By Julia Flynn Siler, first published in the Wall Street Journal‘s Speakeasy blog on 3/12/2012
- Julia Flynn Siler and Her Royal Highness Princess Abigail Kawananakoa.
A few days before heading to Honolulu on book tour for “Lost Kingdom,” I got a phone call from the assistant to Her Royal Highness Princess Abigail Kawananakoa, the woman who is the most direct descendant of the last queen of Hawaii. If the monarchy had not been overthrown in 1893, Princess Abigail today might well have become Hawaii’s queen.
I’d interviewed Princess Abigail by phone for a page one story I’d written last year for the Wall Street Journal. The story was about how the Friends of Iolani Palace, a group of volunteers founded by Princess Abigail’s mother, had been on a decades-long search to recover lost furniture and artifacts that disappeared in the months and years after a small group of businessmen deposed Queen Liliuokalani at the end of the nineteenth century.
While I’d visited Iolani Palace many times in the course of researching Lost Kingdom (the palace is on the same grounds as the Hawaii State Archives) I had not met Princess Abigail. Known by her Hawaiian name “Kekau” (pronounced kay-kow) the Princess is in her eighties and divides her time between homes in Honolulu and California. The last time a journalist had interviewed or spent any time with the Princess was for a Life magazine profile of her in 1998.
I was thrilled – and also a little terrified – when her longtime assistant, Maggi Parker, invited me to join the Princess for lunch at the Mariposa, the restaurant in the Nieman Marcus at Honolulu’s Ala Moana shopping center. What would I wear? What gifts should I bring? How should I address her? I wasn’t such a hard-bitten reporter that I didn’t fret over the etiquette required – even though our luncheon was taking place not at a palace, but at an all-American shopping mall.
I chose a conservative light -grey pants suit, which turned out to be a good pick for the occasion. I’d raced to a nearby stationery store before the lunch to buy a bright orange gift bag and pink tissue to wrap a bottle of Robert Mondavi cabernet I’d brought her from California, as well as a signed copy of my first book, “The House of Mondavi.”
As I rode the escalator up several floors to the restaurant, past hundreds of gold-colored butterflies suspended from the ceiling, I was damp with perspiration and worried I’d be late. As it turned out, I arrived before almost everyone else. The table was still being decorated with cuttings of delicate black-stemmed ferns – Queen’s Ferns, as it turned out — from a guest’s garden, along with fuschia-colored orchid lei.
We sipped on blood-orange spritzers as we waited for the Princess’s chauffeur, driving her deep blue Rolls Royce, to drop her off. When she arrived, a ripple of excitement passed through the restaurant, as the manager and staff made a fuss over her, escorting an elegant octogenarian with carefully coiffed blonde hair who was wearing a flowing, cream and white silk pants suit to our long table. We sat with our backs to the wall where a large mural portrayed of hula dancers in grass skirts were dancing on a beach behind us. (The Princess later commented that the dancers didn’t look particularly Hawaiian to her.) Our view through the Mariposa’s windows was of the vast Pacific.
- Fox Searchlight
- George Clooney as Matt King and Shailene Woodley as Alexandra in “The Descendants.”
The occasion, as it turned out, was a celebration of her assistant Maggi’s birthday, which she had modestly forgotten to mention to me on the phone. Luckily, I’d brought her a small gift too. But Maggi had very kindly seated me next to the Princess, where I had the treat of hearing about her days as a boarder at Notre Dame High School in Belmont, Ca., a Catholic girls’ school outside of San Francisco.
The Princess was not entirely pleased by the service at the Mariposa: more than once, she extended her index finger at the overworked waitress, arched her eyebrows, and commanded her to bring drinks and menus to the table right now! I was secretly pleased to see that the Princess acted like, well, a princess. Later, Maggi explained to me that the Princess typically demanded excellent service and, in turn, was known for tipping generously.
Before the slices of Valharona chocolate cake arrived, Maggi’s friend Ann McCormack gave us a nice surprise. In the 1950s and 1960s, Ann had sung in the Honolulu nightclub that she had owned with her husband and toured with Frank Sinatra as his opening act in Las Vegas and elsewhere. At lunch, she sang a special birthday song for her long-time friend.
