Abigail Kawānanakoa, Hawaii's 'last princess,' dies

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Monday December 19, 2022
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Abigail Kinoiki Kekaulike Kawānanakoa. Photo: Courtesy Colorado State University
Abigail Kinoiki Kekaulike Kawānanakoa. Photo: Courtesy Colorado State University

Hawaii's "last princess" and lesbian heiress Abigail Kinoiki Kekaulike Kawānanakoa died peacefully in her Honolulu home December 11. She was 96.

Her wife, Veronica Gail Kawānanakoa, was at her side when she passed, reported the Associated Press. The cause of death is unknown.

Paula Akana, executive director of 'Iolani Palace, and Hailama Farden of Hale O Nā Aliʻi O Hawaiʻi, a royal Hawaiian society, announced her death in front of the former Hawaiian monarchy's royal residence in Honolulu December 12.

America's only palace is now a museum and historical site. Ms. Kawānanakoa largely funded the operation and restoration of the residence for nearly three decades.

"Abigail will be remembered for her love of Hawaii and its people," Veronica Gail Kawānanakoa, 69, said in a statement to the AP, "and I will miss her with all of my heart."

Ms. Kawānanakoa had no official royal title or duties, but she was considered the heir apparent if Hawaii was ever restored to a monarchy.

Not everyone considered her the only heir to the non-existent throne or Hawaiian royalty. A cousin, Owana Kaʻōhelelani Mahealani-Rose Salazar, claimed that she was next in line to the throne, reported the New York Times. A Change.org petition, mostly targeted at Ms. Kawānanakoa, launched in 2017 drew more than 150 supporters demanding that she and other Kawānanakoa family members stop referring to themselves as "princes and princesses."

However, most Hawaiians revered Ms. Kawānanakoa as the last of the "alii," the Hawaiian word for royalty.

The great-great niece of King Kalākaua, the last king of Hawaii, as well as the great-granddaughter of sugar baron James Campbell, she was heiress to one of the state's largest fortunes.

Ms. Kawānanakoa and her family also had San Francisco Bay Area connections.

Bay Area LGBTQ Asian Pacific Islander organizations did not respond to the Bay Area Reporter's requests for comment.

Bay Area Reporter publisher Michael Yamashita, a gay man who is of Hawaiian ancestry and who grew up there, added some context to Ms. Kawānanakoa's life.

"For Hawaiians of certain generations, her longevity represented one of the last direct links to the plantation barons and the royal dynastic line that dominated economic and social life at the end of the Kingdom of Hawaii and the early period of American colonization during the transition from the 19th to the 20th centuries," he stated. "As kids we were instructed to address her as Princess Abigail and the adults called her Abigail or Kekaulike or Kekau depending on their background and relationship with her. She was always treated with deference.

"Although the most prominent and public among a number of Hawaiians with royal genealogies, she was not formally a princess or the true heir to the throne. Western royal honorific titles were adopted by the Hawaiian court and conferred by the monarch on possible successors to the throne, a practice that ended with the American overthrow of the Kingdom about 30 years before she was born. And since the monarch had by the end become an elected position among several royal families, there can be no certainty of who would be the ruler today or the line of succession," he added.

"Before the court trials over her estate, she presided over many cultural and social occasions and her fortune allowed her to play the part of the beneficent aristocrat caring for the needs of her people, although it's fair to say that many Hawaiians felt she was out of touch and distant from their lives," Yamashita stated.

Hawaii's 'last' royal

Born into royalty in Honolulu on April 23, 1926, Ms. Kawānanakoa was the daughter of Lydia Liliʻuokalani Kawānanakoa, whose father, David Kawānanakoa, was an heir to the Hawaiian throne, and William Jeremiah Ellerbrock, a doctor.

David Kawānanakoa was one of three famous brothers, all surfers, and heirs to the Hawaiian throne. It's believed the brothers brought surfing to California when they were students in the San Francisco Bay Area, reported the Beat.

David Kawānanakoa married Abigail Campbell, heiress to the Campbell sugar fortune. The couple had three children including Ms. Kawānanakoa's mother, Lydia Liliʻuokalani Kawānanakoa.

Ms. Kawānanakoa, known to her friends as Kekaulike, or Kekau for short, was a descendant of Hawaii's first royal, King Kamehameha the Great, who brought the Hawaiian Islands together as a nation in 1795 after years of wars between the islands' chiefs. She was the great-grandniece of Queen Liliʻuokalani, who took the crown after the death of her brother, King Kalākaua, the ukulele-playing monarch, nicknamed the "Merrie Monarch," in 1891.

In 1893, American sugar plantation owners led by Sanford Ballard Dole staged a coup and overthrew Queen Liliʻuokalani with the help of the United States Marines. Queen Liliʻuokalani was placed under house arrest at 'Iolani Palace in Honolulu, Oahu. In 1898, the U.S. officially annexed Hawaii.

Ms. Kawānanakoa was born 28 years later. She was raised and adopted by her grandmother, Princess Abigail Campbell Kawānanakoa, after her parents divorced. The bringing up of Ms. Kawānanakoa was alleged to prepare her for the throne if Hawaii ever became a sovereign nation again. Princess Abigail Campbell Kawānanakoa died April 12, 1945.

Ms. Kawānanakoa was educated in boarding schools in China and California. She studied at San Rafael's Dominican College for two years and briefly at the University of Hawaii. According to the Hawaiian Civil Beat, she spent much of her early years in California and Europe before taking a deeper interest in Hawaii and raising her profile back home, starting in the mid-1980s.

