Kaua’i’s Tragic Season

March 25, 2013 § Leave a comment

A map of Kaua'i. The sites of recent drowings are marked with X's.

A map of Kauai. The sites of recent drownings are marked with X’s.

Recently I visited Kaua’i, the island I consider my second home. Despite a lot of recent development on the South Shore, Kauai has retained its essential nature: rural, lush and mysterious, with a permanent population of less than 67,000. It is always a pleasure to return.

Of the million visitors came to Kaua’i last year, many were day trippers off cruise ships, while most of the rest stuck mainly to the resorts.But among the more adventuresome, a few befell the accidental deaths for which Kaua’i is notorious: drowning after falling off rocks and cliffs, or after being swept out by rogue waves and rip tides. (It’s not only tourists who drown: the changeable waters that make Kaua’i one of the best surfing spots in the world regularly claim the lives of residents as well.) In 2012, two people drowned off Kaua’i.

2013 has been a different story: between January 18 and March 14, ten people drowned off the island, seven tourists and three locals, exponentially more than in a typical year, let alone a two-month period. Just before my trip, I learned about the first tragedy–in which two San Francisco men drowned after one was swept off rocks by a rogue wave and the other tried to save him–via a New York Times travel article (which, oddly, wasn’t even about Kaua’i). When I arrived, I mentioned the accident to the car rental agent, who said, “The same thing happened yesterday–in the exact same place.”

Then I learned about the other eight drownings (there has since been another). Heart attacks and other health issues seem to have played a role in about half, while three (all in the same place–Kalihiwai, on the North Shore) involved men who walked along the rocky coastline despite posted warnings and either slipped or were swept off by high surf. One drowning was a freak accident: when a sudden flash flood in the Hanakapiai Valley stranded fifty hikers and two rescue personnel, a tourist from New York was swept away by the rising water.

In light of these tragedies, visitors should know that Kaua’i’s waters change seasonally: on the North Shore, the surf is high in the winter and low in the summer, while on the South Shore the situation is reversed. They should never turn their backs on waves, walk in restricted areas such as rocky coastlines, or swim at the mouth of a stream or river, all of which are likely to result in being swept away by waves or currents. Another precaution is one I didn’t know until fairly recently: swimmers should carefully observe the ocean before entering, avoiding places where the waves aren’t breaking parallel to the shore.

Much as I like to think I’ve never had any problems while swimming off Kaua’i, I actually did have one when I was 8, while body surfing at Brennecke’s Beach in midsummer. The waves were big that day, and there was a current that sucked me down after a wave broke on my head. I was upside down in the swirling green water for what seemed like minutes. When I resurfaced, scared and gasping, I found my family strangely unconcerned. Of course they were aware of my habit of swimming underwater in our pool at home, but it was a close call, and one that might have ended differently if I had been less able and less lucky.

As it happens, the most recent incident on Kauai ended as uneventfully as mine. On March 17th two men were swept out off ‘Anini Beach on the North Shore, but one made it back on his own, while the other got an assist from rescuers and reached the shore uninjured. They were lucky, but they also knew not to fight the current; instead, they let it carry them out and release them.

Pulling Back the Kama’aina Curtain in “The Descendants”

November 27, 2011 § 1 Comment

Surveying the Family Legacy in "The Descendants"/Courtesy Fox Searchlight

I was one of those who charged off to see “The Descendants” during its opening weekend. The movie portrays a wealthy lawyer, Matt King (George Clooney) who finds out that his wife, in a coma following a boat racing accident, will  a) not recover, and b) was having an extramarital affair and planning to divorce him. Although I generally dislike family dramas about medical emergencies, moreso if they involve comatose patients, I was interested the movie’s subplot, which concerns the looming sale of land held in a family trust.

The tract in question is a spread on Kaua’i, an island I regard as my second home, and this feature alone would have driven me to “The Descendants.” But I was also interested in the fact that the movie was about a kama’aina (lit. “child of the land,” a term for Hawai’ians of all ethnic backgrounds except pure-blooded Hawai’ian) family descended from haole missionaries and merchants, as well as a Hawai’ian princess. [The author of the book on which the movie is based, Kaui Hart Hemmings, is a member of the Wilcox family of Kauai, whose ancestors include missionaries, plantation owners and a native Hawai’ian whose name she carries. Disclosure: Although I don’t know Hemmings or her family, I did research for my undergraduate thesis at Grove Farm, the Wilcox plantation.]

