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Abigail Kekaulike Kawananakoa has long had a knack for stealing headlines and public attention in Hawaii.
Her storied lifetime has included a romantic engagement with a dashing polo star, a string of wins by her thoroughbred horses, a bankruptcy, the mysterious death of a female visitor to her home, a run-in with an imposter who tried to assume her identity and who stole her tax refund from the Internal Revenue Service, and her emergence several decades ago as one of the financial driving forces behind the social and cultural transformation called the Hawaiian Renaissance.
And that’s not all.
An heiress to the Campbell estate, the 91-year-old Kawananakoa also claims descent from one of the most elite surviving Hawaiian alii families, a line that can trace its heritage back to a powerful chief named Kekaulike whose descendants, including Kamehameha, ruled over many of the islands. That lineage is why she has come to be known as the last Hawaiian princess, a title she calls herself.
In recent months, Kawananakoa has landed in the middle of a dispute over her $200 million estate, which she had long planned to donate to Hawaiian causes and cultural preservation.
In August, she fired her long-time attorney, Jim Wright, a trustee for the Kawananakoa estate, and then sought a court gag order to prevent him from sharing sensitive details about her life with her younger partner, Veronica Gail Worth, who Wright is accusing of physical and financial elder abuse of the elderly Hawaiian heiress. She said she is doing just fine. The state attorney general is investigating the situation.
And then earlier this month, Worth announced that the couple had tied the knot. The long-time companions were married in a private ceremony.
Startling developments, but in truth, though the Kawananakoa family had sought to avoid the limelight, the ups and downs of the dynasty have been front-page news in Hawaii for almost a century.
Civil Beat interviewed about a dozen people who know Kawananakoa, including some who have known her for decades, and others who know her more superficially. We also reviewed hundreds of local and national newspaper and magazine accounts about Kawananakoa and her family, including accounts as far back as the 1850s and up to the present. We dug through microfiche records and newspaper clippings in various public state libraries, the University of Hawaii, the state archives and the Bishop Museum as well as articles available through online news services.
Her current attorney, Michael Lilly, did not respond to an interview request for this story.
Abigail Kawananakoa, known to her friends as Kekaulike, or Kekau for short, was born in 1926. She grew up surrounded by opulence and power.
Her grandfather was David Kawananakoa, one of three famous brothers, all surfers, who were among several designated heirs to the Hawaiian throne. David married a woman named Abigail, who was an heiress to the immense Campbell fortune, and they had three children, one of whom was Kekau’s mother, Lydia.
David Kawananakoa died before Kekau was born. Lydia was a socialite who flitted from country to country, and baby Kekau was primarily raised by her matriarch grandmother, a common family pattern for Hawaiians.
From her grandfather came the alii status, from her grandmother came the money and the political clout. Grandmother Abigail’s wealth and political influence were legendary.
A stalwart Republican and a supporter of women’s suffrage, the elder Abigail had played an outsized role in island politics and in the relationship between the federal government and the territorial administration.
“It was said that nothing (affecting Hawaii) happened in Washington unless someone had called to find out what her opinions were,” recalled Roger Rose, a former curator for Bishop Museum who later worked for Kawananakoa.
On April 12, 1945, the day that grandmother Abigail died, news broke that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had suffered a fatal stroke, that Harry Truman had assumed the presidency, that the Japanese and Americans were engaged in hand-to-hand combat on Okinawa and that American troops were entering Berlin.
Even with that crush of world-changing news, a lengthy report on Abigail’s death appeared in a prominent place on the front page of the Honolulu Advertiser.
If anything, the younger Abigail, who inherited much of her grandmother’s money, has attracted even more attention than her grandmother did. Beautiful, brilliant, willful and imperious, Kawananakoa has stirred admiration, envy and hostility since she was born.
There has been much public praise, and much whispered criticism.
“She was as if she had been born at high noon in golden sunlight,” Hawaii memoirist Armine Von Tempski wrote about the young Kawananakoa in her popular 1940 book, “Born in Paradise.”
Four years ago, on the other hand, a petition on the website change.org drew more than 150 signers demanding that Abigail stop calling herself a princess, and charging that she “arrogantly flaunts her wealth at a time when most Hawaiians live in poverty.”
Kaui Lucas, an interviewer on ThinkTech whose family lived near the Kawananakoa estate in Honolulu and who is also of Hawaiian descent, likened Abigail to Princess Diana in terms of the attention she has attracted here in Hawaii.
“It’s the same thing,” she said. “We have a genetic fascination with royalty.”
The question of whether she is actually a royal or not adds to her mystique, with some people asserting she is and others saying she isn’t. Moreover, the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893 put an end to the royal succession.
But many Hawaiians maintain a sense of awe, respect and deference to Kawananakoa because of what could have been and because she is directly related to people who once ruled the Kingdom of Hawaii and the island kingdoms that preceded it.
“Her connection to Hawaiian royalty, as it is defined, makes her a link to the past,” said DeSoto Brown, a historian at Bishop Museum who is part Hawaiian and whose family has long been acquainted with the Kawananakoa family. “It adds more importance and significance to her role.”
In addition to her exalted Hawaiian lineage, however, Kawananakoa eventually became an heiress to the fortune of her grandmother, whose father was Hawaii industrialist James Campbell, an immigrant from Ireland. He was a sugar-plantation magnate, and the company he formed, later known as the Campbell Estate, at one point owned one-fifth of the island of Oahu. More recently, the company was a developer of Kapolei, Oahu’s so-called Second City. In 1999, the Campbell Estate was worth an estimated $3 billion.
