In late November of 2008, an attorney named Brian Kramer was wandering the aisles at a Staples in Santa Monica. Preparing to open his own law office, he needed, among other things, a fax machine. The clerk who helped him, a 6'4" black man in his mid-20s, was friendly—"a gentle giant, a positive person," says Brian, himself a bearish 6'2"—and well informed about the relative merits of the equipment for sale. Brian appreciated the clerk's low-key approach: "He wasn't trying to hard-sell me. It wasn't like, 'Let's get a fax machine out the door today.'" The clerk's name was Sean Sessums Means.
Sean asked what sort of work Brian did, the better to determine the kind of machine that would suit his needs. And when Brian explained that he specialized in family law, Sean showed a keen interest; apparently he had a legal matter he wished to pursue. Brian was intrigued—particularly when he glanced at Sean's ring finger and saw nothing there. In his experience, anyone inquiring about family law and how it works is thinking about getting a divorce.
Nervously, almost on a whim, Sean asked Brian if he might be willing to hang around for 20 minutes until Sean could take his scheduled break, as he had something in his car he'd like to share with the lawyer. Brian was deeply skeptical. But the kid had been so helpful and nice; it was evening, and he had nowhere in particular he needed to be. Even so… "Why I followed him down into a subterranean parking lot to his Jetta, I'll never know," Brian says now.
Once they reached the car, Sean opened the trunk to reveal a sight that did little to allay Brian's skepticism: several Hefty bags filled with personal items, including photographs and paintings. Sean plowed through the mess and came up with a crumpled piece of paper—a copy of a trust document bearing the name of Doris Duke, the eccentric heiress to the formidable Duke dynasty, the force behind the American Tobacco Company, Duke University, and a sprawling philanthropy. Sean turned to Brian and asked tentatively, "Do you know who Doris Duke is? I think I'm related to her."
Brian deflated. A savvy lawyer 15 years in the business who's had a number of celebrity clients, he isn't the sort to be duped by a con man trying to pass himself off as the scion of a prominent family. And yet he didn't dismiss Sean outright. The situation was just weird enough to be intriguing: Why would this $9.50-an-hour Staples clerk be fixating on Doris Duke? What could be his connection to the onetime "richest girl in the world," who was famously partial to belly dancing and Indian mystics, and reportedly tended to by a staff of 200 before she died in 1993? Implausible as it might seem, was there anything to Sean Means's claim—which, if proven true, would entitle him to payments from the renowned Doris Duke Trust, thought to be valued in the tens of millions of dollars?
Brian left the door open. "I said, 'Look, Sean, here's my card. If you can get this organized, come see me.'"
Two weeks later, Sean delivered a neat stack of documents to Brian's West Los Angeles office. Included were Sean's birth certificate naming a John ("Jack") Sessums Means as his father (though not signed by him), a blank affidavit from the Doris Duke Trust addressed to the same Jack, and Jack's last will and testament naming Sean as his son. Brian knew the documents proved nothing; they could easily have been faked.
Sean had arrived with his mother, Karen Rich, who, at 47, is delicate, small-boned, a stunner. In 2002, under the guidance of another lawyer, they had made a flawed attempt to establish Sean as a Duke beneficiary; this was their second try. Brian asked Karen to tell him everything she could about Sean's father. And so, in emotional, meandering fashion, she did:
Karen was barely 18 and a teller at a Bank of America in Venice, California, when she met Jack, a drummer who played gigs with local bands. She remembers him as "charming and artistic and intelligent, with the most beautiful smile and dimples." Despite their striking differences, there were also similarities. As Karen puts it, "I'm from an old black Southern family. And Jack was from an old white Southern family." They also shared a love of music. Karen had attended the progressive Sequoyah School in Pasadena, California, which, as she sees it, catered to "crazy, rich, white kids who studied Greek mythology and rode horses every Friday."
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.
