The Duchess of South Somerville: A Book Critique

Posted: Tuesday January 17, 2017

I never gave a shit about Doris Duke. To me she was nothing more than an over exaggerated, dead celebrity. A have-done-nothing human who reached a status quo of fame through inheriting her father's riches. Because of such an opinion I never bothered to further research Doris's legacy or fame beyond what could be read within the first paragraph on the Wikipedia page dedicated to her name. For doing so would involve much reading and I'd personally rather waste my time writing over reading. Boring people read books, interesting people write them, I often find myself thinking.

Regardless, my only interest with Doris Duke centered not around the duchess herself, but rather the material things she left behind after her passing, specifically the Duke Farms Mansion, a massive estate once lived in by Doris herself, left vacant and ultimately abandoned after the years spanning her passing. A perfect opportunity for adventure and an opportunity I certainly took advantage of. However, occasionally my adventures encompass aspects outside of my own self interests and methods of thinking, such as comments and questions pertaining to my own actions asked by others. It is with such inquisitiveness that I'm reminded that other humans can too also exist to express an interest in what I generally only pursue to fulfill my own curiosity. No truer an example to disprove my own narrow minded channel of thinking than the story of Doris Duke as presented within a book written by Rikki Lyn Hauss entitled The Duchess of South Somerville, which incorporates within, many of the photographs I captured of the mansion just prior to its demolition in early 2016.

I initially feared the book would read from front to back cover as a sluggish historical account of Doris Duke, praising the duchess merely out of the writer's own predisposed bias. And while my fears were met within the first chapter they soon became quelled by a series of colorful images preceding the second chapter and so I continued reading. As the numbers centered upon the bottom of each page increased, I found myself becoming further engrossed, schooled and overall interested in a figurehead icon I previously otherwise had no bother to understand. And such is the beauty of good writing; the ability to capture not so much the attention span of the able, but more so the disabled mind, those with that stubborn brain willing not to give much of anything new a chance. After the beginning few chapters foldout, the reader is throughly acquainted with Doris Duke herself. The author, Rikki Lyn Hauss does a particularly good job at relating Doris to the reader as not just a spoiled celebrity (as I had once thought), but rather as a generous humanitarian with her riches. Soon after learning of Doris's charitableness one is dragged into the true drama surrounding Doris Duke in regard to the Hillsborough NJ mansion and the fate of the estate she left behind. This is where the book begins to truly shine and is perhaps the sole reasoning for Hauss's purpose of writing the text, for the passion from here on bleeds through the bleached white paper thicker than the black bolded ink letters themselves.

Hauss's story takes a brief hiatus from her own historical account about midway through the text leaving the reader at a cleverly placed cliff hanger. Yet this is no break, for at this point one is introduced to a series of first hand personal accounts concerning Doris Duke, written by and including the unique perspectives of the very persons whom experienced the events. While the memoirs each tell a different story, the various perspectives all blend together creating a literary stew, fumigating a powerful message concerning the positive within Doris Duke's legacy and demonstrating effectively how it means and exists as so much more than just to flaunt the authors own interests. Hauss's hiatus is sort lived however as the text effortlessly barrels back into the Duke drama. At this point the book begins to take on a seemingly angsty tone, for each word Hauss includes feels more like a fist punch, a jab at the greater organization left to "honor" the duke legacy.

While The Duchess of South Somerville winds up uncovering more questions than it answers, the book reads successfully as a bit of a detective piece, a text working to uncover the hidden legacy surrounding Mrs. Duke which seems to have been tainted and covered over by a thick layer of greed stemming from Doris's own inherited monetary fortunes yet initiated by the very organization formed to "manage" these fortunes after her passing. While one might try to classify the book as a short historical account, I feel doing so would greatly undermine the true meaning of the text. The words within read more as a movement spurred by the author's passion both for architectural preservation as well as for Doris Duke's own legacy. While history is often told from the perspective of the winner, such is certainly not the case within this book; yet it's a loss worth learning and reading about. And because of such an account I must commend Hauss, as even though she didn't receive the outcome she wanted and the Duke drama prevailed in the end, ultimately leading to the demolition of the Duke Farms Mansion, the truth leading to such events is now out and exposed, and that's a powerful message that takes guts to write.

Still, upon closure of the book I could only find myself thinking back to my initial conclusion that boring people only read books. But what had I done if not for read a book myself, therefore I must be boring? While it was far from my first book, it was the first in a while that wasn't mandatorily assigned to me by some dingbat college professor and the first in sometime that upon closing the back cover, I felt a sense of understanding in regard to what had been done wrong and what can still be done right to promote the Duke legacy for the better, specifically in regard to how Doris Duke would want her own legacy to live on and her fortunes spent. I also learned that the preconceived ideas I often like to convince myself of within my head, can often be completely wrong. Thus, I now find myself giving a few more shits about Doris Duke. Maybe you will to?

Copies of The Duchess of South Somerville can be purchased online at:

A promotional image detailing the back and front covers of the book, including a synopsis of the text.

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