Under the terms of James Campbell’s will, the trust began to be dissolved in 2007, a 10-year process that ended this year. His descendants shared in the proceeds, with Kawananakoa receiving the largest single share, or 12.5 percent of the total, according to news articles in Honolulu newspapers.
Once she came into her inheritance, Kawananakoa became known as a generous philanthropist who helped spur the Hawaiian Renaissance by supporting cultural, arts and Hawaiian-language instruction. She has paid for travel expenses and camp costs of the protesters blocking telescope construction on Mauna Kea. She stepped in as president of the Friends of Iolani Palace, a group that her mother had founded, and helped pay for the refurbishment of the palace, which included searching for lost historic furnishings and buying them back. She also helps subsidize the popular Merrie Monarch hula competition held in Hilo each year.
She sometimes offers help to people before they have even had a chance to ask, some people said. Sometimes she helps people secretly. Many have publicly acknowledged her financial assistance.
“We recognize her stewardship as very alii-like and we aloha her for that and hope that others can look to her and see the value of our efforts,” Kamahana Kealoha, a supporter of the Mauna Kea protest effort, wrote in 2015.
But she has also been noted for the alacrity with which she withdraws financial support from people who have angered her.
“She has quite a royal view of things,” Rose said. “If she doesn’t like them, she gets rid of them. A lot of people have had encounters with her. That’s how she grew up, as a privileged young woman.”
In 1998, Kawananakoa posed for a picture sitting on the throne in Iolani Palace, for a photo spread to accompany an article in Life magazine.
Kawananakoa was also quoted calling herself “the big cheese” because of her royal heritage, which irritated people.
Historic preservationists were irate, saying she had damaged the deteriorating silk and linen fabric on the chair.
The managing director of Iolani Palace, Jim Bartels, resigned over the dispute, and many of the palace volunteers circulated a petition asking for him to be reinstated. Kawananakoa was ousted as president of the Friends of Iolani Palace and resigned from the board.
“They asked me for my head and I gave it to them,” she told reporters, according to the Honolulu Star-Bulletin on August 5, 1998. She later mended fences and remained a key benefactor to the palace.
Until this month, Kawananakoa had not married, although she always had many admirers. Back in the 1950s, she was engaged to a man named Peter Perkins, a handsome male model who was a star on the Oahu polo team. They did not marry, however, and he instead moved to Argentina, where he trained polo ponies and eventually won his way into the Polo Hall of Fame in 2014.
Abigail’s family has been noted for its athleticism, and she follows in the same pattern. Her ancestor Kaumualii was known as the best swimmer in the islands, a rare distinction in a place where many people are gifted at water sports. Her grandfather, David, together with his brothers, is said to have first introduced surfing to California when they were students in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Abigail, a talented swimmer who broke school records during her girlhood years at Punahou, is a horsewoman who rides, breeds and races thoroughbred horses. In 1993, her horse, Classic Dash, won a $1.9 million purse in a California race known as the All American Futurity, the most lucrative event for quarter horses, which race short, quick sprints.
But Kawananakoa has also made headlines for darker reasons.
In 1964, a petite British woman died in Kawananakoa’s home. According to press accounts, the woman, Valerie Wallace-Milroy, arrived on Christmas Day for a visit and was found dead in bed at Kawananakoa’s Nuuanu home on Jan. 4. Her death was ruled a “probable suicide,” the Star-Bulletin reported on Jan. 16, 1964.
Kawananakoa never commented publicly on the death.
In 1997, Kawananakoa filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, according to articles in the Honolulu Advertiser and Star-Bulletin, listing a number of creditors including the Internal Revenue Service, which said she owed about $5 million to the federal government.
When she appeared in bankruptcy court, Hawaii Supreme Court Justice Robert Klein accompanied her, an unusual appearance by a sitting judge in another court. Klein said he was supporting her as a relative.
Kawananakoa made the news again in 2004 when a cafeteria worker in Pennsylvania tried to take her identity, adamantly claiming she herself was Princess Abigail, and managed to convince workers at the IRS to send her the $2.1 million tax refund that was supposed to go to Kawananakoa. The government managed to recover most of the money.
In her younger adult years, Kawananakoa spent much of her time in California and in Europe, but her profile rose on the islands as she took on a more prominent role supporting Hawaiian art and culture and speaking out for the needs of Native Hawaiians. In the mid-1980s, she became a more visible presence in Hawaii, advocating for reforms at the Hawaiian Homes Commission, according to a Midweek article on Sept. 24, 1986.
Some Hawaiians welcomed her intervention and others resented her, Roger Rose, the former Bishop Museum curator, said.
“She doesn’t look Hawaiian,” Rose said. “She looks like a white lady. For many years she lived on the mainland. When she came back, people thought she was an intruder, and she had to fight her way back.”
The most damning criticism from a Hawaiian source came in the form of a poison pen novel written in 1992 by a formerly close friend of Abigail, Billie Beamer, a former trustee of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and a member of the prominent Beamer clan of musicians and historians. Beamer wrote a self-published fiction book, “The Royal Torch,” loosely modeled on Abigail’s life, that contained many descriptions of wild parties and heavy drinking. In its pages, some local readers detected similarities to events that had occurred in the lives of Kawananakoa and close family members.
Kawananakoa was not happy about it but she took it in stride. After years in the spotlight, she has developed a thick hide.
“She said, ‘it doesn’t bother me, I’ve been called every name in the book,’” Rose recalled.
One thing is for sure: People will always be talking about Kekau.
“We’ll always be interested in what’s going on with her,” said Brown, the Bishop Museum historian. “It can be the nice things or the troubles as well. Her story will continue to fascinate people.”