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Grand restoration

Two pianos intertwined with the glamorous life of Doris Duke share in her mystique

By Steven Mark

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 07:40 p.m. HST, Jul 11, 2010


Doris Duke, the tobacco heiress born "the richest girl in the world," would become many things during her life: a fixture of high society, a subject of constant gossip, a spy, a champion surfer, a philanthropist, a patron of the arts, a lover of brothers Sam and Duke Kahanamoku, a true jet-setter before the term even existed.

Throughout her life, she was also a dedicated pianist, starting lessons in classical piano as a child and later playing jazz in Paris nightclubs. Her passion was fueled by the praise her governess gave her as a beginning pianist.

"From that day on, I adored the piano," Duke is quoted as saying in "The Family Secrets of Doris Duke," one of several biographies written about her. "I like to think I have become a pretty fair jazz pianist."

Now, 17 years after Duke's death in 1993 at the age of 80, the two Steinway pianos from Shangri La, her luxury Diamond Head beachfront estate, are being reborn, one having been sold to a local physician and another being restored in preparation for sale. What's more, the pianos are not being sold as curios from their famous owner, but as the musical instruments they were always meant to be.

"We weren't loud about marketing them," said George Nellas of Piano Planet, the dealer handling the pianos. "We've been trying to find the right place for them, the right home with an owner that would respect the history and quality of these instruments. ... But can you imagine who might have played them?"

Many names come to mind in answer to that question. One is Duke herself.

"From conversations with her staff, we know she played daily," said Deborah Pope, executive director of the Shangri La Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, which decided to sell the pianos in keeping with its mission of promoting Islamic art. "There was a lot of sheet music in the house."

Another frequent player was Joe Castro, a well-regarded bebop pianist. He became involved with Duke in 1950, ran a record label with her for a while, then somehow managed to divorce her in the mid-1960s without having clearly married her in the first place.

Emma Veary, the great Hawaiian singer whose mother was close friends with Duke, is certain many top musicians entertained on the pianos. "Any performer that came to the islands, she invited to the house and they would play music," Veary said. She remembers a party in which Burt Bacharach entertained Carole Burnett, Richard Chamberlain and Jim Nabors, who also played piano.

Beyond that, there are rumors, like so many other aspects of Duke's life. She kept no guest list of visitors to Shangri La, Pope said.

"We know Quincy Jones visited and that he may have brought members of the Jackson family," Pope said. Cole Porter was another name that came up, according to Nellas.

THESE DAYS, the only people playing any of the pianos are Dr. Leah Ridge of Nuuanu and her 13-year-old daughter, Ilana Buffenstein. Ridge was told that Elton John played on the 1936 model "M" Steinway that used to be kept in the beachfront "Playhouse" at Shangri La.

Ridge was looking for a better piano for her daughter when their piano technician, Steve Premo, told her about an instrument he had worked on for Nellas. Though the piano was in need of repair, Premo was able to make it playable, freeing locked-up keys and pedals, replacing missing strings and cleaning the soundboard and dark mahogany case. Ridge was intrigued and ended up purchasing it from Nellas for $12,000, not including the additional work it needed.

"I had tried maybe 40 pianos, and then I heard of this one," she said.

"I hadn't touched the piano in years. I sat down and began to play, and I began to get that feeling there was something special here. It was like my childhood was back."

Ridge now has to compete for time at the keyboard with Ilana, who practices every day on everything from Bach to the Beatles. "I was playing on a $500 Kimball before," Ilana said wryly.

Duke's other piano, built in 1948 and kept in the main house, was unplayable, with split key levers and grimy ivories, corroded strings and wear throughout the thousands of moving parts that comprise the action. Yoshi Nishimura of Mozart House Pianos, who tuned the instruments many times over the years, said he warned Duke's staff to keep the piano covered to protect it from the ocean spray.

"They never did," he said.

Nellas is having the piano completely renovated and expects to sell it for about $50,000, roughly the cost of a new Steinway.

Now the outside rim, made of rare "fiddleback" mahogany, shines in magnificent detail, while the soundboard gleams in warm pine tones and the inside plate sparkles with new gold plating.

The work was done by Gilbert Piano and Furniture Refinishers.

Premo will be restringing the piano and rebuilding the action with new Steinway parts, but it will still be about 85 percent original when he is finished. Premo is confident the instrument will turn out well.

"The real story behind this piano, behind all the glamour of the owner and all that, is Steinway and the craftsmanship and care that they put into building something that will last for 100 years," he said. "That wood sat around aging for 35 years before the piano was even built. They don't do that anymore."

"It's a living thing, and we're going to breathe new life into it."






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