Sean Sessums Means with mother Karen Rich
Sean Sessums Means with mother Karen Rich.
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Early in their relationship, says Karen, Jack told her he was a descendant of the Dukes—the legendary North Carolina clan that helped launch the American tobacco industry. At some point Karen learned that Jack received money from the large trust established for certain relatives of James B. Duke, Jack's great-great-great-uncle. Karen had heard of the tormented Doris Duke and her operatic life. She remembers Jack describing how the family protected Doris after she killed a man (no doubt referring to the 1966 incident in which a friend, Edward Tirella, was accidentally crushed to death by the car Duke was driving after he got out to open the gates of her Newport estate). Karen came to believe that the Dukes were so influential, they could make anything go away.

Karen wasn't yet 19 when she became pregnant with Sean. "Jack wanted us to be a family, and for us to get married," she says. "He told me that again and again. In good times we were best friends, but when we got into it, it got rough."

Brian asked Karen to try to remember any other relatives Jack may have mentioned. Karen came up with the name of an uncle, John Sessums. After the meeting, Brian did some research and found a 2004 obituary for Sessums, a renowned model maker for the film business from Redlands, California. The obituary also mentioned Sessums's longtime friend, Gerald Sanders. Brian tracked him down by phone. During their conversation, at Brian's mention of the Doris Duke Trust, Sanders paused. "I thought I was the only one who knew that John was a Duke," he said.

Brian, who'd regarded his own lawyer father as his best friend when he was alive, and couldn't fathom the sadness of a son going through life without a dad, was quietly elated. It would be one thing for Means to shoot his mouth off about being related to a well-known figure in the popular culture; it was quite another for Karen Rich to produce a non-Duke name that turned out to be a link between Jack Means and the Trust. "At that moment, I knew this thing had legs," says Brian.

In Sean Means—a guileless fan of things like comic books, Star Trek, and Star Wars—the Duke legacy took an unusually sweet, unassuming form. He is a video game enthusiast who once held a full-time job testing the development of a Tony Hawk Nintendo game. (Before Staples, he also stacked the shelves at See's Candies for a short time, and ran the projector in a movie theater.) He claims he's not as much of a gamer as he used to be: "I don't have the time for that anymore," Sean says in laid-back dude-like cadences. "And I'd rather hang out with my friends," their preferred spot being Denny's. Although he recently exited a long-term relationship, the main woman in his life has always been his mother, whom he took to his senior prom (the hottest date there, said his friends at the time). "I said, 'Mom, wanna come? Let's get all snazzy.'" Their bond, the stuff of secrets and survival, runs deep. "My mom has always been honest with me," says Sean. "She has my back and I have hers."

"God bless his mother for standing by Sean," says Brian. "She was completely his support system." Their resilient little unit bore no resemblance to the intricate Duke clan Sean was descended from. His grandmother—Jack Means's mother, Marion—was a lineal descendant of Washington Duke and the daughter of Maj. Gen. John W. Sessums Jr., a square-jawed career officer in the U.S. Air Force who moved the family from town to town as the military dictated. Marion attended the elite Holton-Arms School in Bethesda, Maryland. Marion's second husband, James Means Sr., a technical writer who produced training material for the Mercury Seven astronauts, legally adopted her son, Jack (Sean's father), and his younger sister when they were both small.

In a phone call from his home in Florida, James Means, now 77, describes Jack as having been a sweet but troubled kid. "In the public school years, he would rip up his report cards on the way home," he recalls. "He showed no interest in education or doing well in school." Jack's parents decided to send him to the Southwestern Academy, a boarding school in San Marino, California, some 135 miles south of his home in Solvang. "He's street-smart," says James Means, "not book-smart."

Living in L.A., Jack took up with Karen Rich. But they had broken up by the time she gave birth to Sean on Easter Sunday, 1982, at Centinela Hospital Medical Center near Los Angeles International Airport. And yet she named her baby Sean, the Irish form of John, Jack's proper name. "I loved Jack then," she says simply.

But Jack's mother, Marion, was another matter. According to relatives, Marion was suspicious of Karen—she was sure that Karen was out to get Jack's money. The color of her skin didn't help. "Marion did not have a problem with blacks on a personal level," says her sister, Jean Favorite, "but she felt strongly that she didn't want them in her family. It was a source of embarrassment for her. She tried to pretend the child"—Sean—"didn't exist."

Soon after Sean's birth, says Karen, she called Marion to ask whether she wanted a photograph of her grandson. "She mocked me for having to go on welfare after Jack left," Karen recalls. "She said, 'I know why you did this.'" Karen still winces at the memory of a threat hurled by Marion: "If you ever bring that nigger before the Duke Trust, we will take him away from you, put him in military school, and your son will never even know you." It was the last time they'd ever speak.

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