When Sean was 5, Karen filed for a restraining order against Jack and moved in with her mother. She was certain "he'd kill me or I'd eventually kill him" if the relationship went on any longer. Karen filed for child support, requesting a minimum $280 a month. Visitation rights were also established and, with them, Jack's legal paternity, as visitation rights are accorded only to a legal parent, either biological or by court-approved adoption. During the proceedings, Jack acknowledged that he was Sean's father; Brian would eventually track down the documents, all of which indicated that—in the eyes of California law, at least—Sean was Jack's son. And yet anytime during the relationship that Karen tried to talk to Jack about their son's inheritance, she says he brushed the matter aside. "He'd say, 'We're not married; Sean can't get anything. Just let it go.'" Before they split for good, Karen took care to photocopy the Trust affidavit, as well as Jack's will.
Jack visited Sean regularly for another two years; Sean has a dim recollection of their going together to the Van Nuys Airport to watch people fly model planes. And then in 1989, when Sean was almost 8, Jack came by the house and told Karen that he was getting married and moving to Arizona. But Sean was left with a few things to remember him by, including an electric guitar and a train set. "He never physically hurt Sean," Karen says. "They played like kids together. I'd tell Sean when we talked about him, 'Your father loved you.'"
When Sean was 14, Karen finally told him the explosive, long-held secret: that he was a descendant of one of the most powerful, storied families in America. "My mom told me one day we'd go forward and contact the Trust," Sean recalls. "But she didn't know when. She was scared for me"—Marion's vulgar threat no doubt ringing in her ears.
As Karen moved from home to home, she says, "I'd sometimes misplace the documents and then panic. And then they'd turn up. I'd tell myself, 'I'm gonna keep those papers safe until Sean is 18. And then there's nothing they can do to him. He'll be in God's hands then.'"
Or, failing that, Brian Kramer's.
Sean Sessums Means could hardly have imagined the historic reach of the family he'd been born into. In the second half of the 19th century, Washington Duke, who was unsympathetic to the cause, was nonetheless conscripted into the Confederate Army. After the Civil War, he returned home to build a tobacco business in North Carolina. Soon the company was hand-rolling cigarettes for sale throughout the North and the South. In 1885 his son James B. Duke had the vision to license an automated cigarette rolling machine that helped turn the family business into one of the first worldwide monopolies. With profits from the American Tobacco Company and its mass-produced cigarettes, James B. Duke and his brother Benjamin invested in hydroelectric plants along the Catawba River in the Carolinas. Their power company grew into Duke Energy, today a major conglomerate with global impact.
On December 11, 1924, ten months before his death, James B. Duke created the Doris Duke Trust, named for his only child, 12-year-old Doris. The Trust stipulated that she would receive two-thirds of its earnings, while the remaining third would be divided equally in yearly payments to the lineal descendants of the brothers and sister of James B. Duke.
On the same day that James B. Duke established the Doris Duke Trust, he also set up the Duke Endowment with $40 million, placing him among America's great philanthropists. One of the endowment's first grants went to Trinity College in Durham, North Carolina, which was promptly renamed Duke University. James B. Duke's original endowment has now swelled to more than $2 billion. (The Trust, which is private, will not disclose the current value of its assets.) In its first 85 years in operation, the endowment has awarded $2.6 billion to religious, healthcare, childcare, and educational organizations, including the historically African-American Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, North Carolina.
The more Brian Kramer learned about the philanthropy of James B. Duke, and Sean's place in the Duke family tree, the more determined he became to pursue Sean's cause. Wouldn't this beacon of philanthropy want to do the right thing? Still, the idea of taking on the family gave him pause. "They had the vast Duke legal machine behind them," Brian observes. "Sean just had me."
Eventually Brian reached Jack by phone at his home in a working-class neighborhood on the outskirts of Phoenix. "All Sean wants is to have a father," Brian told Jack. "I can tell you, he doesn't hold a grudge against you. Give him a chance."
Jack bridled at the call; he was uncomfortable, Brian says, "having a window opened on a past he wanted to leave behind." But Jack also seemed resigned. Wearily, he told Brian, "I always knew this day would come."
Hopeful that the Trust would be swayed by the legal heft of the documents in his possession, Brian sent a package to its attorney, Arthur E. Morehead IV, with the expectation of a quick resolution. On March 12, 2009, Morehead responded to Brian with a letter:
"The trustees realize that this letter will disappoint you and Sean. And they regret that. However, given the unique circumstances, the trustees believe that Sean should be responsible for establishing that he is the son of John Means through appropriate scientific testing. Only then will the trustees consider taking further action."