An obvious model for the King family is the Bishops, who trace their lineage to the haole banker Charles Bishop and his wife Princess Bernice Pauahi, the last descendant of King Kamehameha I. In 1884, Bernice Pauahi Bishop placed the bulk of her estate–vast landholdings throughout Hawai’i–in trust to establish two schools, one for boys and one for girls, called the Kamehameha Schools. The Bishop Trust was originally land-rich and cash-poor, but its fortunes changed radically after Hawai’i achieved statehood in 1959. Land values soared, making the Bishop Trust not only the largest private landholder in Hawaii but the richest charity in the United States, with an endowment larger than Harvard’s and Yale’s combined.

Alexander Payne and his co-screenwriters, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, take great pains to present a realistic portrayal of Matt King’s dilemma in selling the Kaua’i tract for development. As trustee, he must choose the best possible deal for the trust’s heirs, some of whom are in financial need, yet he must also consider his ancestors, whose legacy is spiritual as well as material. King acknowledges that his family did nothing to earn the land, which came to them as a royal dowry through their Hawai’ian ancestor, and in the end defers the sale.

Without this well-conceived and intensely Hawai’ian dilemma, “The Descendants” would be a Lifetime movie, albeit a very well-acted and picturesque one whose locations are both believable and, for the most part, off the beaten track. Other films set in Hawaii tell the stories of visitors, who logically inhabit tourist locations such as Waikiki. For “The Descendants,” Payne and his location scouts do a peerless job of showing how an old kama’aina family like the Kings would live. They have a lovely old house in Nu’uanu, a lush valley on the windward side of the island. Nearby is the Oahu Country Club, the island’s oldest, whose members are glimpsed playing golf. Elizabeth King lies in a coma at Queen’s Medical Center, a straight shot along the Pali Highway from Nu’uanu, and probably the closest hospital to the scene of her boating accident. Matt King takes his younger daughter to lunch at the Outrigger Canoe Club, another exclusive private club, in Diamond Head.  When the family decamps for Kauai, they stay at the Princeville Resort on the North Shore, with excursions to nearby Kilauea and Hanalei Bay. The family’s land appears to be located in Kilauea, though I don’t know this for sure. But all the locations make sense, not only sociologically but geographically, a practically unheard-of feat in feature films.

After countless films about Hawaii’s tourists, it’s nice to see one about people who not only live in Hawaii but call it their ancestral home. Though heavy on bedside scenes in the ICU, “The Descendants” does a good job of portraying the Kings’ milieu, which in itself is reason to go.  

Additional Source:


The Krotona Colony’s Kaua’i Roots, Part III: The Indelible Influence of Hawai’ian Religion

February 13, 2011 § Leave a comment

Kauai's Menehune Fish Pond/Courtesy http://www.kauaivacation.biz

The Knudsens were major players Kauai’s economy from the late 19th century to the mid- 20th century, producing cattle and sugar and overseeing large tracts of land, but the family’s cultural legacy was at least as significant.Valdemar Knudsen, the patriarch, became fluent in Hawai’ian and made the first written studies of Kauai’s birds and plants. His abiding respect for native customs and religion made him a natural go-between for the Island’s native and haole populations, and his erudition led to his appointment as agent for the Kingdom’s Board of Education. Under King Kamehameha IV, Valdemar became a noble with governing power on Kaua’i.

All five of his children grew up among native Hawai’ians, and in addition to speaking Hawai’ian were well versed in local myths and religious practices. While Eric went on to become Hawaii’s preeminate folklorist, publishing the first English-language books of Hawai’ian myths and legends, his older brother Augustus concerned himself with Hawai’ian religion, a polytheistic faith that incorporated ancestor worship and animism.

Growing up on a ranch in the wilds of western Kaua’i put the younger Knudsens in frequent contact with kahuna  (Hawai’ian priests)–as well as unexplained phenomena. Their sister Ida Knudsen Von Holt writes:

Augustus also claimed to have seeen a menehune on one of his camping out nights. He had been late hunting cattle, and built a fire to keep warm. As he sat eating chocolate and hard tack, he suddenly realized that across from him through the flames he could see a little figure, bushy haired and heavly bearded, and clad only in a malo, and about 18 inches high.

(The menehune, often described as the “leprechauns of Hawaii,” were Hawaii’s pre-Polynesian natives, and engineers of incredible skill. On Kaua’i, they are credited with building the 1,000-year-old fish pond pictured above, as well as the Island’s heiau [temples made of intricately fitted stones]. Though often assumed to be mythological, they probably did exist, though in less tiny form: in Kaua’i’s 1820 census, 65 people described themselves as menehune.)

It was his affinity for Hawai’ian religion that eventually led Augustus to Hinduism, the most polytheistic of the major religions. Back on Kaua’i in the early 1890’s after earning an engineering degree from MIT, and none too happily running the family ranch, Augustus delved further into his newly adopted faith. According to his daughter, Ruth:

…in 1896 he had saved up enough money to go to India. He was sure there was a great connection between India and Hawaii.

