The Eccentric Heiress Who Lived Inside an Epic Monument To Islamic Art

Alina Cohen
Nov 10, 2017 9:53PM

Mughal Suite exterior. © 2014 Linny Morris. Courtesy of the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art.

In 1935, Mahatma Gandhi introduced American philanthropist and socialite Doris Duke to new ideas on craft. The daughter and heiress of tobacco magnate James Buchanan Duke was on her honeymoon—a mere ten-month jaunt around the world—with her new husband, James Cromwell, and she waited days to see the famed ascetic at his Central Indian ashram. Gandhi was emaciated at the time, in the middle of a long fast. According to Sallie Bingham, whose biography of Duke, The Silver Swan: Searching for Doris Duke, comes out with Farrar, Straus and Giroux next summer, “he was not very eager to see them because he was besieged by American millionaires. I’m sure he didn’t feel it was part of his spiritual calling to entertain them.” In addition to promoting Indian independence from British rule, Gandhi was also advocating a revival of national crafts as a solution to the country’s mass poverty.  

Cromwell spent the visit discussing American politics and the idea of the gold standard, while Duke internalized new ideas about craftsmanship. Unfortunately, she didn’t get the chance to hash these out with Gandhi. Cromwell was the more outspoken of the pair. “I don’t know that Doris ever got two words in,” Bingham suggests. “One of the reasons I think she had to divorce Jimmy was that he was just so overpoweringly vocal.”

Their acrimonious divorce was finalized in 1943, but the sights seen and lessons learned on the honeymoon impacted the rest of Duke’s life. A passion for Islamic art and craft stemmed from her travels in the Middle East, as well as South and Southeast Asia, and she acquired new pieces until 1992, the year before she died.

Sam Kahanamoku, Doris Duke, James Cromwell, and Chick Daniels in Waikiki. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.


At a time when rebellions against imperial conquests were just setting the stage for our contemporary debates about cultural appropriation and human rights in the post-colonial world, Duke was becoming enamored with art from the region that, in the West at the time, was understood as “the Orient.” Hawaii, where Duke and Cromwell made their final honeymoon stop, was also undergoing a major change at the hands of a larger power. American corporations were infiltrating the islands, which remained an American territory from 1898 until Hawaii’s 1959 admission into statehood. Pineapple and sandalwood businesses had been buying up land for years, forever altering the landscape and economy.

Duke so loved Hawaii that instead of returning to Palm Beach, Florida, where she’d planned to build her vacation home, she decided to erect a residence in Honolulu. Here, she wanted to showcase her newfound love of Islamic art and architecture. The home, which she called Shangri La (perhaps after a mythical valley in the 1933 James Hilton novel Lost Horizon, later adapted for a 1937 Frank Capra-directed film), has been preserved and now operates as the Shangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture, and Design.

Its executive director, Konrad Ng, formerly of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center in Washington, D.C., explains how native Hawaiian families welcomed Duke, inspiring her to stay. “I think she felt a comfort in which she could be herself,” Ng says. “She’d be able to participate in fun things without the kind of judgments of society.” Duke hired Marion Sims Wyeth as her architect, and construction on Shangri La began in 1936.

Living room. © 2015 Linny Morris. Courtesy of the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art.

Wyeth’s best-known building may be Mar-a-Lago, the Palm Beach estate that Donald Trump purchased in 1985. If that opulent residence has become a symbol of today’s American politics, Duke’s home, too, has more quietly intersected with the mainland government: Ng is married to Barack Obama’s half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng. The Obamas have visited Shangri La, and in 2011, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton held a meeting at the venue during Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders’ Week.

In addition to hiring Hawaiian designers and artisans, Duke also decided to import craftsmen from India, Morocco, Syria, and Iran—most likely a decision inspired by the meeting with Gandhi. She strove for authenticity as she planned decorative elements, from tiled walls to arches to mihrabs, or Muslim prayer niches. Nevertheless, she disregarded the fact that a mihrab should indicate the direction of Mecca, and placed one on the incorrect wall.

