Flamboyant life and death of a billionaire butler

 

VIRTUALLY on the third anniversary of the death of the wealthy woman he had cared for, Bernard Lafferty, the Billionaire Butler, died suddenly on Monday morning.

The tragic young teenager who was orphaned by the age of 17 and went to live with an aunt in Philadelphia was only 51; but the intervening 34 years had carried him several lifetimes away from his birthplace in Creeslough, Co Donegal.

He died as he had lived in recent years, in flamboyant splendour, in his 8,000 sq ft Los Angeles home, a $2 million Bel Air fantasy, decorated with enormous silver urns, formal oil paintings and framed photographs of his old mistress, Doris Duke, lined up alongside long dead matinee idols.

The 20 foot high bedroom in which he was found was draped in wine red velvet and lit by a Venetian chandelier. The headboard of his bed was carved from the door of an old Vanderbilt mansion. And in recent months the man who, nominally at least, earned his living as a butler had acquired a butler of his own.

It was a long way from Creeslough, to be sure, for someone who only last year was dismissed by a US judge "as a profligate, illiterate drunk with a cavalier attitude towards money". For court depositions by his foes - and there were many foes making many depositions in recent years - Bernard stepped out defiantly in five to 50 carat diamonds. They sparkled in his earring, in his bracelet and his watch.

Perhaps the judge disapproved of these and his expeditions to exotic gay clubs, dressed to dazzle in designer gowns that once belonged to Doris. Maybe the judge believed he showed poor judgment in choosing Melrose Avenue as a good spot for antique shopping sprees, or in blithely spending $1,500 to have his hair dyed "Doris Duke Blonde".

And clearly he balked at Bernard's on off relationship with alcohol - a lifelong conflict characterised by faithful attendance at AA meetings punctuated by massive binges - which in one soaring episode soon after joining Duke's staff in 1987 found him, according to one former staff member, "buck naked, bent over a chair, passed out", surrounded by a slew of (tragically empty) Grand Marnier bottles from the Duke cellars, some of so old and distinguished a vintage that the labels were hand written.

Bernard Lafferty undoubtedly gave his enemies plenty of ammunition. But the same enemies were sad, embittered creatures to begin with. The tough, highly intelligent Doris Duke (who lived by her father's dying dictum "Trust no one") had seen to that.

In the few years before her death in 1993, when she featured in the Forbes Four Hundred as the 18th richest woman in America, she revised her will no fewer than five times, each time killing off the multi million dollar dreams of yet another set of distraught, would be legatees and lawyers.

In her final will, Duke did something startling: she placed Bernard Lafferty in control of the newly created Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, which was to receive the vast bulk of her $1.2 billion fortune.

Apart from the awesome power flowing from control of the Foundation, Lafferty also stood to earn an executor's fee of up to $5 million, a lifetime annuity of $500,000 a year and annual commissions which could run into millions.

The enemies gathered. How could they forgive him, an uneducated Irishman who carried out his duties barefoot, topped with full butler's regalia, ear stud and ponytail? They didn't.

The legal challenges flooded in, in a queue headed by Chandi Heffner (a grown woman adopted, then disowned, by Duke), a doctor named as executor in a previous will and three former Duke servants. In January 1995 they revealed their trump card, an affidavit from one of Duke's deathbed nurses, Tammy Payette, insisting that Duke was murdered.

"The butler word they like," Lafferty lamented at the time, "because the butler always did it. A district attorney ruled that there was "no credible evidence" to support the allegation, however, and Payette was ultimately discredited and jailed, trailing a lengthy record of theft from wealthy patients. But the war was by no means over.

The enemies then took him to court (provoking his denunciation by the unsympathetic judge), ostensibly to stop Lafferty spending Duke's fortune on himself, and won. But he fought back and won on appeal.

Yet there were smaller indignities such as the ridiculous row about releasing a painting of Doris Duke which he said she disliked and had given to him when he asked for it. Suspicion reigned, of course, that he was trying to snatch a valuable work of art from the estate, but a Christie's valuation put a price tag of $450 on it.

"That's what the picture was worth," said one of Lafferty's lawyers, "but here you had maybe 15 lawyers arguing over it and running up the bills."

Because of the legal wrangling, not a penny of Duke's bequest has gone to charity so far, though the total amount billed by lawyers in the challenges has reached $50 million. Just last May Lafferty agreed to relinquish his control of the estate in a settlement that left him with $4.5 million in executor's fees and the half million dollar annual income.

By any standard, Bernard Lafferty was not a conventional choice to oversee a billion dollar legacy. But neither was he the one dimensional cartoon character - a malevolent, greedy, tall tale spinning, illiterate, possibly murderous drunk - as portrayed by much of the media.

Reports this week snobbishly depict a man who "wormed" his way "upstairs" from his "downstairs" job, a "rogue with the champagne touch who was never destined for that way of living".

But Lafferty was always a one off, one of life's great eccentrics, and he was certainly more than a jumped up waiter whose salary "never topped $200".

For several years he managed the theatre in the Sands Hotel in Atlanta where he headlined stars such as Bill Cosby, Joel Grey and Rita Moreno. When he first met Peggy Lee (with whom he worked on and off for 10 years), it was while he was manager of the Versailles Room of the Bellevue Stratford Hotel in Philadelphia.

In an interview after Duke's death a few years ago, Lee was unstinting in her support for Lafferty: "Everything good I could say about Bernard, I do."

Also placing herself firmly among his supporters was one Marion Oates (Oatsie) Charles Doris Duke's long time summer neighbour in Rhode Island, and the only other trustee named in the final will: "I'm crazy about Bernard," she said. Even the doctor who subsequently challenged the will said in 1994: "He always seemed to be there whenever Doris needed him. He's a sweet human being, and he seemed to be honest and fiercely defensive of her."

Lafferty's body was discovered on Monday by Sally Blake, a Donegal woman and former Duke employee whom he invited to California for a holiday with her 77 year old mother. He took them to all the sights - Disneyland, Malibu - either in the white Rolls Royce or the black Cadillac, with Mrs Blake snr placed in the front seat "like royalty".

On Sunday he was feeling unwell, and on Monday Sally Blake found that he had died "peacefully in his sleep". At 250lb and living a sedentary existence, he was always a candidate for a heart attack, and the coroner's office in Los Angeles says no foul play is suspected.

An autopsy has been carried out, and while they await the toxicology results, which could take anything from two weeks to 90 days, everything so far points to death from natural causes.

But no one in his circle believes he was ever able to enjoy the great turn in his fortunes. Nor - in spite of the spot that he was holding on the wall for it - did he ever get the $450 dollar painting.