Julia Flynn Siler and Her Royal Highness Princess Abigail Kawananakoa.
By Julia Flynn Siler
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 stationary 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.
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