The story of Bernard Lafferty begins on the farm where he grew up, in Creeslough, County Donegal. It was after the death of both his parents that he would make his way to Hollywood.
On this journey he would woo and flatter Elizabeth Taylor while he worked in a Philadelphia hotel as well as working as butler to Peggy Lee before becoming butler to one of the wealthiest women in the world.
Bernard left school at 14. His father Eddie was a council worker as well as looking after after some acres of arable land. Eddie would also work as foreman on the construction of a new house for the Franciscan Friary in Ards. Eddie died on September 3rd 1964 and Bernard, now aged 19, with his mother moved to Glasgow. Angela had family here and it was a place where they could look for a new beginning. Glasgow failed to produce this new beginning that mother and son had been searching for and within the year Angela had been killed in a traffic accident. She died on August 18th 1965.
Lafferty started his US adventure in Philadelphia in the lavish hotel that was the Bellevue-Stratford. This was a nineteen storey, French renaissance style, landmark building in City centre Philadelphia. Lafferty worked here for 10 years. He started as a waiter, rising quickly to maître d’ and then as manager of the Versailles Room at the hotel. In that time he would befriend and woo numerous celebrities.
In 1986, Lafferty was taken on as butler by a junk bond financier named Nelson Peltz. Peltz was married to a sister of Chandi Heffner’s. Chandi was an adopted daughter of Doris Duke and when she heard that Duke was looking for a butler, she suggested Lafferty.
Duke’s family made its fortune in the tobacco fields in North Carolina. It was at the end of the American Civil War and Doris’ grandfather, Washington Duke, developed a thriving business selling tobacco. That business was then inherited by Doris’ father, Buch Duke. Buch would rebrand this business and it became known as the American Tobacco Company, manufacturing ninety percent of all cigarettes at that time.
Lafferty would make a flying visit with Doris to his home roots in Donegal. They visited Glenveagh castle, only ten miles from Lafferty’s old neighbours, but never visited his home place. The more Doris Duke’s life deteriorated, the more Lafferty became involved in her life. In early 1992 Lafferty would intercept all calls to Duke. By early 1993 Lafferty was given Duke’s medical power of attorney and he would take total control of the management of Duke’s estates.
Doris Duke died at 5.48 on the morning of 28th October 1993. In her final months her bedroom had been transformed to that of an intensive care unit with 24 hour nursing. Three month before her death she had suffered a stroke. Before dying Dr Kivowitz would administer her with high levels of morphine to make her last hours more comfortable. Miss Duke died at the age of 80 years old.
Early the following morning, Lafferty had her body cremated. This was less than 24 hours since her death and before an autopsy could be carried out. Lafferty took her ashes and threw them off the coast of Hawaii, in sight of her Shangri La home. Suspicious minds would use this to fuel the inevitable court cases that were to follow.
Miss Duke would leave most of her fortune to charities through her Duke Charity Foundation. But it was Bernard Lafferty who became the largest sole recipient of her will that got the media and relatives really interested. Not only was this but he was named as the main executer along with the US Trust bank of her $1.2 billion estate. He would receive $4.5 million up front in fees and an annual salary of $500,000 for life.
Lafferty took over Doris Duke’s life. He believed himself to be her designated successor. He would spend lavish amounts of money on items that he believed she would buy and collect. All that was hers was now his. Her houses became his, her servants became his, her bodyguard was his, her cars and her private jet became his too
After the death of Miss Duke, Lafferty had been hospitalised several times in unsuccessful attempts to control his alcoholism. He even planned on taking the private jet home to Creeslough, however he never fulfilled this ambition.
Tammy Payette alleged Lafferty and Dr Kivowitz of murdering Miss Duke. Payette had been one of the six death bed nurses to Miss Duke. She alleged that they had conspired to quicken Miss Duke’s death with excessive amounts of the narcotic pain relievers, morphine and Demerol. These accusations really tarnished Lafferty’s character.
Eve Preminger, a Manhattan probate judge, removed Lafferty and the US Trust as co-executers for allegedly wasting estate assets. One month later, an appeals court, also in Manhattan, ruled that Lafferty and the US Trust would remain as executers of Miss Duke’s $1.2 billion dollar estate until it decided otherwise.
Eighteen months after the highly publicised allegations against Lafferty and Dr Kivowitz the criminal investigation had ended. The Los Angeles Districts Attorney’s office found no credible evidence supporting the murder claims and all allegations against them were deemed false. The sheer amount of allegations that were aimed at Lafferty and others around Duke caused one of the most expensive estate disputes in US history. It cost the Duke Charitable Foundation alone some $50 million in legal fees.
Lafferty agreed to step down as executer of the Duke estate and play no further role in the Duke Charitable Foundation. He would still receive his $4.5 million and a $500,000 payment annually. This agreement allowed the distribution of Miss Duke’s assets to charities as she had originally intended.
Six months after this announcement Bernard Lafferty would die of a heart attack. Tammy Payette was eventually arrested and charged with stealing jewellery from many of her former employers including Miss Duke. She would serve eight years in prison.
Lafferty bought his own $2 million 8,000 square foot Los Angeles mansion. For these final months of his life he had his own staff including a gardener, a personal assistant and his own butler. He would dine and drink at restaurants and be treated like royalty. Perhaps this was because of his eccentric tipping. Whether a food bill came to $40 or $150 Lafferty would leave a tip in excess of double this amount. He was spending $28,000 a month in tips alone.
He would fly his friend Sally Blake and her mother to California. Sally was a friend from Letterkenny, Donegal and former employee of Miss Duke whom hired her because of Lafferty’s influence. On November 4th 1996, at the age of 51, Bernard Lafferty was found dead in his Bel Air mansion by his friend Sally.
After his death a star studded memorial service had been arranged. There was even a guest list made out. Elizabeth Taylor and Peggy Lee, arriving in a wheelchair, attended the service. Sharon Stone had sent him flowers. At his cremation, the former butler wore his favourite outfit, an Armani jacket, black silk trousers and Versace shoes. Enclosed in the coffin were the Irish tricolour, green rosary beads and holy water from his birthplace of Creeslough.
His ashes were spread off the coast of Hawaii, scattered off at sea near the spot where he himself had spread Miss Duke’s. A small portion was also taken by his friend Sally to his home place of Creeslough where he had grown up some 50 years previously and to reunite him with his parents. In his final act, his last will and testament, Lafferty instructed that his whole estate be handed back to the Duke Foundation.
By John Doak, from the 2012 edition of the Creesloughview