Ms. Kawānanakoa is estimated to have inherited some $250 million from Campbell, her great-grandfather, an Irish sugar magnate whose plantation holdings made him one of Hawaii's largest landowners. The inheritance is a portion of the estate according to the terms of Campbell's will and trust.

The Beat reported the Campbell Estate at one point owned one-fifth of Oahu. In 1999, the estate was worth an estimated $3 billion. The estate began to be dissolved in 2007, a 10-year process that ended in 2017. Ms. Kawānanakoa received the largest single share, 12.5%, of the total distributed among the descendants.

Ms. Kawānanakoa was also bequeathed the Merrie Monarch's nearly 14-carat diamond pinky ring, which she donated to 'Iolani Palace, which was built by King Kalākaua. The ring is on public display at the palace.

At one point she worked for Hawaii's state Legislature, reported the Times.


Ms. Kawānanakoa's life wasn't without its share of royal scandals.

In 1964, a British woman, Valerie Wallace-Milroy, died in Ms. Kawānanakoa's home in what authorities ruled was a "probable suicide," the Beat reported, citing a Star-Bulletin article published January 16, 1964.

Ms. Kawānanakoa never commented on the death, the Beat reported.

In the 1990s, she became the inspiration for a novel, "The Royal Torch" (1992), written by a former close friend, Billie Beamer, that depicted wild parties and heavy drinking. In 1997, Ms. Kawānanakoa filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The file listed creditors including the IRS, to which she owed $5 million to the federal government.

The decade ended with a revolt at 'Iolani Palace when she sat on the fragile Hawaiian throne during a photo shoot for a picture for Life magazine in 1998. Claiming she damaged the deteriorating silk and linen fabric on the chair, the then-managing director of the palace, Jim Bartels, resigned, and 150 volunteers threatened to follow him, reported the Times. Ms. Kawānanakoa was ousted as president of the Friends of 'Iolani Palace. She resigned from the palace's board but continued to be a benefactor.

She brushed off the rebellion, "They asked me for my head, and I gave it to them," she told reporters at the time, according to the Beat, which cited the former Honolulu Star-Bulletin.

In 2004, Ms. Kawānanakoa was the victim of an identity theft case involving her $2.1 million IRS tax return and an attempted claim in the stake of the Campbell estate by a Pennsylvania cafeteria worker posing as Ms. Kawānanakoa.

The biggest scandal of Ms. Kawānanakoa's life came in her 90s. It involved a major legal battle between former lawyer James Wright; the Abigail Kawānanakoa Foundation; and her wife and allegations of her over control of Ms. Kawānanakoa's estate.

The ugly legal drama began in 2017 when Ms. Kawānanakoa, who was at the time 91 years old, suffered a stroke. Wright, her lawyer of nearly 20 years, took over her estate declaring that she was no longer capable of managing it. Veronica Gail Worth, who took Ms. Kawānanakoa's last name when the couple wed that year, held power of attorney over Ms. Kawānanakoa's health care.

Ms. Kawānanakoa didn't marry until 2017, when she wed Worth. In the 1950s, Ms. Kawananakoa was engaged to Peter Perkins, a male model, who was a star on the O'ahu polo team. The couple never married.

Ms. Kawānanakoa and Worth married after they reconciled from a temporary separation allegedly over finances in 2017, reported the Beat.

Wright brought up Gail Kawānanakoa's questionable past and return to Ms. Kawānanakoa's side after her stroke in court documents, reported the Beat. Gail Kawānanakoa and her former husband, Earl Harbin, were indicted by Honolulu prosecutors on charges of attempted theft. Both parties pleaded no contest. Harbin went to prison. Gail Kawānanakoa went on probation.

Ms. Kawānanakoa and Gail Kawānanakoa accused Wright of misappropriation of the trusts funds by withdrawing $1.1 million in trustee fees without court approval and paying his attorneys $300,000 for legal fees, reported Hawaii News Now.

During the three-year-long battle, Ms. Kawānanakoa arrived in court wearing designer clothes and large dark sunglasses with her wife and Chihuahua, Girlie Girl, reported the Times.

A court rejected Ms. Kawānanakoa's requests to regain control of her estate in a 2020 ruling that kept her trust in place, reported the Times. Hawaii News Now reported First Hawaiian Bank was appointed as the trustee of the estate in an earlier ruling.

Preserving Hawaiian culture

Most of Ms. Kawānanakoa's life focused on continuing her family's royal legacy and preserving Hawaii's heritage through advocacy and philanthropy, and breeding and racing thoroughbred horses.

Ms. Kawānanakoa's role in shaping and raising Hawaii's profile started in the mid-1980s. She supported Hawaiian culture, arts, and education by funding scholarships and Hawaiian-language instruction. She is credited as being one of the forces behind the second Hawaiian Renaissance, a period in the 1970s and 1980s that saw a blossoming of Hawaiian music and language, as well as a resurgence of interest in traditions such as hula and native culture. She also advocated for Hawaii and Native Hawaiians' needs, and supported the fight against constructing a telescope on Mauna Kea, which was ultimately lost.

Ms. Kawānanakoa served as president of the Friends of 'Iolani Palace, an organization that her mother founded, for nearly 30 years. She also became one of the palace's major benefactors funding the operation and restoration of the palace's original furnishings and artwork that had been sold off by the state's government.

She was also a supporter of the annual Merrie Monarch hula competition hosted in Hilo.

One of her horses won the 1993 Classic Dash at the All American Futurity in California, among many other awards in other competitions. The prize was $1.9 million. She was inducted into the American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame in 2018.

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