Carol Forsloff—-Hawaii has had its Dukes along with the Kings and Queens, only the former are part of modern lore of the islands, the type that lingers as today memorializes one of the greatest surfers of the modern age, Duke Kahanamoku.
He is said to have been the “surfer of the century” , a man who is shown atop the waves in virtually every photo of his life. At the same time he is remembered by everyone as identified with the sand and surf with a statue that famously sits on Waikiki Beach as a reminder to tourists and locals alike just how talented, famous and colorful was Duke Kahanamoku. Today Hawaii memorializes his life, even as newspapers around the world echo his story.
Duke Kahanamoku was born in 1890 and died in 1993. His legendary performances as a surfer are lauded today, as the powerful search engine-mega-site-world conglomerate, Google, reflects his value with Kahanamoku’s image with a surfboard as the day’s predominant picture.
He was said to be a greater swimer than Johnny Weismuller, another famous swimmer of the 20th century who was known by movie-goers as Tarzan. Kahanamoku was in the class of the greatest ethnic athletes of the 20th century that include the Native American, Jim Thorpe, a fellow Olympian. ESPN most notably lists the top athletes of the 20th century but ignores the top swimmers in that list, however those who know the sport of swimming, or follow surfing history and great performances, recognize Kananamoku’s greatness as an athlete-surfer. Called “the greatest of all swimmers,” he took two gold medals at the Antwerp games in 1920. He was also the first athlete to be listed in the Halls of Fame of both surfing and swimming.
Kahanamoku lived a life of exciting events and activities that included acting, swimming, surfing, Olympic challenges, and a high-profile rescue, saving the lives of a dozen fishermen that were stranded at the time of the vessel Thelma’s fatal wreck that occurred off the coast of Newport Beach in 1925. He was also a military police officer during the second World War, sheriff of Honolulu until 1961, and a strong proponent of Hawaii’s statehood in 1959. The Duke died in 1968, honored on his birthday for his great and colorful life, yet another Duke, part of that colorful life, added another dimension to an already interesting saga.
Shangri-La in Hawaii, a virtual opulent Oahu palace, was one of the homes of another Duke, Doris Duke, the poor little rich girl whose unique lifestyle gave rise to stories and legends. Duke’s great wealth allowed her considerable luxury but in some ways a life of poverty, as it is said she longed for love and excitement, and bought some of that with her famous marriages, adventures and misadventures that included, according to island recollections, an affair with Duke Kahanamoku.
The “Too Rich” saga of the life of Doris Duke, the heiress of a tobacco fortune who was born in 1912 and died in 1993 at the age of 80, outlines the mysteries surrounding Duke’s life and death, including her various love affairs. That saga was made into a television film that starred Lauren Bacall that was afterward panned by the critics.
Duke was married twice. Her first husband was James H.R. Cromwell, a society favorite who used her fortune for his political career that included several months as the United States Ambassador to Canada. He also ran for the Senate, but this venture was unsuccessful. Duke had one child while married to Cromwell. The child, however, lived just one day and was said to actually have been the result of an affair Doris Duke had with Duke Kahanamoku while still married to Cromwell.
Duke eventually divorced Cromwell in 1943, then married playboy Porfirio Rubirosa, who was a diplomat from the Dominican Republic. According to the gossip of the time, she paid Rubirosa’s wife $1 million so that she would not contest the divorce. Rubirosa, like Cromwell, made good use of Duke’s fortune,despite a pre-nuptial agreement that forbade his direct use of her money, by accepting expensive gifts of cars, planes, horses and a house in Paris that he acquired when Duke and Rubirosa divorced. Duke never married again. Some of her affairs, however, offered additional color to her life. These affairs involved movie stars and other famous people that included Errol Flynn, General George Patton and Duke Kahanamoku.
Doris Duke was a champion surfer herself, although surely not at the level of Kahanamoku. Nevertheless she was fond of the beach boys and is said to have become romantically involved with Kahanamoku after first meeting the famous surfer’s brother. The infant Doris Duke had given birth to during her marriage to Cromwell that lived but one day was rumored to actually have been the child of the affair between her and Kahanamoku. It was also said that she was so despondent before the child’s birth that she prayed it would be aborted by walking into the ocean.
Duke Kahanamoku, who won five Olympic medals during his career as a swimmer-surfer, brought Hawaii to America and America to Hawaii following statehood in 1959, something he strongly advocated. In doing so he was able to embrace two cultures as he introduced Hawaii’s surfing to the rest of the world. During his life of more than 70 years, he was movie star, sports legend, local island hero and lover of one of the country’s rich and eccentric women, Doris Duke. And that life, full of rich and memorable events and adventures, is celebrated throughout the world, thanks to the Google reminders of the day and those who remember a man whose passions would be hard to forget.