Tuesday, April 14, 2015


Hello, World.

Some nights when tradewinds blow I dream of Shangri La, the island home of Doris Duke near Diamond Head, outside Honolulu. It is where Doris should have died. Instead she died far away, essentially alone, with no friends or family. The same way Uncle 'Ono died.

What I want to tell you is how I, a keiki o ka 'aina (child of the land), a simple native Hawaiian girl, came to know Doris Duke, the tobacco heiress, once considered the ''richest woman in the world."

Doris Duke

Shangri La

I want to tell you how, out of guilt for breaking my uncle's heart, she took me under her wing when I first arrived in New York City from Honolulu. My dream had always been to live in Greenwich Village and write great, galloping novels that made readers weep. My family in Honolulu could not dissuade me from my dream, so Uncle 'Ono wrote to Doris, asking her to look after me.
Shangri La

She was sixty when I was first summoned to her Park Avenue penthouse, one of her many residences. Doris was exceptionally tall. Her eyes were startling, set wide apart. She saw immediately that I was in need of guidance. My clothes were wrong, my manners. I was twenty-one, an age when sixty seems very old, when youth gives one a sense of entitlement so we take everything for granted. By then I was so intoxicated with New York, nothing seemed to phase me, not even meeting Doris Duke.

To me she was just an aging heiress who had offered to ease my entry into the city. Looking back, I marvel at my insouciance, and ignorance. I didn't question how Uncle 'Ono, a simple Hawaiian cowboy, knew Doris, or how he had summoned the nerve to ask such a favor of her, or why she was so kind to me. She was divorced and childless then, and I thought that perhaps she saw me as a longed-for daughter. (Years later she did adopt a daughter, which proved to be a disaster.)

 Doris quietly set out to refine the 'rough island girl' in me. She taught me how to speak without over-gesturing, and to never call a waiter 'sir.' She taught me where to shop, where not to shop, and the importance of wearing expensive shoes. She arranged interviews, and I was hired at Harper's Bazaar as editorial assistant. The salary was laughable, but Doris was generous with her hand-me-downs: barely-worn Halstons, de la Rentas.

I came from an old, kama'aina Hawaiian family who traced their roots back to King Kamehameha. An uncle, the Honorable George Keli'iokalani Houghtailing, had been the City Planner of Honolulu for over twenty years. Though we were now working-class, my family history gave me a certain confidence, and once Doris felt I was presentable, she began introducing me to the 'right crowd,' which I eventually realized was the wrong crowd for me. A homegirl from Honolulu's tough precincts of Kalihi and Farrington High School, from warring gangs of mix-bloods and Samoans, in New York I was inevitably drawn to the counter-culture - punk rock groups, war protestors, hippies and druggies. I had found my precinct, and it was far from Doris Duke's Park Avenue address.

Still, I discovered she had a wildly artistic streak and a reputation for being eccentric, flamboyantly zany. She wore designer hats and dresses backward if they looked more interesting that way. She hand-painted orchids and peacocks on her custom-made Italian shoes. With common sewing thread, she mended cushions of Louis XV sofas which her dogs regularly chewed apart. She taught me how to brighten my eyes with orange juice. How to tighten my pores with Elmer's Glue. And above all, to never sunbathe again. "Or your face will end up looking like a testicle."

Even at sixty she was a rebel, ahead of her time. She had 'bi-racial' affairs, consulted Indian gurus, was a serious student of bellydancing, and basically supported a ragtag band of musicians with whom she played jazz piano. She also sang with the black gospel choir of a Baptist church, which she said were her happiest times. Friends accepted her quirks because of who she was. But, there were few people Doris trusted or loved. One had to earn her love. In truth, I never made the effort.

By then I was living on Barrow Street, in thrall with the downtown life, and Doris began to seem like an aging elder I was obligated to visit. I think she sensed this, so that she never grew more than fond of me, like a half-mongrel dog she had promised to feed and groom. Long after she dropped me - after I vastly disappointed her - I learned that everything she did for me she was really doing for Uncle 'Ono. A way of asking his forgiveness. She had learned too late - long after she shattered his life, then walked away from him - that what he had offered her was love in all its purity and innocence, and that such love would not come to her again.

 Still, for several years she persevered, prudently excluding me from her more illustrious galas where barons of industry and foreign potentates presided, along with grandes dames like Jane Englehardt, Elizabeth Fondaris, or members of New York's founding families - the Vanderbilts, Roosevelts, Van Burens. But she included me in informal dinners and gallery openings where groups were more colorful, artistic and diverse, so that in time I learned to match names with personalities. Andy Warhol. Rudolph Nureyev. Truman Capote.

It was when we were alone that I saw glimpses of the real Doris Duke. The young woman Uncle 'Ono first fell in love with. On a drive out to her farm in Hillsborough, New Jersey, she mentioned her lonely childhood - the father who left her millions but did not teach her how to trust; the cold, resentful mother whom Doris had to sue to legally lay claim to her inheritance. Raised by bodyguards and governesses, she had seldom played with other children. She asked about my childhood, how I survived my mother's death when I was ten. I said I didn't cry when Mother died, but that I cried years later, and that I still cried. Doris took my hand and held it for the rest of that long drive. I loved her then. I wish I had told her.

