle East and South Asia. As the story goes, she fell in love twice on that trip—with Islamic art and architecture and with the laid-back Hawaiian lifestyle—but became much less enamored of her groom. What was intended to be a short stay in Honolulu turned into four months (for the bride, at least; Cromwell left early), and by the spring of the following year, Duke’s architects were busy designing her Persian palace on the Pacific.
For the next six decades, until her death in 1993, Doris Duke spent millions furnishing and ornamenting the Hawaiian retreat she named Shangri La, after the mythic Himalayan paradise in James Hilton’s 1933 book, Lost Horizon. It wasn’t her only home—she divided her time among two much larger houses on the East Coast, apartments in New York and Paris, and a Beverly Hills mansion—but Shangri La was her passion project. She filled it with pieces, big and small, that she commissioned from artisans and scouted on-site in Istanbul, New Delhi, Damascus, and beyond, quietly amassing one of the largest collections of Islamic and South Asian art in the United States. Not three miles from rollicking Waikiki, Duke’s island refuge has always been an ingenious paradox. Inside the plain white walls lies the extravagant world of faraway lands, while outside stretches the brilliant-blue coastline, practically a fantasy vision of Hawaii.
In 2002, the house that the reclusive Duke had sometimes called Hale Kapu (“Forbidden House” in Hawaiian) opened to the public. Now, at least four days a week, visitors are able to admire the glittering Iznik tiles and marble mosaics, gilded Ottoman cartouches, mother-of-pearl-inlaid bureaus from Syria, and the masterpiece of the collection, a finely detailed 12-foot-high mihrab (or prayer niche) from a thirteenth-century tomb in Iran, all painstakingly arranged by the collector herself. But Duke’s treasure chest doesn’t feel like a chilly museum—far from it. The house is relatively small and seems oddly intimate, providing a rare look at the private life of an American icon. In the living room, with its brightly cushioned low sofas, you could easily imagine Duke sipping mai tais with her eclectic visitors (Errol Flynn and Imelda Marcos among them). From the dining room lanai, you can see the surf break where the sporty socialite regularly rode the waves with surf legend (and her occasional lover) Duke Kahanamoku. Outside the pool house, a lovely little building modeled after a seventeenth-century royal pavilion in Isfahan, Duke practiced the modern dance steps she learned from her instructor, Martha Graham. And come this fall, visitors will get even more up close and personal with Miss Duke, when her bedroom and master bath—both inspired by the Taj Mahal, no less— finally emerge from restoration.
In 1939, a Life magazine article described Shangri La as an ideal playground, where “one of the richest heiresses in the world fishes, swims, reads, prefers simple healthy living to social splendor.” Healthy it may have been, but simple? Not a chance.
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