“Many people—or many curators—would probably criticize her for that kind of choice,” says Bingham. “But each room really works because it is an example of her vision as a collector.” Duke, apparently, had more reverence for the artisans than for the sacred, traditional purpose of the art itself. In 1940, she purchased a nearly 12-by-9-foot mihrab that dates back to the year 663, outbidding the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The masterpiece of her collection, it was once located in an Iranian tomb sanctuary. Composed of 60 individual tiles, the structure juts out of the wall in the home’s “Mihrab Room,” appearing as two arches and a rectangular background. Calligraphy serves as intricate turquoise and blue decoration.

Doris Duke and Sam Kahanamoku playing slide and acoustic guitars, 1939. Photo by Martin Munkácsi. Shangri La Historical Archives, Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i. Gift of Hope Cromwell Hopkins.

Dining room. © 2015 Linny Morris. Courtesy of the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art.

The house museum now features approximately 2,500 objects, including works from Egypt, India, Morocco, Syria, Iran, Central and Southeast Asia, and Spain, acquired during Duke’s decades of collecting. Tilework lines doorways, textures walls, and decorates the central courtyard. Carpets and textile furnishings range from Ottoman gold-brocaded silk velvets (çatmas) to red arched trapezoidal floor coverings made from wool in India. A “Damascus Room” features wood panel decorated using an ajami technique, resulting in densely patterned and richly textured raised relief. Gilding and metal leaf enhance the sense of opulence. In the 1970s and ’80s, Duke constructed her “Syrian Room,” modeled on Ottoman reception spaces. At the center, a floral-shaped, floral-patterned marble fountain circulates water from four spouts that rise out of the base like stems. Shelves carved into the yellow walls display plates and glass vessels. A pink floral motif creates a cheery, delicate softness. If the vivid reds on the marble floor urge the viewer to look down, the elaborate ajami ceiling calls for a long, thoughtful look up.

The “Mughal Suite,” at the end of a hall extending from the central courtyard, served as Duke’s bedroom and private quarters. Particularly inspired by the Taj Mahal in Agra and the Red Fort (or Lal-Qila) in Delhi, it features wall panels, a fireplace, flooring, an arch, and a basin all in marble. Light enters through jalis, or marble perforated screens with carved floral patterns. On the west end of the property, a playhouse lies adjacent to a pool, overlooking the ocean. Slender red columns hold up a colorful roof with busy geometric patterns.

Mughal Suite bathroom. © 2014 Linny Morris. Courtesy of the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art.

Syrian Room. © 2014 Linny Morris. Courtesy of the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art.

In 1998, five years after Duke’s death, the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art was incorporated. They initiated conservation efforts and master planning to transform Shangri La into a public space, which opened in 2002. “Part of my charge was to activate the museum…to see the rooms as being galleries that could rotate…be subject to change and reinterpretation,” says Ng. He wants to place Duke’s home and acquisitions into a contemporary context through public programming and artist and scholar residencies. This year, Shangri La commissioned Indonesian street artist Eko Nugroho to create an original, site-specific work as part of the Honolulu Biennial in March. His black-and-white mural advocates love and peace—particularly toward Muslims in the United States and abroad, in the aftermath of Trump’s executive order restricting travel from Muslim-majority countries. On the mural, a figure wears a shirt that reads “Make Humanism Great Again,” while a cloth covering two figures’ heads suggests, “All We Need is Tolerance.”

“It was a whole commodity culture, you know, that was meant to exploit and replicate these particular regions of the world as an expression of power,” says Ng, speaking about the museum’s origins, and the way it appropriated snippets of the larger world into a single site. If Shangri La is one of many American homes that turned brief travels into architectural inspiration (painter Frederic Edwin Church, for example, plotted the design for his Olana estate in upstate New York after a trip to the Middle East), Ng wants to use his particular platform to reverse the dynamic. “This is a tasty opportunity to broker conversations that are necessary and urgent in terms of understanding the types of power that can be brought to bear and revealed and discussed through art and design,” he says. As condemnations of the Muslim world continue to issue from one over-the-top Wyeth building in Florida, another showcases the beauty that for centuries has come from varied, diverse regions, and offers a unique perspective on the structures that have contributed to one of today’s most harrowing international conflicts.

Alina Cohen