Celebrating Duke Kahanamoku ’s 1912 Olympics

When I recently wrote a column about a historic photo of Duke Kahanamoku and Babe Ruth on the sands of Waikiki, I received an enthusiastic phone call from my good friend Jim Gaddis. It turns out that Jim is the calabash nephew of Duke’s official biographer Joe Brennan, author of Duke of Hawaii and several other books and novels about Hawaii’s favorite son.

“Joe willed me the first edition of all his novels, plus all of his photos of Duke, and many of the photos have never been published,” he says.

Duke Kahanamoku

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Duke in The Fire Walk, 1929

This is the 100th anniversary year of Duke’s triumphant 1912 trip to the Mainland U.S. and eventually to Stockholm, where he earned his first Olympic gold medal (photo 4). Also in the spring of 1912, Duke is credited with introducing the sport of surfing to southern California, where it caught on like wildfire.

Later, he also introduced surfing to Australia.

By the early 1920s, Duke had followed the lead of many Olympic athletes and began starring in silent films in Hollywood. He usually played the supporting role of a dark-skinned friend or foe – everything from Native American to Polynesian to Turk or Arab. Ironically, he never played a Hawaiian!

“In 1921, Uncle Joe was an up-and-coming bantamweight boxer known as ‘Coke Brennan’ because he worked for Coca Cola,” Jim says. “It was the big thing back then for actors to visit the boxers in the dressing rooms before their fights to wish them good luck. When Duke came into Joe’s dressing room, Joe was star struck. He had grown up in Newport Beach and was a waterman himself – and here is the most famous waterman in the world! They quickly became best buddies.”

Years later, Brennan the writer moved to Hawaii and continued his friendship with Kahanamoku. He published his first novel about Duke a month after his good friend passed away at the age of 77 in 1968.

“It had always been Duke’s wish that any books about him came out after he died,” Jim says. Joe fulfilled his friend’s wishes and wrote passionately about Duke’s many exploits, and then three decades later, when he himself passed away at the age of 96, he willed his novels and his private photos to the young man who reveled in hearing about all the great stories, Hawaii sports fan Jim Gaddis.