In other words, they wanted DNA evidence. So Brian and Sean headed to Phoenix for some genetic material—and for Sean's first meeting with his father in 20 years.
On the five-and-a-half-hour ride from Los Angeles in Brian's BMW SUV, Sean wondered aloud what Jack would be like. "I woke up that morning so nervous," Sean recalls. "Did I look like him? Was he healthy? Did he have his hair? And I'm wondering how he's gonna react. Is he gonna hug me or sock me in the gut? Was I gonna do the same to him?"
More than anything, Sean's goal was to have a relationship with his father. Aware of his nerves and high hopes, Brian says he "tried to get him to see that Rome wouldn't be built in a day. I tried to relax him by talking about things he likes, like sports cars." Yet Brian had some nervousness of his own. "I knew the father had a lot of anxiety and angst toward the mother. I'd been trying to get him to realize that Sean is not the mother, and that there is nothing not to like about Sean. Later I told Jack, 'What I wouldn't give to have a day like this, where my father could come back and we could spend the day together.'"
The morning after Sean and Brian checked in to their hotel, Jack showed up downstairs, as planned. "He gave me a big bear hug, like dads do," says Sean, who welled up at the sight of him. "He joked, 'No way—that's not my kid.'" Jack isn't as tall as his son, and he's bulkier, with thinning hair; the one obvious trait they share is a welcoming smile. "After all the pent-up wondering how it was going to be, they immediately recognized each other," says Brian. Later, the three went back to Jack's house, where an entire room is devoted to model planes. Jack started showing Sean around. "They were like two pigs in slop, connected at the hip, when that started," says Brian.
But before that, the three men had done what they'd agreed to do in the first place: They went to a testing center in a strip mall—the sort of place that provides quickie information in paternity cases—where Jack and Sean were swabbed for their DNA. Conclusive results were mailed to the Trust and to Brian Kramer within two weeks: Jack and Sean were father and son.
"My mother cried," Sean says. "For her, it was a big victory. For me, I was just glad I had a dad."
For his part, Jack Means feels some bitterness. "If it weren't for Karen, Sean would have had his money long ago—I didn't want her taking everything from him," he says. Then Jack adds, "I love Sean. The only good thing to come out of this is my relationship with him." And yet… "We haven't really talked much lately," says Sean. "I was calling him a lot when we came back from Arizona, and I thought he was gonna call me, but he really hasn't." Sean pauses. "He's a hard guy to read."
Sean's grandmother Marion died of cancer last April, although not before hearing from Jack that Sean had grown into a fine young man. "She was glad about that," says her fourth husband, Charles Fish. "I think at the end of her life she felt remorse about what had happened." But Sean wonders about other Duke relatives, and whether they'll accept him into the family. "I think of myself as a person of color, but we all breathe the same air, bleed the same color blood, live under the same sun," he says, with characteristic optimism. Even the tumult of his childhood compels him to look on the bright side. "There was a lot of violence in my early life, but there was also love," Sean says, almost defiantly. "My mother loved my father and I know my father loved us."
Sean doesn't yet have elaborate plans for his windfall. "I'm just trying to figure out what to do," he says. "I don't want to be one of those guys who gets a lot of money and then blows it and ends up back where he was." He and a friend are working on a comic book that they hope to debut at Comic-Con, the comic book convention held annually in San Diego. And he and Brian talk about maybe starting a nonprofit for kids growing up in single-parent homes.
For now, Sean is happy to stay on at Staples. "I kind of like working here—I like the people I work with," he says, despite the fact that he frequently has to get up at 3 a.m. for the early shift. Only recently he found a dozen pallets on the loading dock, with no one around to help him unload them. Another day at work. The only difference? He'd shown up in a brand-new V8 Camaro with a red jewel tintcoat and heated leather seats.
"Being a Duke," Sean says, "does have some privileges."
Looking for another good read? Check out the amazing story of Henrietta Lacks