Shangri La and The Heiress

Modeled after her vision of  James Hilton’s Lost Horizon, the Shangri La estate of tobacco heiress Doris Duke sits on five secluded acres oceanside in Hawaii with a view of Diamond Head.  Built as an escape from New York City society, Duke’s Hawaii estate became a repository for her collection of Islamic art and her retreat in old age.

Now administered by the Honolulu Academy of Arts, the house with its collection of tiles, furniture, silks, gardens, and replicas of Persian ceilings  has some of the most spectacular views in Hawaii.  The neighborhood is exclusive, but Jim Nabors lives next door,  local children jump off the seawall by the house, and locals fish off the old yacht pier nearby.

Aside from her money, travels, estates, and art collections, Doris Duke was notorious in her day.  When she left billions to her butler, relatives appeared from everywhere to challenge her will. Her trysts with Duke Kahanamoku, the  Olympic medals winner whose god-like statue looms over Waikiki beach, were legend, and he frequently swam in the olympic size pool on her estate.

The museum docents are careful to focus on the beauty of Duke’s art collection, her continuing philanthropic legacy, and her house and gardens as her living memorial – Duke’s ashes were scattered in the ocean by her estate. Doris Duke’s Shangri La is sold in the museum shop and carefully avoids any negative comments.  The photographs and illustrations include the house and its treasures, along with pictures of the heiress.

For an insider’s tale of Duke’s raunchy escapades, assorted lovers, and scandals as well as her mysterious death, try Too Rich: the Family Secrets of Doris Duke, written by her cousin and godson, Pony Duke.

Honolulu by Alan Brennert

No matter if you are from Asia or a citizen of mainland United States, coming to live in Hawaii makes you an outsider – even today.  In the early 1900s, before the islands became a state, Hawaii represented paradise and an opportunity to start over.

In Honolulu, Alan Brennert uses the life of a young Korean immigrant who sells herself as a mail-order bride to a Korean farm laborer working in Hawaii.  Known as a “picture-bride,”  she hoped to escape her unfulfilled life in Korea, find the promised land and a better life.  Instead, she finds a different kind of suppression with an alcoholic, abusive husband.

Eventually, Regret (named so because her parents wanted a boy) finds the American dream.  Throughout, she is cast as the girl with initiative – learning to read when it was forbidden, divorcing her husband, earning her own living by first working in the fields, later as a seamstress in the red light district and in the pineapple cannery. Eventually, she marries again, has three children, starts a credit cooperative, and invents the Aloha shirt.

Brennert weaves in historical details that cast a realistic pall on the tropical paradise – it’s not all coconut palms, sunsets, and blue ocean.  If you are familiar with local haunts, you will relish references to Liliha (Bakery) Cafe, Duke Kahanamoku, houses on Wilhelmina Rise, and high rises on Ala Moana.  If you know Hawaii’s history, you will recognize references to Queen Liliuokalani and the plantations.  Brennert even manages to weave the infamous Massie trial into the story.

Told in the voice of Regret, the narrative can be difficult to follow and too long – might be easier to listen to it on audiotape.  The story follows a familiar and formulaic plot line with requisite sprinkles of  Hawaiian song and culture.  Brennert is not Michener (Hawaii)  or even Paul Theroux (Hotel Honolulu), but he tries his best to create a saga with tropical seasoning.