The Sot-Weed Factor

Too rich and too thin: Bacall and Chamberlain -- made for each other.Photo: Greg Gorman/CBS

Lauren Bacall, on her deathbed, is flashing back to when she was Lindsay Frost. This is at the start of the second night of Too Rich: The Secret Life of Doris Duke (Sunday and Tuesday, February 21 and 23; 9 to 11 p.m.; CBS). The Second World War, during which Duke volunteered in European hospitals and wrote articles for Harper’s Bazaar, is over. In newly liberated Paris, a spiffed-up Lindsay meets Barbara Hutton (Lisa Banes) for an aperitif. Their table is about to be pounced on by playboy Porfirio Rubirosa (Michael Nouri). And I find myself flashing back not to 1945 but to 1987, when Farrah Fawcett played Hutton in the Poor Little Rich Girl mini-series. Hadn’t Babs had a fling with “Ruby,” too? Or was that after Doris married and divorced him? I am chagrined to realize that most of what I know about filthy-rich and spectacularly unhappy American heiresses is what I’ve learned from network-television docudramas during “sweeps.”

Thus, about Babs, I recall that her mother was a Woolworth who killed herself when Farrah was a little tyke, her father a womanizing E. F. Hutton who didn’t want her around until she inherited $42 million. After which she’d meet Elsa Maxwell in the south of France, her first husband (the princely Ukrainian bounder) in Bali, her second (the Danish count who raped her) at a polo match, her third (Cary Grant) in Hollywood, and various lounge lizards and kef addicts in Tangier, on the way to which she cried a lot and overdosed.

Whereas Doris Duke at age 13 inherited $100 million from a tobacco-tycoon father (Joe Don Baker) – the only man who ever truly loved her except for novelist Louis Bromfield (Brian Dennehy) – much to the disgruntlement of her “selfish, bitter monster” of a mother (Kathleen Quinlan). She’d live longer and spend less than Babs, despite marriages to fortune-hunting Spice Boys like Porfirio and James Cromwell (Howard McGillin); her affair with the Hawaiian surfer Duke Kahananmoku (Brian Stokes-Mitchell), which ended with a stillborn child; her adopting of a vegetarian Hare Krishna (Mare Winningham!) who got worldly in a shopaholic hurry; and her hiring, at Mare’s insistence, of Bernard Lafferty (Richard Chamberlain), the butler-from-hell who seems to have overmedicated Doris to death between morphine drips.

Our enthusiasm for these long-winded weepies derives mostly from our base desire to see the birthright rich punished for their undeservingness with bad luck and bad sex. Of course, there’s also our appetite for furniture and face-lifts, ocean liners and sports cars, horses and Eurotrash, grand pianos and suckling pigs, not to mention such plush habitats of love-gone-luridly-wrong as Falcon’s Lair in Beverly Hills and Shangri-La in Hawaii. But after a while, you begin to wonder if indulgent fathers, bad mothers, and easy money can really be blamed for so much lousy luck and so many dumb choices; maybe some of the fault resides in a Doris or a Babs. Certainly, in real life, neither Lindsay Frost, whom I’ve admired ever since Mancuso FBI, nor Lauren Bacall, whom I’ve worshiped ever since I learned to whistle, would be so brain-dead as to employ Richard Chamberlain, whose vampire smirk is as much of a giveaway as his vodka-swilling, much less marry Michael Nouri, who has specialized for years in caddishness or serial killing.

On the other hand, to get a chance to watch old pros like Bacall and Dennehy rub-a-dubbing one another is almost enough to make us forget that this idyll was paid for by lung cancer.

The Sot-Weed Factor