But Ruth’s opinion of her father’s religious interests was decidedly jaundiced:

He was interested in the occultism…and black magic.

Additional Sources:

Oral History of Ruth Knudsen Hanner, courtesy Kauai Museum.

Von Holt, Ida Elizabeth Knudsen. Stories of Long Ago: Niihau, Kauai, Oahu. Honolulu: Daughter of Hawaii, 1985.


For more about the Krotona Colony, purchase the documentary “Under the Hollywood Sign” at http://hopeandersonproductions.com/?page_id=3361
The film is also available for rent at https://vimeo.com/ondemand/uths

The Krotona Colony’s Kaua’i Roots, Part II: Augustus Knudsen’s Enchanted Childhood

February 2, 2011 § Leave a comment

When Anne Sinclair married Valdemar Knudsen in 1867, she moved from her family’s “forbidden” island of Ni’ihau, whose population numbered in the low hundreds, to the comparatively populous but still rural Kaua’i, 17 miles to the east. Though Kaua’i had some towns–Hanalei to the north, Kapa’a and Lihue to the east, and Koloa to the south, the Knudsens lived on a ranch at the western end of the Island, not far from where the road ends and the Napali Coast begins.

The remoteness of their home, Waiawa, was underscored by its proximity to Polihale, an enormous white sand beach considered by Kaua’i’s natives to be “the place from where the souls of the dead descended to Po in the ocean depths,” according to Ida Knudsen Von Holt, Anne and Valdemar’s eldest daughter.

The Knudsens’ five children–Ida, Augustus, Maud, Eric and Arthur–were born between 1868 and 1875. Boys and girls alike galloped horses, surfed, swam, camped and hunted. From infancy they were taken to visit their maternal grandmother in Ni’ihau, a trip that started on horseback at 2am and ended after a 5-hour crossing in a whale boat rowed by Hawai’ians over rough seas. All the children spoke fluent Hawai’ian, as did their father, and had the peerless survival skills of both parents. Their mother, whose own childhood was spent in the wilds of New Zealand, seems to have been unfazed by danger. Wrote Ida:

I remember once when some one asked Mama how she could  bear to have her children running along the cliffs of the Waimea Canyon, hunting wild cattle, exploring the Alakai Swamp, etc., she replied, ‘If they are so fool-hardy as to fall over [the side of Waimea Canyon], or become lost, I tell them it will be good riddance to bad rubbish.’

But  Anne and Valdemar, both products of prosperous, educated families, were equally dedicated to their children’s formal education. At the ranch, Anne began the day by teaching them reading, writing and music. Then Valdemar would take over, teaching math and German before turning the children loose to collect plant samples for their botany class. An amateur ornithologist who was the first to catalog the Island’s birds, Valdemar also taught his children astronomy and Norse folklore.

The Knudsen children’s home-schooling culminated in a nearly three-year family stay in Berlin and Vienna, where they were enrolled at various academies and conservatories. They completed their educations in Boston, the girls at finishing school and the boys at Harvard and MIT. 

Valdemar Knudsen and His Children in Vienna, 1885

Kaua’i was home, but the Knudsen children’s splendid educations were a springboard for their varied destinies. Ida, a conservatory-trained musician, became a patron of the arts in Honolulu while raising a large family in the adventuresome style of her own childhood. Maud became a talented painter as well as a wife and mother. Eric, in addition to running his father’s businesses, had a distinguished political career in Hawai’i and became a noted folklorist. But it was Augustus who broke with the family, and with Kaua’i. Though he became an engineer as Valdemar had wished, and returned to Kaua’i for a time to run the family ranch, he was far more passionate about astronomy and religion. It was the latter interest, which he attributed to encounters with kahuna (Hawai’ian priests), that drew him to India and Hollywood, places far removed from his childhood paradise.

Additional Source for quotes and photos: Von Holt, Ida Elizabeth Knudsen. Stories of Long Ago, Niihau, Kauai, Oahu. Honolulu: Daughters of Hawaii, 1985.
For more about the Krotona Colony, purchase the documentary “Under the Hollywood Sign” at http://hopeandersonproductions.com/?page_id=3361
The film is also available for rent at https://vimeo.com/ondemand/uths

The Krotona Colony’s Kaua’i Roots, Part I: Anne Sinclair Knudsen and the Ahupua’a of Koloa

January 28, 2011 § 1 Comment

Anne Sinclair Knudsen

Anne Sinclair Knudsen (1839-1922) was not only the matriarch of one of Hawaii’s most distinguished kama’aina (non-native resident) families but a major landholder in her own right. When she married the much older Valdemar Knudsen in 1867, Anne Sinclair was already an heiress who lived on her family’s private island–Ni’ihau–off the western coast of Kaua’i.

