Denby Fawcett: Hospitalized And Gravely Ill, This Hawaiian Princess Is Intent On Sharing Her Wealth - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views.

When I saw Oahu Auctions and Liquidation advertising an auction of “the contents of Princess Abigail Kawananakoa’s Historic Punaluu Summer Home,” I wondered if she was still alive.

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After making some calls, I found out that Kawananakoa is gravely ill at The Queen’s Medical Center, according to close friends of hers.

They say the 96-year-old Campbell Estate heiress fell at her home, which caused her already fragile condition to deteriorate. She had been unwell since she suffered a stroke in 2017.

Her name evokes memories of a person larger than life who was at the center of so many news stories I covered.

Abigail Kinoiki Kekaulike Kawananakoa, known to friends as Kekau, had been a friend of my late parents. As a child I admired her from afar when I saw her at Town and Country Stables, then located in Kapiolani Park where the upper tennis courts are now.

We shared a love of horses. Kekau was a beautiful blond woman, a skilled rider and movie star-like presence who was often at the stables and in the park to watch the polo matches and polo player Peter Perkins, with whom she was in love.

She did not pay any attention to me, one of the many kids hanging around the stables. But when I grew up and became a news reporter, our paths crossed and we enjoyed talking about the good old days when we each could ride our horses down the beach and keep them near our houses, always ready to go out for a gallop.

She also liked talking to me about the dashing Peter Perkins, I think because I was the only reporter around who remembered him.

Perkins was a nine-goal polo player — a cavalry man in World War II who survived the Bataan Death March.

During the death march, Perkins and his comrades had to eat their horses to keep from starving to death. I thought how horrible that must have been for a man who loved horses.

Kawananakoa was engaged to Perkins but they never wed.

Those were the days in Territorial Hawaii when life was simpler and Kawananakoa had not yet inherited a large fortune from the estate of her great grandfather James Campbell, a Scots-Irish businessman who used his sugar manufacturing profits to buy real estate, becoming one of Hawaii’s largest landowners.

She was just Kekau Kawananakoa then, not Princess Abigail Kawananakoa or the Princess, as she came to be called deferentially by respectful Hawaiians. More of an honorific than a real title because the Hawaiian Kingdom was overthrown in 1893.

SP_44747_600ppi; People. Kawananakoa, David. 1894-1908, folder 3.
Abigail Kawananakoa was a skilled rider with a movie star presence. Photo by Joe Pacheco, Bishop Museum

Royal Blood, But Sympathy For Workers

Kawananakoa on her Hawaiian grandmother’s side was the great-grand-niece of King David Kalakaua and Queen Kapiolani. Even though some made much of her royal heritage, it was highly speculative to say if the Hawaiian Kingdom were miraculously restored she would have ascended to the throne.

She was not always an heiress. She told me after she finished a few years of studies at Dominican College in San Rafael, California, and another year at the University of Hawaii, her grandmother made her get a job. She worked first at Bishop Bank, the forerunner of First Hawaiian Bank, and then in 1945-47 for the Territorial Legislature.

Her employment and school vacation jobs cleaning horse stalls at a ranch on the Big Island left her with a respect for work.

Years later, in a defiant show of regard for the working man, she donated the maximum amount she could to candidate Bob Hogue, the GOP opponent of her nephew Quentin Kawananakoa, in a 2nd Congressional District primary race in 2006 after nephew Kawananakoa criticized Hogue for working at MidWeek.

She told the astonished Quentin that, unlike him, Hogue had to work for a living.

Her great grandfather Campbell was wealthy but he became truly rich after he purchased 41,000 acres of arid land in Ewa that his critics scoffed at as worthless. After the purchase, he hired a water expert from California who dug Hawaii’s first artesian well, transforming the barren acres with massive amounts of fresh water into highly productive agricultural land. After that, Campbell became known by Hawaiians as “Kimo Ona-Milliona” (James the Millionaire).

Kekau Kawananakoa began to inherit money from Campbell Estate after the death of her mother in 1969 — living on a sizable annual income that rose each year in sync with the expanding fortunes of the James Campbell Co.

A Love Of Horses

Much of her inheritance was spent on what gave her pleasure: prize-winning American quarter horses.

The quarter horse is considered a truly American horse, the steed of the cowboy, a sprinter known for its ability to outrun other horses for distances of a quarter of a mile or less.

Kawananakoa’s champions won her prize money in the two biggest quarter-horse races in the United States. But the animals, including her favorite named Evening Snow, were also part of the reason she had to apply for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 1997.

She had lavished millions of dollars on the horses. She also spent money on friends, buying them homes and treating them to trips and entertainment. The horse stables she owned in Hawaii, California and Washington were expensive, state-of-the-art.

She inherited the bulk of her wealth in 2007 when the Campbell Estate trust was dissolved.

She emerged from bankruptcy the next year with all her debts and $5 million in back taxes paid off.

She inherited the bulk of her wealth in 2007 when the Campbell Estate trust was dissolved. Her money today is estimated to have grown to $300 million to $400 million.

