Doris Duke employee’s death at opulent mansion was accidental

The death of a Doris Duke employee who died of a fall from the Duke Mansion in August 1966 while cleaning its gold-plated chandeliers was an accident, according to a report released Wednesday.

Julie Jean Johnson, then 45, was cleaning the chandeliers in the gilded and ornate rotunda when a marble table fell on her, the state Department of Labor and Industry’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health concluded. Johnson suffered a broken back, her parents sued the state and the company hired to clean the chandeliers, Quitting Shop Inc., settled with them in 1998 for $30,000.

Johnson continued to suffer pain until her death in 2016.

The Harwood Funeral Home in Maryland deposited Johnson’s body to be cremated in 2016, the government report found. After a two-year investigation, an employee there said Johnson’s last public appearance had been for a funeral there in September of that year. The employee said the white linen, a lipstick-stained black veil and a handbag left in the hearse looked “archaic and faded.”

The employee said, in 2016, Johnson appeared to be dead, held an unidentified hand to her mouth and showed signs of “incompetent behavior,” according to the report.

Johnson worked for an estate that included the Duke family’s main residence. Duke, who died in 2010, was married to Ford Motor Co. heir Richard E. Duke, Jr.

Famed for the Duke Institute of Cancer Research, her death ended her longstanding philanthropic work. She is known in her family and Maryland as Mimi.

Howard A. Permut, her attorney from 1969 to 1987, said Thursday that he was familiar with Johnson’s death and had a 10- to 15-minute conversation with her family, but he did not know the details.

“If she fell, it was an accident. I had no explanation of how she fell,” he said. “After 25 years, there was no explanation as to how she fell.”

The government report suggests that Johnson had conditions that may have contributed to her fall. The report said Johnson’s weight had caused her to develop “hang-slip” syndrome, a condition in which the afflicted person slips into a prone position without being able to recover. But her family told officials that she had suffered from “dyskinesia” or condition in which she slipped and fell. She suffered from this ailment throughout her life, according to her family.

The state has begun to release details of workplace deaths that it has investigated and investigated. Of the 67 investigations it has conducted since 2010, 29 were related to workplace or workplace condition issues, said Amanda Kay, a spokeswoman for the state agency.

At Johnson’s death, a Duke family spokesman called her “a remarkable young woman with a vibrant spirit.”

“We look back fondly on her years at the Duke Estate and the unwavering service she gave to the Foundation,” the spokesman said.

Johnson’s family did not return a call for comment.

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