Anne’s widowed mother, Eliza McHutchinson Sinclair, had purchased Ni’ihau from King Kamehameha IV in 1863. For this substantial but arid property, she paid $10,000. (The Sinclairs, a prosperous and highly adventuresome Scottish family, had come to Hawaii after two decades in New Zealand, where they raised cattle and played a significant role in the colony’s development.) Four years later, Mrs. Sinclair gave Anne $10,000 as a wedding present, which Anne used to buy the Ahupua’a of Koloa, a magnificent parcel on Kaua’i’s South Shore. The 6,500 acres stretched from what is now Highway 50 to the Pacific, and included Knudsen’s Gap, the town of Koloa, and Poipu Beach. Because her husband Valdemar also owned considerable acreage on Kaua’i, including the Kekaha Sugar Company, their combined holdings made the Knudsen family one of Hawaii’s largest landowners.

The Tree Tunnel in Knudsen's Gap, Kauai/Hope Anderson Productions

Upon Anne’s death, the Ahupua’a of Koloa passed to her two sons, Augustus and Eric. (A third son, Arthur, had developed major mental illness in his twenties, and died before his mother.) Anne had spent some of her long widowhood in Beachwood Canyon, where Augustus had moved in 1912. The Knudsen house on Vista del Mar Avenue, though Spanish Colonial in style, was Hawaiian in spirit, with terraces off all its room and a lanai that took up the entire third floor. One imagines the elderly Anne Sinclair Knudsen there, staring out over Hollywood while remembering a very different view: the blue waters off Kaua’i, and the whale-shaped island of Ni’ihau in the distance. 

Additional Sources:
Von Holt, Ida Elizabeth Knudsen. Stories of Long Ago: Niihau, Kauai, Oahu. Honolulu: Daughters of Hawaii, 1985.
The Knudsen Trust, www.knudsentrust.org
Alfred Willis, “The Surviving Buildings of the Krotona Colony in Hollywood,” Architronic, vol. 8 n. 1, 1998.

For more about the Krotona Colony, purchase the documentary “Under the Hollywood Sign” at http://hopeandersonproductions.com/?page_id=3361
The film is also available for rent at https://vimeo.com/ondemand/uths

Under the Hollywood Sign Takes a Vacation (Sort of)

January 22, 2011 § 2 Comments

My trip to Kaua’i has included research at the Kaua’i Museum, whose curator, Chris Faye, kindly allowed me to see the Augustus Knudsen Archive.

Readers of this blog will remember him as one of the financial backers of the Krotona Colony in 1911. A dedicated Theosophist, Knudsen abandoned his family in Kauai to begin a new life in Beachwood Canyon. The Archive,  which includes photos from that era, is distinguished by an oral history by his daughter, Ruth Knudsen Hanner.

More on the Archive, and the Knudsens’ legacy on Kaua’i, in future posts.

The Krotona Colony’s Kaua’i Connection: How Sugar Paid for Beachwood’s Garden of Eden

June 24, 2009 § 8 Comments

When the Theosophical  Society relocated from Chicago to Hollywood in 1912, its choice of Beachwood Canyon was no accident. A.P. Warrington, the head of the American Branch, had dreamed of founding a utopian community where Theosophists of all socio-economic backgrounds could live and practice their religion. While the Society’s International President, Annie Besant, advocated Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico or Mexico, Warrington favored Southern California and considered properties in Alhambra, Pasadena, and West Los Angeles before discovering the ten-acre tract at the southwest corner of Beachwood Canyon. (The tract ran approximately between Argyle and Beachwood [W-E] and Primrose and Graciosa [S-N]) 

Beachwood Canyon was the Theosophists’ ideal. Not only did it boast a mild climate and spectacular views in every direction, but its location–at the northern edge of Hollywood–would allow members to live an essentially rural life while holding a variety of non-agrarian jobs. Excellent public transportation, via the trolley that stopped at Argyle and Franklin, was a stone’s throw away.

Just as important was the fact that Theosophists would have a year-round growing season for their vegetarian diet. Beachwood’s microclimate supported not only typical fare like tomatoes and beans but exotic tropicals like avocados, bananas and pineapples. The latter two were already being grown on a farm at the corner of Gower and Franklin. (The fact that Beachwood soil was thin and sandy seems not to have troubled the Theosophists.)

