Tall, shy and worth $1 Billion, “The Richest Little Girl in the World” walked into a Charlie Chan novel!

March is Women’s History Month. So today we look at real-life socialite Doris Duke, who found herself inside Author Earl Derr Biggers’ 1926 novel, The Chinese Parrot.

The Chinese Parrot (1926). In the second Charlie Chan novel Parrot, Detective Chan is asked a personal favor by his past employer and longtime friend Sally Jordan (née: Sally Phillimore.) He’s to deliver a rare and valuable set of pearls to Tycoon P. J. Madden on his Nevada desert ranch. The pearls represent the last remains of the Phillimore family’s vast empire, squandered away by Ms. Jordan’s only son. The pearls would be a grand prize to any would be thief. And Charlie’s duty to safely deliver the pearls is waylaid and his suspicions confirmed, when attempts are made for the pearls and Tony–The Chinese Parrot–is poisoned after talking too much in Chinese!

Doris Duke (real life.)

She was born November 22, 1912, the only child of famed tobacco and electrical power industrialist James Buchannan Duke and his wife Nanaline Holt Inman (ref: Duke University and The American Tobacco Co.) Upon her birth the press baptized her “The Million Dollar Baby,” and upon inheriting unheard of wealth as a child, christened her “The Richest Little Girl in The World!”

In 1925–at the ripe old age of 12 years–fate placed unheard of wealth into Doris Duke’s pockets. Her father passed away leaving the bulk his fortune to Doris and her mother. Doris got most of it making her the second wealthiest person in the world (second only to James D. Rockefeller!) The total value estimated variously from $60 – $100 million ($885M – $1.3B today). And during her lifetime Doris would increase her father’s fortune, fourfold. At the time of her death (October 28, 1993) her estate was valued at $5.3 Billion! “Trust no one!” Upon his death, those were the words James B. Duke left his daughter Doris, and she perhaps took to heart. Very tall, lanky, and shy, Doris Duke could not escape the public eye. And with all that “loot” predictably what followed was a troubled life: a lawsuit with her mother (at the age of 14) over Rough Point (the estate Doris’ father left, built originally for the Vanderbilts), two failed marriages, the tragic death of her newborn child, the later adoption of a 35-year old belly dancer she believed was her daughter’s reincarnation and the suspicious death of her interior designer Eduardo Tirella (Doris ran over him in a car!)

Evelyn Madden (fiction.)

“Ah, Mr. Madden, come in,” said Eden, rising. Madden advanced farther into the room, and after him came a tall languid girl in expensive furs and a lean, precise-looking man in a dark blue suit.

“Charmed, I’m sure,” Eden answered. He stood for a moment gazing at this interesting group that had invaded his quiet office—the famous financier, cool, competent, conscious of his power, the slender haughty girl upon whom, it was reported, Madden lavished all the affection of his later years…

The girl spoke. She had thrown back the fur about her neck, and she was beautiful in her way, but cold and hard like her father—and just now, evidently, unutterably bored. “I thought of course the pearls were here,” she said, “or I should not have come.”

The Saturday Evening Post, Jun 26, 1926, [The Chinese Parrot, by Earl Derr Biggers, Chap 1, “The Phillimore Pearls.”]

Nanaline’s Pearl Necklace (real life.)

Nanaline Holt Inman Duke, Doris’ mother, was her father’s second wife. And as the wife of a multi-millionaire, one thing she enjoyed was collecting fine jewelry. James B. Duke had a rare pearl necklace made for his wife Nanaline (Nannie.) Unlike today, pearls were not grown or cultured, so a necklace made with symmetrical pearls was very rare–often worth more than diamonds!

The Phillimore Pearls (fiction.)

Some few are favored by fortune out of all reason, and Sally Phillimore was one of these. Above and beyond her beauty, which would have been sufficient in itself, she seemed, in that simple Honolulu society, the heiress of all the ages. The Phillimore fortunes were at their peak, Phillimore ships sailed the seven seas, on thousands of Phillimore acres the sugar-cane ripened toward a sweet, golden harvest. Looking down, Alec Eden saw hanging about the girl’s white throat, a symbol of her place and wealth, the famous pearl necklace Marc Phillimore had brought home from London, and for which he had paid a price that made all Honolulu gasp.

The Saturday Evening Post, Jun 26, 1926, [The Chinese Parrot, by Earl Derr Biggers, Chap 1, “The Phillimore Pearls.”]

Author and Charlie Chan Creator Earl Derr Biggers and his wife Eleanor had lived in New York and The Berkshires (Western Massachusetts.) As a successful novelist and playwright did the Biggers perhaps at times enjoy the company of the Duke family? Even if they hadn’t, James B. Duke’s death in 1925 and his young daughter’s inheritance was the topic of all the society papers. What perfect material for his next Charlie Chan novel; to include young Doris’ wealth and that famous pearl necklace!

In the end thought, despite all the tragedy to befall her over the course of her life, Doris Duke accomplished much. She became a news correspondent for Harpers Bazaar, jazz pianist and a competitive surfer in Hawaii. And in the end Doris found a true passion as a collector of Middle Eastern art, and like her father became a great philanthropist. Her collection of Islamic art is on the Hawaiian Island of Oahu at her former home Shangri La. And after a pandemic closure the estate recently reopened to the public for tours, see video HERE (2:38min).

“There’s trouble waiting for us all, if we look far enough ahead”

The House Without a Key, 1925, Chapter 5

Postscript: The cost to purchase or license use for pictures of Doris Duke, or her mother Nanaline, wearing that famed pearl neckless would have left me eating mac-n-cheese for the rest of this month. So instead I invite you to view them here: Nanaline (Doris’ mom on the cover of TIME magazine) wearing the famous pearls James B. Duke paid around $180,000 to have made. And Doris Duke at around 28 years old.

2 thoughts on “Tall, shy and worth $1 Billion, “The Richest Little Girl in the World” walked into a Charlie Chan novel!

  1. Enjoyed learning all of this! I knew about pearls before the time of cultured pearls, but I never stopped to think about how LONG the necklaces were way back then. No wonder the necklaces were so expensive!


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