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Dueling Dukes

Hero Duke Kahanamoku Taught Heiress Doris Duke to How to Surf – and a Lot More 

In the late 1930s billionaire heiress Doris Duke was the world’s richest woman. Olympian Duke Kahanamoku was its most famous Hawaiian. The torrid, tragic  story of these two mavericks would have made a Paramount Studios screenplay. He taught her how to surf and she taught him that being crazy wealthy could sometimes lead to becoming, – well, just crazy.

They were a match made in paradise – or purgatory depending on the viewpoint. Their matching height (both 6’1”) matching names (Duke) matching fame (he a hero with Olympic medals, she an heiress with an Olympic-size inheritance) made them natural bedfellows – in more ways than one. 21 Passionate, athletic and charismatic, both the Duke and Ms. Duke were reluctant celebrities, generous givers – and both experienced bittersweet lives.

Ardent, unrepentant surf lovers, they were romantically involved in a time when Hawaiian men did not mix with rich white society ladies – at least not in the public eye. A jazz pianist, who served a brief stint as a war correspondent, Doris was an unbridled bohemian who flaunted society’s restraints.

She left the world a philanthropic legacy of $1.3 billion dollars – and a string of lovers from Rio to Washington, from Hollywood to Santo Domingo.

He left the world the gift of surfing – and a string of competitive records that held for half a century.

They were celebrated by friends: Iconic surfboard designer Dale Velzy made Doris a yellow-tinted Pig model surfboard; fashion designer Claire McCadell made her a striking two-piece striped swimsuit. John Wayne gave Duke parts in his films.

Doris and Duke at her Honolulu hideaway Shangri-La

The couple surfed in front of Shangri-la her opulent mansion in Honolulu, and she threw parties inviting Duke’s brothers and friends. But the two Duke’s relationship was far more troubled than their public personas would indicate, and their romance – as with so many beachboy-celebrity trysts – ended in misfortune.

“In July 1940, Doris gave birth to a daughter named Arden, who died one day later,” wrote eminent historian Michael Beschloss in a 2014 New York Times article. “Biographers have argued that the baby was almost certainly Kahanamoku’s.”

Three weeks after the birth – his timing perhaps provoked by dread of a public scandal – Kahanamoku married Nadine Alexander, a Cleveland-born dance teacher at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. Doris Duke reportedly gave the newlyweds about $12,000 (now over $200,000), which they used to purchase a house not far from her own.

Like Duke himself, Doris would suffer because of who she was – scandals, rumors, more attention than she wanted. But as her biographer Sallie Bingham wrote “nothing could prevent her from seizing that moment in the Hawaiian surf – exulting in doing what she wanted, claiming her place in the world – as a figurehead, a beacon, a woman with ‘too much money, too much power and too much imagination.

– From a book on the history of women’s surfing by Jim Kempton coming out post Covid19, but pre-rapture.