Ernest Hemingway, Robert Louis Stevenson And The Hau Tree Lanai - Honolulu Civil Beat


About the Author

Keith Rollman

Keith Rollman is a long-time resident of Hawaii who recently relocated to Killeen, Texas. He is a veteran of Honolulu’s advertising industry and is still active as a marketing and communications consultant.


In 2018, after living in Hawaii for over 50 years, I relocated to Texas. I just completed my first trip back to Honolulu in three years — to catch up with old friends and visit familiar places.

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As a fledgling tourist, I decided to stay in the “quiet” end of Waikiki tucked between Kaimana Beach and the Outrigger Canoe Club. The Hau Tree Lanai Bar became my de facto base of operations where I checked in almost daily.

Most of the things about Honolulu that have changed in the past three years are related to Covid-19 in one way or another.

Getting through the airport was like crossing the border to Israel in the movie “World War Z.” Going to a restaurant or bar was only slightly less onerous, with temperature checks, document inspections and contact tracing forms.

That is, if the restaurant you were aiming at was still there. I batted about 50-50 on favorite spots: Murphy’s still going strong, but O’Toole’s seems down for the count. St. Louis Drive In was looking the same as always. The streets were filled with masked people, with smiles either hidden or gone.

Mayor Rick Blangiardi’s 9:30 p.m. last call for drinks rule is confounding. (Last week, new rules allowed serving drinks until midnight.) But, much of Honolulu, despite a new condo tower here and there, looked very, very familiar.

Ernest Hemingway on safari, Kenya, 1954.
Ernest Hemingway on safari, Kenya, 1954. Wikimedia Commons

Lawrence Downes of The New York Times once wrote, “What separates Hawaii from the beach-and-beer nowheres like Fort Lauderdale and Cancun: a complicated soul.” I was really back here to explore those things about Hawaii I had not yet discovered in my mere 50 years as a kamaaina.

The crew at the Hau Tree Lanai was very good at dispensing local trivia that I had not previously encountered. One of the first nuggets of info came from a waiter.

“Ernest Hemingway wrote part of a book under that hau tree,” he said, pointing at the middle tree.

I had never heard of Hemingway being in Hawaii, so I immediately did the mandatory internet sleuthing. My first Google search — “Hemingway in Hawaii” — yielded an actual book entitled, you guessed it, “Hemingway In Hawaii” by Ray Pace.

Papa was here, all right, in 1941, on a delayed honeymoon with his third wife and fellow war correspondent Martha Gellhorn. He was irritated by the constant clamor of reporters and well-meaning purveyors of aloha. It is reported that both Hemingway and Gellhorn had 18 lei each before they got more than a few steps off the Matsonia.

The short-fused Hemingway snorted, “I had never had no filthy Christed flowers around my neck before and the next son of a bitch who touches me I am going to cool him.”

Gellhorn was only slightly more diplomatic: “This is a place where hospitality is a curse and no one can be alone.”

I guess the honeymoon was a bust.

‘Bohemian Crank’

So, if Hemingway was in Hawaii, staying at the Halekulani just down the beach, it was possible he might have visited the famous hau trees at Kaimana. The next morning I booked breakfast at the table nearest the designated hau tree in hopes that some of Hemingway’s muses might still be lingering in the area, sufficient to improve my meager writing skills.

No such luck. The bar manager, Jen, was not impressed with my theory, stating simply, “It was Robert Louis Stevenson, and that tree.” She pointed to a tree on the far left.

Back to the laptop. Described as a “Bohemian crank” by his detractors, Robert Louis Stevenson had spent time in Waikiki in 1889 and 1893. His presence at the McInerny estate, now the site of the Kaimana Beach Hotel (and Hau Tree Lanai), is well documented.

Papa was here, all right, in 1941, on a delayed honeymoon with his third wife.

In fact, he wrote about enjoying the McInerny’s lanai under the hau trees: “An open room or summer parlour, partly surrounded with venetian shutters, in part quite open, which is the living room.”

This verifies RLS wrote poetry squarely under the 150-year-old hau trees.

Hemingway as well as other famous authors like Mark Twain and Jack London had certainly roamed the area and could have wandered under those mystical hau trees, but there is no proof. One thing is for certain, they all fell under the magic of Hawaii’s “complicated soul.”

Well, Hemingway not so much.

Robert Lewis Stevenson and friends, but not under a hau tree.
Robert Louis Stevenson and friends, but not under a hau tree. 

At the dawn of his literary career (1866), a 31-year-old Mark Twain sent his “Letters from the Sandwich Islands” to the Sacramento Union. Twain found Hawaii to be exciting and fun. He even attempted to surf with naked local women, but lamented, “When I got into the surf, they got out.”

Mesmerized by Hawaiians in the surf, he wrote, “None but natives ever master the art of surf-bathing thoroughly.”

Jack London fared better. His vivid descriptions of hee nalu (wave sliding) are widely considered one of the primary reasons the sport transplanted to California in the early 1900s. Upon seeing his first Hawaiian surfer in 1907, he mused, “He is Mercury — a brown Mercury. His heels are winged, and in them is the swiftness of the sea.”

That would make me want to surf.

London sat, perhaps at the hau trees by Kaimana, surveying the pristine beach at Waikiki and wistfully surmised, ”Some day Waikiki Beach is going to be one long hotel.’’

Today, the view from the Hau Tree Lanai sadly validates his prophecy. However, he also said, “Somehow, the love of the Islands, like the love of a woman, just happens.”

It still does.

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About the Author

Keith Rollman

Keith Rollman is a long-time resident of Hawaii who recently relocated to Killeen, Texas. He is a veteran of Honolulu’s advertising industry and is still active as a marketing and communications consultant.


Latest Comments (0)

I loved your prose! Being a Kamaaina myself, I had moved away and moved back as well.    I found your writing made me think of the times in the 70's I would sit and gaze at old newspapers at Leeward Community College. I found Hawaii history fascinating and would come back often when parents allowed, to read more and more. They were all on microfiche then and so much easier to read then going on a website and waiting for each page to pull up, but that's another article. Thank you!   

Perseus · 1 week ago

Dined at Hau Tree Lanai on several occasions but not since many years ago. Good to hear that they are still operating. Always had a great experience.

trekadmiral · 1 week ago

Eh, I wondered wea da Atomic Monkey wen stay.

CatManapua · 1 week ago

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