Hawaii’s Ambassador of Aloha
David Davis’ celebratory and illuminating new biography of Duke Paoa Kahanamoku, “Waterman: The Life and Times of Duke Kahanamoku,” rich with photographs, also gives a clear-eyed look at how the Hawaii tourist industry used the charismatic athlete as a marketing tool. A Native Hawaiian born in 1890, while Queen Liliuokalani still reigned, the former beachboy lived to see Hawaii become a state and his name branding surfboards, a surf contest, apparel and a nightclub starring Don Ho.
In the Stockholm Olympics of 1912, the tall, handsome swimmer generated international wattage for Hawaii by winning the gold medal for the U.S. in the 100 meters and anchoring the silver-winning 4×200-meter relay team. He won two more gold medals in Antwerp in 1920. And at the Paris Olympics in 1924, at age 33, he placed second in the 100 meters to the young Johnny Weissmuller.
A veteran sportswriter, Davis, while clearly captivated by his subject, sidesteps the hero worship in favor of an unsentimental examination of the life and legacy of the great surfer who learned to navigate so much more than the waves at Waikiki.
Kahanamoku “was a groundbreaking figure who was able to overcome — some would say transcend — racism. He swam at public pools where nonwhites were banned.” Several California beaches where he gave swimming and surfing exhibitions “were reserved for whites only,” and some mainland restaurants refused to serve Kahanamoku because of his dark skin.
He faced racism at home, too. The Outrigger Canoe Club initially excluded Kahanamoku and other nonwhites from membership; the club’s founder, South Carolina native Alexander Hume Ford, promoted Hawaii as the “land of opportunity for the quick, courageous white man.”
Davis tells how, at age 18, Kahanamoku and two friends started Hui Nalu, “a poor man’s club, but it was made up of dedicated surfers,” as Kahanamoku described it. Soon, Hui Nalu was beating other clubs in swim meets; after he won Olympic gold, the Outrigger asked him to join, and he did.
In 1932, when racial prejudice emerged during the Massie trial, a photo of famous lawyer Clarence Darrow in an outrigger canoe with Kahanamoku ran in newspapers nationwide. Davis argues that Kahanamoku’s image was deliberately exploited by Darrow, who represented the white defendants accused of murdering a young Hawaiian man.
Among the obstacles faced by Kahanamoku, Davis shows what it cost a poor man without a high school degree to preserve the amateur status required for Olympic qualification. Shocked when his friend Jim Thorpe was stripped of his 1912 Olympic medals for having played a summer of bush league baseball, Kahanamoku saw he had to avoid earning money from sports. He counted on support from Hawaii’s business and political elite.
After the 1912 Olympics “a group of prominent civic leaders” purchased William Castle’s house at Waikiki, near land owned by the Paoa family on his mother’s side, as a residence for Kahanamoku. Title was held not in his name, but by the Henry Waterhouse Trust Co. The arrangement, which sidestepped amateur qualification rules against taking large gifts, “left him beholden to the desires of Hawaiian sports officials,” Davis writes.
A girlfriend, Bernyece Smith, “noticed that, whenever a visiting celebrity came to Hawaii, local officials demanded that Duke drop what he was doing and entertain them.” While Kahanamoku always seemed delighted to teach canoeing and surfing to such novices as Edward, Prince of Wales, “it was another reminder that the business elite who controlled Hawaii also felt that they controlled Duke.”
When Kahanamoku refused to participate in a Honolulu swim meet on grounds that paddling workouts had left him out of swimming shape, he was attacked by a sportswriter for the Pacific Commercial Advertiser with the words “slacker” and “loafer.” The newspaper was published by Lorrin Thurston, who was planning a Pacific Olympiad. “Our whole program, intended to make (Hawaii) the swimming capital of the world, will fall like a pack of cards when it is known that our swimming idol has feet of clay,” the article said.
Kahanamoku filed a libel suit against the paper.
One of the strengths of this biography is that Davis writes with a sportswriter’s skill for making the reader feel you are there, whether in the Olympic grandstands, on the Honolulu waterfront or aboard a filthy, broken-down ship bound for the 1920 Olympics, while the Hawaiians play ukulele to keep up team spirits.
Davis’ carefully documented reconstructions of events include visits to Shangri La, where Kahanamoku hung out with his brother Sam and a lanky, laughing young Doris Duke. A loyal friend, Duke loaned newlyweds Duke and Nadine Kahanamoku the money to buy their Black Point home.
In contrast to the leonine dignity of his elder years, we meet a dashing young Kahanamoku who took wahine out in the surf and made love to them. In one example of his celebrated humility — and, perhaps, humor — he knit a scarf for a swimming rival who was called up during World War I.
After supporting himself at modest jobs in the Department of Public Works, Kahanamoku did a stint in Hollywood; Davis provides a filmography and some photos of his roles. Returning to Hawaii in his 40s, he was appointed superintendent at Honolulu Hale — doing janitorial work. He became a service station manager and then was elected sheriff of Honolulu, a post he held until it was canceled in 1960.
In his 70s, confused and desperate for a job, Kahanamoku announced that he would run for Congress. He was rescued by promoter Kimo McVay, who founded Duke’s nightclub, a surf club and a surf contest, dressed him in a white suit and bought him a much-loved yacht.
The ambassador of surfing also lent his name to Save Our Surf’s opposition to a shoreline development, “writing to complain that the plans would ‘destroy twenty more surfing spots.’”
Kahanamoku predeceased his wife by nearly 20 years. She left a scholarship fund in their name for students at the John A. Burns School of Medicine of the University of Hawaii-Manoa. Nadine Kahanamoku also “assigned the trademark to her late husband’s name” to the Outrigger Duke Kahanamoku Foundation, which “operates under the auspices of the Outrigger Canoe Club” and provides scholarships to local athletes. There have been trademark disputes, Davis reports.
In an author’s note, Davis says he was inspired to write the biography while researching “Showdown at Shepherd’s Bush,” his book on the 1908 London Olympics. While some Hawaii people “politely declined” to speak with him, he interviewed Rabbit Kekai, Paul Strauch Jr., Joey Cabell and Fred Hemmings Jr., and thanks the many in Hawaii and elsewhere who aided his research.
Davis is to be commended for this winning portrait of a man who “yearned for water like it was his lover” and inspired so many, but most of all Hawaiians, to embrace competition and be proud of where they came from.
Book review by Honolulu Star-Advertiser Features Reporter Mindy Pennybacker.
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