There are few visitors to Oahu who haven’t seen the bronze statue of Duke Paoa Kahinu Mokoe Hulikohola Kahanamoku at Kuhio Beach. It’s a major landmark, and even serves as a stop for the myriad trolleys and shuttles that roll in and out of Waikiki. His arms are outstretched, as though welcoming everyone to Hawaii.
But even for many people who live here, it’s hard to separate the real Kahanamoku–Olympic swimmer, famous surfer, Honolulu Sheriff, world-renowned “Ambassador of Aloha”–from his likeness on Kalakaua Avenue. Unlike, say, Eddie Aikau, Duke seems remote, a product of an era long gone. This is hardly surprising–born in the last years of the Hawaiian kingdom, Kahanamoku died at the end of Hawaii’s first decade as a state.
Part of the reason for this is a near-complete lack of authoritative, modern scholarship on Kahanamoku’s life and legacy. But now there’s a new book out that seeks to strip away the mythology and folklore surrounding Kahanamoku and reveal the real man beneath. It’s called Waterman: The Life and Times of Duke Kahanamoku, and its author is David Davis, who’s also written tomes on Los Angeles sports photography, the 1908 Olympics and Merry Lepper, the first woman to run a marathon.
Waterman’s official release date is Oct. 1, and last week I spoke to Davis by phone to find why he decided to write about one of Hawaii’s most famous personalities, and what challenges he faced.
MAUITIME: Why write about Duke Kahanamoku?
DAVID DAVIS: The impetus really came from research I was doing on my previous book–Showdown at Shepherd’s Bush–on the 1908 Olympics. It was on three marathon runners, but there was a little bit of overlap with the 1912 Olympics. So I did some research on the 1912 Olympics, and founds lots of information on Jim Thorpe. But I also found that though not the star, but certainly the number two or number three star, was Duke Kahanamoku.
MT: So you started reading up on Kahanamoku…
DD: Honestly, I didn’t see a great, comprehensive biography of Duke. Frankly, what I saw was a lot of hagiography–some had good research, but they weren’t serious works. This was three years ago.
But this was a great story. I’m a journalist, so I go where the stories are. I thought I’d give it a shot. I was lucky to sell a book in this market.
MT: What sort of research did you do on the book?
DD: A lot of the research was done in Hawaii–I made many trips over there. I did lots of research at the Bishop Museum and the archives in Honolulu. I also tried to reach out to relatives and friends of Duke who are still alive. That was met with mixed results. Some didn’t want to speak for whatever reason. Some were of advanced age. But I did as much as I could do.
I tracked down any interview he did. He even did one in Upstate New York. I went to Duke University to look at [his friend and possible lover] Doris Duke’s papers.
MT: What did you find?
DD: The swimming stuff, the Olympics–they were covered very well. But his surfing, not so much. Certainly in the beginning, he’s more associated with swimming–his fame comes from the Olympics. But by the ‘60s, he’s known for surfing. Part of this has to do with a promoter he has working for him. He forms the Duke Kahanamoku Surf Team. The Duke Kahanamoku Invitational starts on the North Shore.
He was in his 70s, but was still part of the scene. It adopted him, and proclaimed him the father of surfing, and he stepped into it.
MT: Sounds pretty straightforward.
DD: But he himself was a challenging character to write about. He very much valued silence. He was not someone who would be Mr. Confessional and talk about his feelings, setbacks. That was certainly a challenge.
MT: What about diaries, letters?
DD: There were some letters, at the archives, at the Bishop Museum. He wrote a diary of his trip to Australia. But it was about what he saw and did, not felt.
MT: That would pose a challenge to a biographer.
DD: Here’s an example. It’s been reported that he experienced racism, that he was refused service in certain places. But I looked high and low, and I couldn’t find him saying anything about that. People witnessed it, but they were the ones telling the story, not Duke.