Warrington was ecstatic with his find, writing to Annie Besant:

“…I have just bought, though the generous donation of one or two earnest members, ten acres of land in the Hollywood Hills, overlooking Los Angeles, the valley and the sea in the distance….We can make [it] a veritable Garden of Eden, because the….region we have chosen happens to be one of thse rare spots that are [sic] absolutely frostless, and so we can raise anything, from the most delicate fruits up to the hardy ones.”

Plans were quickly drawn up for the new community, which Warrington named Krotona, after the 5th Century, B.C., school founded by Pythagoras. The highly regarded architectural firm of Mead and Requa was commissioned to design Krotona’s two most significant buildings: the Krotona Inn (now Krotona Apartments), a combination lecture hall-worship space and living quarters for students; and the Knudsen Residence, home to Augustus Knudsen. Knudsen was a prominent Theosophist and the most important of the “earnest members” whose money bought the land for the Krotona Colony.

Augustus Knudsen was a son of one of Hawai’i’s most prominent haole families. His father  Valdemar emigrated from Norway to Kaua’i in 1856, where he managed a plantation, Grove Farm, and (apparently) owned brothels during his rise as a sugar baron. By the 1870s, Valdemar was not only one of the largest landholders on Kaua’i, but a noted botanist and ornithologist. His importance is reflected in not only in his classic study of Hawai’ian birds but various place names on Kaua’i–Knudsen Road, Anne Knudsen Park, and Knudsen’s Gap.

Kauai's Waimea Canyon, which lies north of the Knudsen Ranch. Photo by Hope Anderson Productions

Kaua'i's Waimea Canyon, which lies north of the Knudsen Ranch. Photo by Hope Anderson Productions

Valdemar and his Ni’ihau-born wife, Anne Sinclair Knudsen, had five children. The most prominent, Eric Alfred, was a writer, folklorist, lawyer and politician who served as Speaker of the Hawai’i House of Representatives. 

Eric’s brother Augustus Knudsen was also a writer, authoring two engineering books and one on astronomy. After studying civil engineering at MIT, he returned to Kaua’i to manage the family ranch and hold various positions in local government. Drawn to Theosophy because of  his experiences with Hawai’ian kahunas and their rituals, he traveled to India and joined the Theosophical Society in 1897.  After another decade of ranching and farming on Kaua’i, Augustus Knudsen moved to Los Angeles with his wife and widowed mother. His vocation in Hollywood was publishing an agricultural magazine called Little Farms–and, of course, establishing the Krotona Colony. 

Knudsen’s fortune came from Valdemar’s Kekaha Sugar Company.  Thus Hawai’ian sugar not only bought the Krotona tract but the magnificent Mead and Requa hillside house that Knudsen commissioned for his family at 2117-2121 Vista Del Mar Avenue. Though the building no longer stands–its address is now occupied by the Krotona Apartments’ parking lot and a couple of small apartment buildings–Knudsen’s Hawai’ian roots are obvious in the original plans. Every room opens onto a terrace and the entire third floor is a lanai. In a Spanish Colonial flourish, Mead and Requa included a central courtyard with a garden.

Krotona Apts. Sign with parking lot in background. Photo by Hope Anderson Productions

Krotona Apts. Sign with parking lot in background. Photo by Hope Anderson Productions

When the Krotona Colony began, Augustus Knudsen called it “an answer to the demand for a more definite exposition of the work called for in the Third Object of the Theosophical Society–the investigation of powers latent in man.” Whether or not Krotona achieved this purpose,  Knudsen played a crucial economic and philosophical role in its development.

On a personal note, I knew none of this when I moved to Beachwood less than four years ago, though I remember inexplicably comparing the Canyon’s atmosphere to that of Kaua’i, where my family has a 50-year history.  It happens that the park named for Anne Knudsen is in Koloa, our home base on the island. A weirder coincidence is that I did all the field research for my undergraduate thesis at Grove Farm Plantation, where Valdemar got his start. Thus when I first encountered Augustus Knudsen’s name while researching Krotona,  I experienced opposing emotions: the shock of recognition and relief that my instincts about Beachwood and Kaua’i had a historical basis.

I am indebted to the following resources and authors:

“A Survey of Surviving Buildings of the Krotona Colony in Hollywood,” by Alfred Willis. Architronic, 1998.

Krotona of Old Hollywood, 1866-1913, Vol. I, by Joseph E. Ross. Montecito, CA: El Montecito Oaks Press, 1989.
For more about the Krotona Colony, purchase the documentary “Under the Hollywood Sign” at http://hopeandersonproductions.com/?page_id=3361
The film is also available for rent at https://vimeo.com/ondemand/uths

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