Ann and Maggi also swapped stories of appearing in small roles in the original “Hawaii Five-0″ and the movie “Hawaii,” based on James Michener’s 1959 novel. Ann and Maggi, it seems, were quite the girls-about-town in Honolulu during the 1950s and 60s. The funniest story involved Maggie once appearing onstage at the nightclub wearing a Playboy bunny’s outfit as a gag, and they reminisced over the filming of Hawaii, including one of the scenes shot at the Princess’s Honolulu home.
What a treat for me – and a big mahalo (thank you in Hawaiian) to Maggi for including me at such a lovely luncheon. After having spent the past four years digging through archives to write a book about the Princess’s family (she is the great-grand niece of King David Kalakaua and Queen Kapi’olani.) I was deeply honored by their interest in my book.
I couldn’t resist asking Kekau (yes, she invited me to call her that) whether she’d seen “The Descendants,” the Oscar-nominated movie starring George Clooney which is based on the novel by local writer Kaui Hart Hemmings (It’s out on DVD on March 13). She hadn’t – and while I offered to take her to the movies to see it – she was decidedly cool to the idea. It seemed that she hadn’t been to a commercial movie theater to see a film in a very long time.
To deepen the mystery, however, one of the other guests, Teri Stroud, seated to the other side of the Princess, leaned towards me. In a conspiratorial whisper, explained that the Princess was the real descendant – in other words, the person upon whom the George Clooney character, Matt King, in “The Descendants” was based. In Kaui’s novel, Matt King was descended from Hawaiian royalty on one side and white sugar plantation owners on the other. The Clooney character describes himself as looking like a haole – the Hawaiian word for a foreigner, but generally used to describe a white person – even though he is part-Hawaiian.
Princess Abigail, likewise, does not resemble what some think Hawaiian princess would look like. She told me at lunch that when she first arrived at her boarding school in California, she overheard some girls talking about her and wondering how fat and how dark-skinned she would be – not realizing they were being overheard. For the record, the Princess is light-skinned and slender with blue eyes. Like Matt King, she could easily be mistaken for a haole herself.
And like the Matt King character, Princess Abigail is a member of a powerful family – the Campbells – which held many of their assets in a trust. Princess Abigail played a crucial role in 2007 in deciding what should happen to the Campbell Estate when it ran into a Hawaiian law, the rule against perpetuities, requiring it to wind down twenty years after the last death of the direct descendants who had been alive at the time of the trust’s creation.
The thirty beneficiaries of the trust are descended from James Campbell, an Irishman who immigrated to the islands in the mid-nineteenth century and who built his fortune as a partner in a Maui sugar plantation. According to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, she was the largest beneficiary of the trust and her proceeds from it were close to a quarter of a billion dollars. She has used some of that wealth to help fund the Abigail K. Kawananakoa Foundation to support the preservation of Hawaiian culture.
That said, “The Descendants” author Hart Hemmings told me she’d based her fictional characters on a number of families and family trusts in the news at time she wrote her book – not just the Campbells. Another family that went through similar experiences were the Wilcoxes (whom the author Hart Hemmings is related to) according to friends that I met later in my trip and had drinks with at the Outrigger Canoe Club, one of the settings of Hart Hemmings’ novel. While the novel was based on an amalgam of powerful local families, it was still a great honor to meet Princess Abigail, who was born long before Hawaii became the 50th State and who’d lived through its tumultuous history.
How often, after all, does one have the chance to meet true American royalty?
Julia Flynn Siler is the bestselling author of “Lost Kingdom: Hawaii’s Last Queen, the Sugar Kings, and America’s First Imperial Adventure,” published by the Atlantic Monthly Press. For more information, please visit www.juliaflynnsiler.com
Leimomi Martin saysApril 14, 2013 at 2:59 pm
I am so happy that you are still involved with the Hawaiian Culture. Also I was very pleased to see that you are writting a wonderful story about Princess Abigail.
I first saw her when I attended our 50th Anniversary of the Merrie Monarch in Hilo Hawaii last week.
My first glimpse of Princess Abigail was in awe and delight.
