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Sam Kahanamoku, Doris Duke, James Cromwell, and Chick Daniels in Waikiki 1935-37

Jul 11, 2018

A Penchant for Art and a Heart for Giving

Bold, outspoken, and courageous women have played a central role in shaping the history of this city.

They founded schools and hospitals, championed the arts, were powerful landowners, and stood up for the betterment of their people. Thanks to a lengthy list of hard-working and empathetic matriarchs, we're privy to the inclusive and diverse society that we all appreciate today.

At the turn of the 20th century, Victoria Ward, matriarch of the Ward 'Ohana, was a prominent Honolulu landowner, businesswoman, and mother. Proficient in the Hawaiian and English languages, she was thrust into a leading role when her husband suddenly passed. Ward, who was close friends with Queen Lili'uokalani, took on the responsibility of raising her seven daughters, managing her late husband's expansive business operations, and operating their 100-acre estate, named Old Plantation on the grounds that now house the Blaisdell. With business savvy and a can-do attitude, Ms. Ward rose to the challenge, providing for her family while solidifying her family's land acquisitions.

Nearly 5,000 miles away from Honolulu, an adventurous heiress and socialite from the East Coast of the United States was finding her place in the world in 1920s high society. Doris Duke, daughter of a wealthy tobacco tycoon, grew up on a 2,000-acre wooded estate in New Jersey and embarked on her first international travels through Europe at age 11. The journey ignited an insatiable curiosity for travel and other cultures that would persist throughout her life. With her father's untimely passing a year later, Duke was determined to rise above the trappings of social expectations.

On Duke's 21st birthday, she inherited a third of her father's estate and established Independent Aid, her first foray into philanthropy, which would later become the Doris Duke Foundation. Her charity was focused on the welfare of women and children, education, social work, and mental health. During the year, she also married her first of three husbands, James Cromwell.

The two embarked on a two-month, globetrotting honeymoon through the Middle East and South Asia, spending time in Palestine, Jordan, Egypt, and Karachi in British India. Along the trek she fell in love with Taj Mahal and its marble tiles and floral designs. Swept up in the aesthetic beauty of Middle Eastern aesthetics, she began collecting Islamic art, jade objects, Central Asian embroideries, carpers, and metalworks. In August, 1935, the couple made one last honeymoon stop to the U.S. Territory of Hawaii.

Duke enjoyed being as far removed from East Coast high society as possible, and Hawai'i's relaxed social environment and natural beauty were a natural fit. So enamored with the islands, she extended her stay in the islands for an extra four months, and fell into easy friendships with the entire Kahanamoku 'ohana, who quickly became the nucleus of her social circle. The Kahanamokus introduced Doris Duke to pre-World War II contemporary Hawaiian culture, focused on sharing an active, outdoor lifestyle. The Kahanamoku brothers taught Doris how to surf, paddle canoe, sail, fish, and even play Hawaiian music. In remarkable fashion, she became the first non-Hawaiian competitive female surfer, winning a Waikiki tandem surf competition with Sam Kahanamoku.

In April 1936, she purchased a 4.9-acre property at Ka'alāwai, perched on a cliff above the Pacific Ocean. She hired an architect to build a home that would reflect her admiration for Hawai'i's tropical beauty and passion for Middle Eastern art. The home would be named Shangri La, and Doris Duke would spend the next 50 years building her collection of Islamic art and renovating the home to accommodate the collection.

Not one to sit on the sidelines and let life pass her by, at the outbreak of World War II Duke enlisted in the United Seamen's Service and was posted to Alexandria, Egypt. Over the next several years she worked as a journalist in Italy and France, covering topics on losses and damages to historical monuments and art during the war. Duke had trouble staying put in one place, and eventually purchased a Boeing 737 to make travel easier between her many homes and frequent trips to collect art and plants. Back in Hawai'i, Shangri La became a gathering place for Doris Duke's close friends and visitors. It was a place where locals mixed with Hollywood entertainers, and social boundaries dissolved. Music was also integral to gatherings at Shangri La, and Duke was known to be a proficient jazz pianist.

A true visionary, when Doris Duke passed in 1993, she purposefully opened Shangri La's doors to the public by establishing the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art. The foundation owns and manages the site and collection to "promote the study and understanding of Middle Eastern art and culture." In addition to her support of art, she left the bulk of her $1.3 billion fortune to charity. Administered by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, her legacy is dedicated to medical research, the prevention of cruelty to children and animals, the performing arts, wildlife, and ecology.

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