Now one of the things I like to think I drew out was his role as a race pioneer in sports. This was before Joe Louis, before Jesse Owens. He faced racism, but he was able to integrate. At the time, certain Southern California beaches were reserved for whites only. But Duke surfed everywhere; he didn’t let that stop him. The Outrigger Canoe Club also snubbed him–it was written about at the time, because he was the greatest athlete in the islands. But eventually he became a member, and it became his home away from home.
MT: Did you delve into Hawaiian language sources?
DD: I don’t speak Hawaiian. I’m sure there are interviews he did in Hawaiian that I wasn’t able to access.
MT: How long did you work on the book?
DD: I started research in 2011. I started writing it full time in 2012, and I was done in the spring of this year.
MT: Did anything about Kahanamoku surprise you as you were working on the book?
DD: I may sound naive, but I didn’t realize how big he was in Hawaii. There’s a quote from an old sportswriter named Bob Considine. When he went to Hawaii in the ‘30s or the ‘40s, he wrote, “Duke is Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey combined.” That’s pretty accurate. This was another challenge–all the mythic status that surrounds him to this day.
But I also think that Duke is totally underrated in terms of sports icons in American history. He helped make swimming a popular sport at the Olympics–you can attribute that to Duke. He was also a kind of Johnny Appleseed of surfing. And you don’t have skateboarding without surfing. You don’t have snowboarding without surfing. He was also one of the pioneers of stand-up paddling, long before it caught on. He’s underrated in the big picture.
MT: Did anything you find out about Kahanamoku disturb you?
DD: I don’t know about being disturbed. I think I found some of the actions around him disturbing. I think today there’s an effort to keep him on a pedestal and maybe not talk about his foibles or business setbacks or affairs with women–what happens in Waikiki, stays in Waikiki. I wasn’t out to slam somebody, I just wanted to tell a good story. But there was an effort to keep all that off-limits.
We’re at an age where it’s okay for our heroes to have setbacks. Not everyone is perfect. I’ll give you an example: Duke is known as an ambassador of aloha. I think that term has been bandied about, and it conjures up an image of big smiles and everything being hunky-dory. He did talk about this–welcoming the world, aloha, may have gone too far. Well, the world came, and sort of trashed Waikiki. It built it up in many ways I don’t think he saw as paradise.
MT: Why hasn’t there been a comprehensive look at Kahanamoku before this?
DD: I did find this in his papers: he did not want a biography on him. He turned down several well-known writers who wanted to write a book on him. Towards the end of his life, there were books by Joe Brennan. But Joe was a friend. Sandy Hall is a Duke historian and was good friends with his widow. She’s been working on a book for a decade.
I think people did want to, but they were friends. I think that was part of it. But I don’t know the answer to it. Maybe Nebraska Press, when I started, saw this as a great story that needs to be told. I want to pay respect to Duke, but also examine him as a human being and athlete as best as I can.
I hope this will be the first one, and there will be other books. Look at Jim Thorpe–there are three, four, five books about him. I don’t think the story’s done–I’m sure there’s lots of stuff I didn’t get to.
MT: Was there anything you wish you could have done when working on the book but didn’t get to?
DD: I’m happy to admit that I feel I’m still learning. Every time I look at it, I want one more draft… But there was a competitor that Duke raced against. Recently I heard his papers are in Chicago. Oh no! I also didn’t get to Switzerland, another great repository of Olympic material.
MT: How do you sum up Kahanamoku’s legacy?
DD: It’s multi-layered. He was the father of modern surfing, and in a sense, surf culture and the lifestyle. You can also extrapolate skateboarding and snowboarding. I think he’s the godfather of those.
He’s also a pioneer of race in sports. He’s alongside Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson. He’s in that realm.
And to bring it back to Hawaii, I don’t think there’s another athlete who’s so intrinsically tied to place than Duke. You could say Derek Jeter, but he didn’t grow up in New York and lives in Florida now. But Duke’s life–he was born in 1890, died in 1968–encompasses what Hawaii went through. I don’t know of any other athlete who competed in that respect.
By David Davis
University of Nebraska Press
Click here to read an excerpt of the book.
Cover design: Darris Hurst
Cover photo: Bain News Service/Wikimedia Commons