Keep up the good work!
naleimaile saysApril 27, 2013 at 12:01 am
You should see what your “Princess” is doing to her people now… all she has really done for Hawaiians is further divide us with her actions. The sign of a true Aliʻi is the what they do for her people… google her more and see how many things you donʻt find about her doing things… money can’t buy respect…
Kia'meaokekanaka saysMay 21, 2013 at 4:15 am
You don’t think that she has done much for Hawai’i and Hawaiian culture? I think she has and with the division in Hawai’i now over such things, making more negative comments such as yours does help to heal either (I believe.. respectfully). Aloha, Kia’i
Tiffany Reed saysApril 28, 2014 at 10:34 pm
To the highest respect to you all.
After the overthrow Liliuokalani’s family moved back to California.
My question is Please tell me, how on earth with a country overthrown can someone from the Kingdom Of Hawaii be a crowned Princess in today’s world. I’m sure a real member of the Royal family would speak up for her people and all of the islands, granting peace and tranquility for all as it was before.
PEACE NOT war
Elenor Alexandra Jean Murray saysJune 23, 2016 at 2:25 pm
I would like to see the Hawaiian Monarchy restored to its former glory and a moratorium on any more war games by the USA with live ammunition on the sacred mountains. You can call me Schtoopid if I you like. It’s water off a duck’s back to me.
Dean Williams MAEd. saysJanuary 18, 2017 at 12:39 am
I would like to see the monarchy restored in an honorific role similar to the British monarchy. One with no political power but the prestige that Americas only royal house deserves.
Joe saysMarch 26, 2017 at 3:12 pm
Well said Dean. How ironic that a republic should so love royalty. The fear is resurrecting Hawaiian royalty would foster independence. Practical issues arise as how to fund royalty. Tecnhical issues arise over sovereignty.
Pat Reidy (Radar) London England saysFebruary 18, 2018 at 9:13 am
Pat Reidy (Radar) February 18th 2018 From England
I have always had a soft spot for Hawaii, even since before South Pacific many moons ago. The culture appeals to me in Songs, Music, Art, Dance and the attitude of its people. When I hear the Island music I can’t help but shed a tear of happiness. I have recently read the History of Hawaii and was somewhat taken back by the actions of the Sugar Planters and Missionary’s in taken over the Islands, with the help of the Military. The only blessing, was that there was no all out war. However, I would like to see the return of the Monarchy to Hawaii, with a strong leader who cares for its people and culture. NOT JUST A FIGURE HEAD!
Lin saysJuly 28, 2018 at 7:11 am
I agree wholeheartedly with you Pat Reidy! The Royal Family descendents should be in the Iolani Palace so that the next in line Monarch be able to help the Hawaiian citizens.
It saddens me that Hawaii was taken over, originally bombarded by westerners, who brought so much disease to all tropical islanders, which they had very little resistance to, causing so many to perish! Then the way that they forcefully took over and ousted the royal family! There is absolutely no reason that they couldn’t have worked together for the benefit of Hawaii!
I am a multi racial American, my maternal GreatgreatGrandmother was a full blooded Cherokee Native American. She was one of few children who survived The Trail of Tears…another travesty and horrible history that was devised by a thoughtless and uncaring American government. It brought so much devastation and caused over 4,000 deaths of my Cherokee ancestors!
It is extremely shameful the way that Native Americans, who were here and in Hawaii and other tropical islands first, were treated by those who invaded their country! I just don’t understand why some of my Caucasian ancestors didn’t try to acclimate and settle more peacefully, without doing so much harm! Evidently, there were just too many who were corrupt and greedy and just wanted to forcefully take over completely!
(Much like what is going on today)!! The U.S.A. is in great danger, all due to those who are Not serving the Citizens of America
and are only in office to benefit themselves! History repeating itself unfortunately!
I know that God has it all in His hands…I pray that He helps us and in turn the world, soon!
In Gods Love,
Anna Baker saysJanuary 24, 2019 at 3:05 pm
May I just say, in case no one is aware, the actual recognized heir to the throne is Prince Quentin Kawananakoa and not Abigail. It is written in history from the time of Kalakaua that the descendents of Prince David Kawananakoa would be the legitimate heirs to the throne. Abigail was adopted and her side was never mentioned. And another point is that there are numerous descendents alive today who would be eligible to lead and if there ever was a restoration of the Monarchy, the Council of Chiefs and the people would choose the next leader.