Duke Farms
Her place in New Jersey, Duke Farms, was a 3,000 acre estate with a manor house of nearly fifty rooms, each room massive, filled with Flemish and Turkish tapestries, French period furniture, huge canvases by Gainsborough, El Greco. The grounds outside went on for miles, a veritable park full of wildlife, ponds and bridges, plus an entire village imported from Thailand and reconstructed. I was not intimidated by Duke Farms because I didn't understand that Doris owned the place.The grounds were patrolled by security guards, the house protected by alarm systems, and I assumed Duke Farms was owned by the state of New Jersey, the way New York owned Central Park, and that Doris's tobacco millions helped subsidize the upkeep of the place. So, of course, she was free to visit there. At the time, I could not fathom one person owning such vast amounts of real estate.

 It was at Rough Point, Doris's other 'country' residence, in Newport, Rhode Island, that she finally talked about her affair with Uncle 'Ono. Rough Point was even more forbidding than Duke Farms, one of those Gilded Age, English Manor monstrosities of granite and redstone, originally constructed by a Vanderbilt. Set behind boulders overlooking the sea, with more than one hundred and fifty rooms, some rooms so vast our footsteps echoed, the place was like a fortress, medieval, forbidding.

As with Duke Farms, every wall seemed covered with tapestries, every room boasting ancient Greek and Roman statuary, baronial fireplaces, portraits by the Old Masters. Even the staff quarters, where I preferred to sleep, were patrolled by security guards so, again, I assumed that the place was owned by the state, and in return for vast endowments towards its upkeep, Doris was allowed to visit at her leisure. The way royalty might visit a museum. I did not yet grasp that Rough Point was privately owned, that it belonged to Doris. So, I was puzzled by how her dogs had the run of the place.

Rough Point

Rough Point Camels

 Sometimes even her Bactrian camels, Baby and Princess, found their way inside the house, leaving their droppings on priceless Persian carpets. Much has been written about those creatures, gifts from a fabled Saudi sheikh. They were usually consigned to the back yard overlooking the ocean, where at all hours of the day and night they bleated and honked like laryngitic yodelers. During a heavy storm Doris brought them into the solarium, where we calmed them down with bags of Oreos and Saltines. She said Rough Point was their permanent home. In spite of their musty, fecal smell, I worried about those camels. They were stuck in the wrong geography. Loping around with their dreamy gaits, sometimes they stopped and gazed into the distance as if longing for their Gobi sands.

Doris never mentioned ex-husbands - the playboys, the yachts, the foreign cars. But one day she spoke of 'Ono. "A long time ago I wanted to bring your uncle here. I wanted to marry him."
He was really my great-uncle, Grandfather's youngest brother. His given name was 'Onohiawa, eyeball of the fish, but he was such a sweet child, the family called him 'ono. Delicious. He grew up to be strikingly handsome, with the husky eroticism and fluid grace of our Hawaiian men. His great love were horses; he had a touch that calmed them down. Half the year he worked on ranches as paniolo, the other half at the polo grounds outside Honolulu, training skittish thoroughbreds for the polo season. That was how Doris first saw him, like a dark god riding across the playing fields.

 She had always loved our island men, especially Duke Kahanamoku, Olympic Champ, movie star, our island royalty. But Duke and his handsome brothers would not kowtow to Doris. They were surfers and playboys; they were not her hired help. They showed up late for parties at Shangri La with barefoot, half-naked women. When Doris scolded them, they laughed, unimpressed by her vast wealth. It was said that she intentionally miscarried a child fathered by Duke, and they drifted apart.

Doris and Kahanamoku Brothers
Uncle 'Ono's wife had died in childbirth, and he was left to raise four children. Folks said he was a good and loving father. But when he met Doris, he lost all sense of family, all sense of obligation. He even lost his balance. For the first time in his life, he fell off a horse. Then he abandoned his children, sending them off-island to his parents. They would grow up not knowing him, and would choose to never know him. 'Ono was oblivious to everything, besotted with this creature, Doris Duke.

On one of my trips home to visit the family, Uncle 'Ono told me how they had fallen in love, how he had 'kidnapped' Doris from her rich life, and turned her into an island girl. She was in her twenties then, ravenous for life, perhaps for the childhood she never had. 'Ono gently drew her out, and taught her the simple verities: that the secret to living was Life itself! To be alive to every minute, every hour. And that the greatest miracle was Nature. Its cycles, and seasons.

 He taught her how to ride Western, how to shoot from the saddle. He took her wild-boar hunting and showed her how to skin the carcass. They rode out to the west coast of the island, where they surfed with the fabled Water Men of Makaha. And when they felt she had earned it, the elders tattooed a tiny surfboard on her hip. For weeks they lived in the rainforests where 'Ono taught her to survive by scooping up termites from hollow trees, spitting out the bitter heads and swallowing the bodies.

