How a Billionaire Heiress 'Got Away With Murder'

Vanity Fair takes a deeper look at Doris Duke's killing of her interior designer
By Neal Colgrass,  Newser Staff
Posted Jul 29, 2020 4:07 PM CDT
How a Billionaire Heiress 'Got Away With Murder'
Socialite and tobacco heiress Doris Duke is seen in a 1956 file photo.   (AP Photo, File)

Eduardo Tirella's death was horrible: Hit by a car, slammed through locked gates, and crushed under speeding tires. But was it murder? That's what Peter Lance is asking in Vanity Fair about Tirella's 1966 death at the hands of his employer, America's richest woman—tobacco heiress Doris Duke. Police in Newport, Rhode Island called it an "unfortunate accident," but evidence suggests she murdered her longtime interior designer for trying to leave her employ and pursue a career in Hollywood. The real problem, as Tirella knew, was Duke's volatile nature: The hard-eyed billionaire had fought umpteen court battles and even stabbed one of her husbands in a rage. "Litigation was her favorite foreplay," says a former business manager. "She could be incredibly vindictive."

Then came the evening of October 7. Duke and Tirella, 42, were leaving her estate after an apparent argument when he exited the driver's side to open the gate—at which point she slid behind the wheel and gunned the car right at him. Duke claims the car took off when she put it in "drive," but a closer look at the '66 Dodge Polara shows she had to manually disengage the parking brake by pulling a lever. Some also suspect the police chief, who later bought two Florida condos, of being paid off to scuttle the investigation. Either way, Tirella was gone: "Thus, as one of his surviving friends told me, he was literally killed 'on the night before the rest of his life,'" writes Lance in his blog. "That's what makes this study in class privilege a tragedy of Shakespearean dimensions." (See Lance's full piece, his upcoming book on the subject, or an update on a murdered billionaire.)

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