In 2007, the year she received this windfall, I was at Iolani Palace to interview her about another issue when I decided on the spur of the moment to ask her about her finances.

Kawananakoa was direct and very clear about where she wanted her money to go after her death.

“All I can say is for the rest of my life and whatever means I have at my disposal I will use for the benefit of the Hawaiian people,” she said.

As far as I know, I am the only news reporter she has ever spoken to on the record about what she hopes will be her legacy.

She said she intended to donate funds to make sure that Hawaiian history was taught in an authentic way using primary sources such as documents and letters, not from the secondary sources so often employed in classrooms today.

She said she would also give funds for the protection and advancement of Hawaiian hula, a cultural tradition she worried had become commercialized to please visitors.

In addition, she said she would fund institutions furthering the instruction of the Hawaiian language which she worried had become slangy and not authentic.

“I have always known what I wanted to do,” she said. “I have always wanted to help the Hawaiian people.”

A Plan To Distribute The Wealth

People close to Kawananakoa said in her later years, she came to realize as a major beneficiary of a land trust it was her responsibility to follow the Hawaiian traditions of centuries before as exemplified in the trusts of Bernice Pauahi Bishop and Queen Emma, who upheld the belief that the fruits of the land are for the benefit of the many, not just a few individuals.

Unlike European royalty, Hawaiian alii believe that the wealth they inherited was not for their personal benefit but rather to be managed and preserved to help all Hawaiians.

“I have always known what I wanted to do. I have always wanted to help the Hawaiian people.” — Abigail Kawananakoa

Before, her philanthropy had been generous but often spontaneous, not strategically planned.

For example, her employees said she read the newspaper from cover to cover every morning, and when moved by a report about a particularly needy case, she would — on the spur of the moment — reach out anonymously to help.

She was particularly touched by families struggling to pay medical expenses for their critically ill children or people who did not have enough money to pay for their relatives’ funerals and burials.

When Iolani Palace called to say it needed help to pay its electricity bills, she would quickly step in.

Kawananakoa turned heads in October 2007 when at a fundraiser to help the palace she made an astounding, spontaneous bid of $100,000 for the right to hold a fancy dinner on the palace terrace catered by chef Alan Wong with music by the Brothers Cazimero.

She told me in an interview afterward that the purpose of her winning bid was to see that the party never happened.

She called the idea of renting out parts of Iolani Palace sacrilegious; crass like Bill and Hillary Clinton accepting money from donors eager to sleep in Abraham Lincoln’s bedroom.

To organize her philanthropic efforts, she formed a foundation to begin to plan how to distribute to charities benefiting Hawaiians the money left after her death when all her bequests and debts were paid. Today the board of the foundation includes retired judges Patrick Yim and Derrick Chan and professor Lilikala Kameeleihiwa and Hawaiian community leader Jan Dill.

Abigail Kawananakoa talks story with Governor George Ariyoshi. Veronica Gail Worth is seated to the right of Kawananakoa. 27 aug 2015
Kawananakoa’s stroke in 2017 led to a court battle over whether she was capable of handling her own affairs. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

When she had her stroke in 2017, her attorney Jim Wright petitioned in court to have her declared incapable of handling her trust affairs to carry out the succession plan she placed in her trust documents, including her charitable giving.

Veronica Kawananakoa — Abigail’s companion of 20 years and now her wife — then launched a bitter dispute with Wright, hiring her own attorneys to claim the then-91-year-old heiress was capable of taking care of her finances.

In 2020, after almost three years of legal hearings, Judge James Ashford ruled that Kawananakoa was too impaired “to manage her property and business affairs.”

Now her revocable living trust is managed by successor trustee Wright pending its transfer to First Hawaiian Bank as trustee.

Everything else outside of the trust has been placed under the court-appointed conservatorship of retired Hawaiian Electric executive Robbie Alm.

There is no way to return to the peaceful days when hours could be passed joyously riding horses down white sand beaches, but there is comfort in knowing that the legacy Abigail Kinoiki Kekaulike Kawananakoa grew to understand was her duty as an alii will be upheld for the benefit of the many rather than the few.

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About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views.

Latest Comments (0)

Denby Fawcett - Your article brought tears to my eyes. I have followed your pen for several decades and have not previously commented. You are the acme of Hawaiian journalists for the subject matter that you have covered. I nominate you to author the Princess' biography. Not sure she is able to sanction the effort as being 'official', however if she were able I have every confidence she would give you the nod. Any seconds?

Sava · 1 year ago

I pray that Princess Kawanakoa is comfortable and not sufferingGod Bless you Princess for everything you have done for our people or have tried to do and mahalo Denby for sharing.Be wellIn Aloha🥰🥰🥰

Kumuhonua1 · 1 year ago

I'm grateful for attorney Jim Wright and Judge Mark Browning, without whose excellent counsel and ruling, there could have been a disastrous outcome.

cavan8 · 1 year ago

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