Star-Bulletin file photo
Nadine and Duke Kahanamoku,Honolulu's
unofficial "first couple," in 1960.

Nadine Kahanamoku
‘very special person’

The widow of famed Olympian
Duke Kahanamoku dies at 92

By Cindy Luis and Pat Bigold

In their 1940 wedding photograph, Duke Kahanamoku has his arms outstretched, ready to embrace his new bride, Nadine.

It is the same welcoming gesture captured in Kahanamoku's statue in Waikiki and "it's how I picture their reunion now," said Sandy Hall, co-author of "Memories of Duke: The Legend Comes to Life."

Nadine Kahanamoku died last night in St. Francis Hospice at the age of 92. Her husband, the legendary surfer and Hawaii's first Olympian, died in 1968.

"Nadine had her wedding photo with her in her room," said Hall, who visited her yesterday afternoon. "She drew mana from it. One sensed that time was really precious and that she's been getting ready to meet Duke. She was totally at peace and ready to go up and into his welcoming arms again."

Nadine Alexander Kahanamoku was born in Cleveland, the daughter of an Australian opera singer and an American vaudevillian. She spent most of her youth in Cincinnati, where she was enrolled in the city's music conservatory.

After a brief marriage, she danced professionally before becoming a dance teacher. The late Walter Dillingham hired her in 1938 as an instructor at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel.

She arrived on the Lurline just after Christmas. Several months later, the vivacious Alexander, with sparkling blue eyes, asked for an introduction to the man she had dreamed about as a teen-ager.

"When I was in high school, I saw his picture in a magazine with Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford," Kahanamoku said in a 1990 interview. "They had found this wonderful Hawaiian athlete. "I thought, 'THAT'S the man!' What a gorgeous hunk of humanity."

The couple were married in a private ceremony in Kailua-Kona on Aug. 2, 1940, ending Duke's bachelorhood at age 50. They became Honolulu's unofficial "first couple," frequently entertaining dignitaries and celebrities at their Black Point home.

"They were a striking couple," said Waikiki resident Aileen Riggin Soule, 91, America's oldest living Olympic gold medalist (diving, 1920). "They were awful good looking together.

"Duke was always very well groomed and she looked very dainty next to him. She was a very pretty woman and kept getting prettier as she got older. Her features became very delicate and she became rather fragile. She always dressed well and looked very elegant. She took pains with her appearance. I admired the fact that she was always vivacious and interested in everything, and a good sport."

Soule said she recalled that the Kahanamokus shared a love for ballroom dancing, a recreation they engaged in at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. She said she knew that Duke had a good sense of rhythm because she and the legendary surfer danced together to music played over a gramophone on board a transport ship bound for the 1920 Olympics.

Soule was a teammate of Duke Kahanamoku's on the 1920 and 1924 Olympic swimming and diving teams that competed in Antwerp and Paris, respectively.

They renewed their acquaintence when Soule moved to Honolulu 40 years ago.

In her later years, Kahanamoku kept a selective social calendar, usually limiting her outings to Outrigger Canoe Club and functions honoring her late husband. Her last trip was to Sydney, Australia, for the 1994 dedication of a 20-foot statue of Duke, commemorating his place in Australian swimming and surfing history.

Kahanamoku left her mark on the Waikiki statue of her husband. When sculptor Jan Fisher showed her the statue, she proclaimed, "It's him. Except his shorts are too long."

She marked the correct length with her fingernails. The marks can still be seen.

Kahanamoku took much delight in the posthumous honors bestowed her husband, particularly his induction into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 1984. She did not live to see the one she had hoped for the most: a commemorative stamp of Duke.

The Kahanamoku stamp recently passed the penultimate stage of approval by the U.S. Postal System and may be issued as soon as next year.

"She was a very special person," said Hall. "It became a struggle for her to go out, so we'd have proper English tea parties at her beautiful home. She'd serve it in the grand duchess style and we have Pavlova, Australia's national dessert of meringue and fruit.

"She'd talk about the latest book she was reading. She liked reading about people she had known and has just checked out books on Tallulah Bankhead and Tyrone Power. People forget that she had a life of 35 years before she met Duke. Oh, the stories she could tell about The Cotton Club, Lena Horne, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin. She knew them all."

The couple had no children. Kahanamoku is survived by numerous nieces and nephews.

Services are pending.

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