He taught her how to suck out the fetuses from gecko eggs, to place the living things inside her bottom lip, which kept them warm and wriggling until he pierced them with a fishing hook. This always attracted parrotfish. Afterwards, they sat gutting and skinning their day's catch. Doris grew so proficient with a gutting knife, she would take the sharp edge and expertly run it down 'Ono's chest, arms and legs, shaving each fish scale from his skin without drawing one drop of blood. At night he rubbed her with kukui oil to shield her pale skin from the sun. Eventually, she turned a golden bronze and looked like a pale-eyed hapa girl. A mixed-blood. Months passed, a year, then another. She traveled, collecting Islamic art for her home, Shangri La. When she returned, 'Ono was waiting.

 When did she begin to miss Duke Farms? Rough Point? When did she grow bored with simple island life? Uncle declared his love for her, asked her to give up her inheritance, donate it all to charity, sell her many homes. They would live a simple life, raising horses on a ranch. By then Doris was deeply in love with him, perhaps because her wealth meant nothing to him. He looked upon it with disdain, refusing all gifts from her. He loved Doris for herself, his blonde and pale-eyed 'island girl.' One night she proposed to him, and asked him to move back east with her.

I have tried to imagine 'Ono at Duke Farms. Rough Point. The NewYork penthouse. Her many residences, her help-staff of several hundred. Like her camels, Baby and Princess, he would be stuck in the wrong geography. Doris's friends would regard him as a joke. A glorified bodyguard. Her bronze, island trophy. She would no doubt school him in his dress, his manners, and in time he would lose himself, become something else, perhaps someone impeccable and ruthless.

Hawaiians are not by nature ruthless. We cannot be honed or molded. 'Ono tried explaining it to her. Great wealth often engenders arrogance, so perhaps Doris was more insulted than heartbroken when Uncle said he could not marry her. That he could not leave his islands, even for her. One week later, she sailed from Hawaii on the Lurline. After that she returned to Shangri La every year, but she refused to see 'Ono ever again.

That day at Rough Point, I summoned the courage to ask if, after all these years, she still loved him. She looked away before she answered. "I always will. He was the finest man I ever knew." I asked why she refused to ever see him again. She answered simply. "Pride."

Months later, I was arrested at a sleazy downtown club. Possession of cocaine and marijuana. Eight of us were arrested, including a famous rock star, so of course it made the evening news with pictures of us handcuffed in a police van. A family lawyer from Honolulu flew in to bail me out, then flew me home until the hearing. Two years later I returned to New York City, humbled, sober, more mature. I wrote Doris a letter of apology; there was no reply. One day I approached her at a gallery-opening. She glanced at me, then abruptly turned her back. We didn't speak for twenty years.

I was in my forties when I got word that Uncle 'Ono was very ill. He was in his eighties, and I had always loved him. I flew home to Honolulu. In the weeks before his death, I spent days holding his hand in his sad, little cabin up in the mountains. By then he didn't even own a horse. We reminisced for hours, and in that time he talked again about Doris, their love affair, how it was like getting struck by lightening. How he had forever dishonored himself by abandoning his children. And then his heartbreak when Doris walked away from him. "Like having my skin pulled off over my head." I called his children to tell them he was failing. By now they were adults with children of their own. I left several messages; no one ever answered them. One day I ran out of gas and got to uncle's cabin late. He had died that afternoon, alone.

After we buried him, I called Doris and left a message. The next day she called me back. She was frail and sickly then, and would die within a year. I had heard that she was wealthier than ever, that she had increased her father's fortune many times. That she surrounded herself with eccentrics who amused her, but that she had lived all those years alone, trusting no one. She asked how 'Ono died, and how his life had been. I was candid.

"After you left him, his life was over. He had already lost his children. Then he lost his jobs, his reputation. He couldn't seem to bounce back. He never remarried. He said he never loved again, he still loved you. He stayed heartbroken and alone for all these years." Doris was silent at the other end. A small sound came out of her throat, then finally she whispered. "I was wrong."

A year later I read that she died in a coma in her Los Angeles mansion, reportedly from large amounts of morphine administered by unlicensed doctors and a drunk butler, all arguing over who would be the trustee of her will. She was cremated, with no friends or family there for her.

I think of the two of them galloping across the land, young and selfish, madly in love. I think of how they paid for that love, for the rest of their lives. It may be that they had no choice, that their story was written millenia ago in ancient clay. Or, perhaps theirs is a cautionary tale, reminding us that love without honor, or with too much pride, leaves us warped and ultimately damned.

Still, I want to believe in fairy tales. I want believe that, at last, at last, Doris and Uncle found each other. That they abide in that other Shangri La, that mythical place where no one grows old, where all sins are forgiven.
Lovers in Doorway of Shangri La.

(This memoir is condensed from a longer memoir, "Shangri La," which will appear in my forthcoming collection, Tsunami Love: Prize-Winning Pacific Stories, Volume IV)

Mahalo Nui Loa. Thank you.