Saturday, July 5, 2014

Love Among the Coconuts

The hula that stole a heart

A lot of people, Americans and Japanese, go to Hawaii to get married and honeymoon.  We saw a couple of seaside weddings while we were there, and with the consistently perfect weather and bright blue sea on Maui's southwest coast, it's obviously a great choice.  One couple, still remembered fondly almost a hundred years later, did not come to Hawaii and never married, but their lives were a storybook romance.

Today by Keawa'iki Bay on the shore of the Big Island the remains of an estate built in the 1920s, a dozen stone buildings that are only accessible by water, would remind you of Gatsby's if you knew its story.  Francis I'i Brown was not only a championship worldwide golfer, a legislator, and an all-around sportsman, but also a descendant of an advisor to Kings Kamehamea II through IV, and thus a member of the nobility, the ali'i, who still occupy the top level of local society.  His family had once owned a big chunk of Oahu, including Pearl Harbor; the the estate land on Keawa'iki Bay was once royal.  A baseball fan and initmate of film stars, photos exist today of Francis gripping and grinning with Babe Ruth and a young Bob Hope, among dozens of others, and surfing godfather Duke Kahanamoku was a longtime friend.

His already pretty spectacular life was changed forever when he was among the first guests at the new (1927) Royal Hawaiian Hotel at Waikiki.  He caught sight of  popular hula dancer Winona Love who was starring at the grand opening with Johnny Noble's orchestra.  The story goes they fell in love while strolling through the Queen's old coconut palm grove by the hotel.  Winona was also ali'i, her mother being of the royal family, so their match would seem perfect, but her mother supposedly would not approve of marriage.  Poor Gatsby was denied Daisy, too, but like Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies, this couple stayed together for the rest of their lives.

Francis I'i Brown

Introduced to Hollywood by Francis, Winona was in two short films and taught Delores del Rio to hula for the film "Bird of Paradise" at the request of David O. Selznick.  Their golden koa wood bed survives today, as does a set of eight engraved silver goblets.  They never had children, but relatives and friends recall their sunny lives and legendary parties in many stories; one visitor remembers that a mynah bird greeted Mr. Brown every morning.

Almost too much like a fairy tale to be believed, Winona and Francis had hideaways on the estate like a pavilion on an island in the restored royal fish pond and a snug cottage nearby which is a popular spot for weddings today, now attached to the Mauna Lani resort.  Two championship golf courses there are named after Francis, and the resort's catamaran is the Winona.

If that story isn't enough to give love a good name, I don't know what is.

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