It took hearing Donald Trump brag that he could shoot someone and get away with it, to remind Peter Lance of another entitled wealthy white person who murdered someone without consequence. In his new tome, Homicide at Rough Point: The Untold Story of How Doris Duke, the Richest Woman in America, Got Away with Murder, Lance tells the untold story of how Doris Duke, then the richest woman in America, got away with murdering a gay man, her designer and art curator Eduard Tirella. After years spent as Duke's companion, Tirella was moving to California on the heels of his burgeoning career in Hollywood, and he knew telling Duke could be dicey (this is, after all, the woman who stabbed her own lover just months prior). But he went out of respect, and that night in 1966, as the couple was driving off Duke's vast Newport, Rhode Island estate, Tirella was crushed under a Dodge Polara station wagon, having been pushed through giant iron gates, dragged 20 feet, and plowed into a tree.
Lance's investigation into the crime (which police quickly called an accident) is one of a trio of worthy books that look at queer men and murder. As for Duke, she controlled the narrative (that this was a terrible accident) and immediately began funding civic projects around the city. We asked Lance for some more details.
Do you think the media was complicit in covering up Eduardo’s killings? Should they have done a better job at investigating?
I don’t believe the media was complicit at the time — but perhaps worse, they were casual about the death of this man and clearly saw him as some kind of inferior to Doris Duke. while, in so many ways he was far superior: an exemplary human being on every level, a humanist who treated everyone at her estates from the lowest-paid staff member to the Doris herself with equal dignity. Further, he was an accomplished designer, artist, and pianist and she longed to be all of those things.
Were the police paid off to look the other way?
As to any payoffs, I couldn’t find “receipts” for how Joseph Radice, the police chief, benefited, but it was curious that in his last year as chief he earned $7,000.00 — and shortly after giving Doris a pass, he was able to buy two condo units in a new building in Hollywood, Florida.
But as culpable as Radice was, the town fathers, in general, adopted an almost obsequious solicitation of Doris after she began giving tens of thousands of dollars to the Cliff Walk Restoration Project and Newport Hospital where she was hidden from state investigators on the evening of the ‘incident.” Further, the Newport Restoration Foundation, which restored 70 colonial-era homes and helped turn Newport into a tourist mecca, was an extension of the murderous quid pro quo that helped Doris Duke escape intent-to-kill murder charges.
The scene of the crime. Courtesy Peter Lance.
Doris Duke's own death was the subject of rumors of murder or suicide.
I didn’t spend much time on the end of her life, because I was so focused on this incident, but much has been written about the alleged role of her butler, Bernard Lafferty in the negligence that led to her death.
Friends of Eduardo always believed that Doris had murdered him. Did they think it was romantic jealousy? Or just her rage at abandonment? In the end, which of your theories of the “why” did you decide were the cause?
Until I spoke to Peter Byrne, who opened up to me on Doris’s “confession” to him regarding Eduardo’s death, I thought that she coveted “Eddie” professionally — and was terrified of losing him as the principal person who filled her life with such beauty. But, as recounted at the end of Chapter 31, her words to Peter that “He got what was coming to him. Nobody two-times me,” led me to speculate — and that’s all it is after more than 54 years — that she was sexually possessive of Eddie. As such she was guilty of one of the oldest motives for murder there is jealousy.
The gates that Duke drove through and the vehicle. Courtesy Peter Lance.
What role did homophobia play in this case among police, courts, the media?
Because the trial transcript was removed from Rhode Island judicial archives I can’t say for sure if Doris’s Roy-Cohn-like lawyer Aram Arabian played “the gay card” during the damage phase of the wrongful death trial in 1971. But he did denigrate Eduardo as a spendthrift and “financial fiasco” who couldn’t hold onto money — qualities, even if true, that had no bearing on his earning capacity in the years ahead: the key to the damage award. Gay men alive today who lived in the heavily closeted 1960s would have a more precise take on this, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Arabian had used Eduardo’s sexual identity to try and denigrate him before the urban Providence jury.
I’m looking at another case of murder, this time of Patricia Burton Lonergan, who was murdered by her husband. In that case, the media seemed to blame both the killer and the victim. With Eduardo’s death was there any of that?
No, at the time of Eduardo’s death and in the years that followed there wasn’t even a hint that Doris was culpable beyond the Newport police department's conclusion that it was an “unfortunate accident.” But in legal pleadings in the Avis case, which never went to trial, the defense (for Avis/Doris) suggested that Eduardo himself was to blame.
What impact do you hope your book has?
I hope that this book fully restores Eduardo Tirella’s legacy and reputation and gives him the place in history he deserves after Duke’s minions spent decades attempting to erase his name from the narrative of her troubled life. I also hope it puts billionaires like Donald Trump, who bragged that he could get away with murder, on notice, that no matter how much money or power you have — no matter how far you go to distort and bury the truth — facts are facts and there will always be a tenacious reporter out there willing to dig for it no matter how long it takes.
I also hope that this book reinforces the importance of local journalism — an endangered enterprise. As I wrote at the end of the book, the archives of The Newport Daily News, in this case, served as a kind of “paper ballot” to be “recounted” decades after the fact. Mining those old news stories helped me make the case that no one should be above the law — not even the richest woman in America.
Eduardo Tirella not long before his death (left) and when he was younger. Photos courtesy Peter Lance.
Did you worry about being sued by Doris Duke's heirs/estate?
As an investigative reporter with a J.D. I understand the law of libel and defamation pretty well, so I wasn’t worried. Truth is an absolute defense to any libel claim — that’s why I was so meticulous with the 914 end-note annotations in the book sprawled over 58 pages. In some sentences, there are multiple annotations. So, although my style of writing in the book is relatively light, the substantive basis for my reporting is bulletproof.