A Duke relative provides a dramatized historical account of the family behind the multibillion-dollar tobacco/energy/philanthropic empire.
California attorney Duke traces his lineage to an uncle of Washington Duke, the founder of the Duke family fortune. Drawing on stories told to him by his grandmother as well as from his own genealogical research, he recounts the Duke story, starting with “kind to everyone” Washington, born in rural North Carolina in 1820. As a young boy, Washington befriends Jim, a local slave around his own age, then reportedly helps him escape later in life. Receiving a gun as a rite of passage, Washington goes off to hunt but instead brings back a family of deer to be cherished and fed at home. Washington intervenes in several cases of slave mistreatment, and a brother and cousin also help out in the Underground Railroad in Tennessee. When Washington is conscripted to fight in the Civil War, he reluctantly serves, then returns to become a tobacco grower and build the family empire. Washington’s sons continue the legacy of business savvy and philanthropy, expanding into hydroelectric power and endowing Duke University. The narrative concludes with a retelling of the life and suspicious death of granddaughter Doris Duke. D.W. certainly captures the Horatio Alger flavor and drama in his depiction of Washington’s humble beginnings. Still, this work largely comes off as a hagiography, with Washington’s St. Francis of Assisi–like saintliness—cue the deer—at times difficult to believe. It’s also a bit jarring to become engaged in a passage only to read in a footnote that it is a dramatization based on family folklore, not established fact. The author also merely drives by the family’s tobacco, energy and charity concerns and is rather defensive about others’ charges that Washington owned slaves. His final sequence on Doris Duke, while full of juicy tidbits like her possible spying career, feels rather rushed; the tale of this tragic heiress is elsewhere told more fully and in a more balanced fashion.
Biased yet fascinating blend of Duke family fact and fiction.