THE LAST HAWAIIAN PRINCESS
Her full name was Abigail Kinoiki Kekaulike Kawananakoa and she was born a Hawaiian princess.
Her parents were Lydia Kawananakoa, a well-known socialite, and Irish- American doctor, William Ellerbrook. Abigail was an only child. She was always known by her friends and family as ‘Kekau’.
Hawaii had been a monarchy until 1893, when the last king, Ali’i Kaumali’i, was overthrown by a group of American businessmen. At the time, US President Grover Cleveland called the coup, “an embarrassment”.
However, Hawaii did not become a state of the USA until 1959.
The last two monarchs of Hawaii had been childless so distant relatives were named as heirs to the now, non-existent throne. Lydia was one and in turn so was her daughter, Abigail.
The family were enormously wealthy, not just from the royal connection but because in previous generations an ancestor had owned sugar plantations throughout Hawaii – and had married into the royal family.
Her grandfather, David, was an adventurer – and with his brothers was believed to have introduced surfing to California.
Abigail had to be legally adopted by her grandmother (also called Abigail) in order to be acknowledged as a princess and an heir to the throne.
It was often said she was the rightful Queen of Hawaii but she denied this, saying that had the monarchy still been active, her cousin Edward would have been crowned before her. “However, I would have been the power behind the throne,” she added.
Abigail was educated in Honolulu, then California, before returning to take her degree at the University of Hawaii.
Her grandmother Abigail, died on the 12th April 1945 – the very same day that USA President Franklin D. Roosevelt died. She continued to commemorate her grandmother’s birthday each year.
In 1952, Abigail became engaged to Peter Perkins, a male model and star polo player, but the couple never married. Nevertheless, Abigail retained a lifelong love of the sport of polo.
She became an expert horsewoman and owned stables in Hawaii, California and Washington State. She was a noted breeder of quarter horses, and she won many competitions and horse races.
Quarter horses race over short distances at a very fast speed (races being about a quarter the distance of a normal horse race). The biggest prize pot she ever won was $1.9 million with a horse called, aptly enough, ‘Classic Dash’.
She bred four world champions and won $9.89 million in prize money. Her horse ‘Evening Snow’ broke the world record. Abigail was inaugurated into the American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame.
There is an annual race called ‘The Princess Abigail Stakes’ run at Los Alamitos racecourse in California, with a $100,000 prize for the winner.
In time, as relatives died, Abigail increased her wealth. She started an ‘Abigail Kawananakoa Living Trust’, to use her money for philanthropic purposes. Lawyer Jim Wright became the lead trustee, managing the finances.
She set up a scholarship fund to enable young Hawaiians to go to university, and constantly put lots of money into education (and health) for locals, being active in encouraging preservation of the native language.
Abigail often paid for poor families to receive medical care and assistance with housing or education. She also paid for the Honolulu rail system.
She also replaced her mother as Chairperson of the ‘Friends of Iolani Palace’, on the island of O’ahu, officially the only royal residence in the USA. Built by a great uncle of hers, it is regarded as the best example of traditional Hawaiian architecture. The palace was turned into a museum – and Abigail paid for most of the restoration.
Abigail funded an Equine Medical programme at the University of Colorado and was subsequently awarded an honorary degree by them.
At no point did she ever try to claim her ancestral lands. Everything she owned, she paid for.
Abigail could be quite mischievous, especially in her dealings with religious leaders. She once offered $100,000 to the Catholic Diocese of Honolulu, but it came with the condition that she was given a photograph of Pope Benedict 16th receiving the cheque. She was stunned when the photo duly arrived.
She was the driving force behind the Merrie Monarch Festival, a celebration of Hawaiian culture which goes on for a week around Easter time. This has become increasingly popular over the years.
It has added a hula competition which is now televised live throughout Hawaii.
She funded and created other cultural festivals too, such as the Prince Lot Hula Festival.
And she supported the Polynesian Voyaging Society, dedicated to traditional boating methods.
But there was also controversy – on quite a few occasions.
Back in 1963, she was visited on Christmas Day by a British woman called Valerie Wallace-Milroy. On the 4th January 1964, Valerie was found dead in bed in Abigail’s house.
The inquest returned a verdict of ‘probable suicide’. However, Hawaii was rife with rumours. Abigail never commented in public about the death.
In 1992, her former friend, trustee of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Billie Beamer, wrote a poison pen novel called ‘the Royal Torch’. The main character was clearly based on Abigail, with stories of wild parties and heavy drinking.
Abigail was not happy about the book but chose not to sue him. “It doesn’t bother me. I’ve been called every name in the book”.
In 1997, Abigail was declared bankrupt. At her court case, the Chief Justice from the Hawaiian Court joined her, sitting at the table of the defendant. The presiding judge announced this was against the rules. The Chief Justice said he was legally allowed to be there as a distant relative. Amazingly, Abigail was let off all charges and her fortune was restored within a year.
She spent many years living in California, and occasionally in Shanghai. When she returned, some people objected to her involvement in Hawaiian life. “She doesn’t look Hawaiian, she looks like a white lady. For many years she lived on the mainland. When she came back, people thought she was an intruder and she had to fight her way back.” (Roger Rose – Museum Curator)
Abigail also caused an uproar in 1998 when she had herself photographed sitting on the throne in the Iolani Palace, for the cover of Life Magazine. In the article she called herself, ‘the big cheese’. Conservators were upset that she might have damaged the ancient silk and linen coverings on the throne.
Abigail was forced to resign as Chair of the Friends of Iolani Palace, after 27 years’ service. “They asked for my head, and I gave it to them”.
Nevertheless, she continued to pay the electricity bill of the palace.
And she was found a few weeks later fixing the fences that surround the palace.
In 2004, a cafeteria worker from Pennsylvania stole her identity and convinced the IRS (Inland Revenue Service) that she was Princess Abigail and was given the $2.1 million owed to Abigail in tax rebate.
When the crime was uncovered, most of the money was successfully recovered.
In 2012, the Dalai Lama visited Hawaii. Abigail was allowed to host a banquet in the Iolani Palace. She charged 25 cents per ticket. It was the last time the palace was used for a major event.
In 2017, Abigail married 63-year-old Veronica Gail Worth, who had been her girlfriend for over 20 years.
Shortly afterwards, attorney and trustee of her foundation, Jim Wright, accused Veronica of abusing his spouse – and Abigail as well. He said Abigail was paying Veronica $700,000 a year as her personal secretary and the latter was trying to access more of the fortune. He cited two previous convictions Veronica had for theft in 1985.
Abigail immediately sacked him and also claimed he had tried to steal millions of dollars from the foundation. The case went to court and was fought bitterly by both sides, for nearly three years.
She said she had fired Wright because, “I felt he was not following my personal wishes and he was mismanaging my affairs.”
Ultimately, in 2020, the court decided Abigail (who had a stroke during the court case), was no longer able to manage her finances.
The First Hawaiian Bank was named as the trustee, replacing Wright. But in addition, the court put a $200 million gagging order on Wright, so he couldn’t reveal any of her secrets.
She also claimed that when she died, she wanted to be buried in the Hawaiian Royal Mausoleum, which had been sealed for many years and was a sacred site. This led to a heated debate throughout the state as to whether this was morally acceptable.
Abigail died of another stroke. Her body lay in state for a few days and all flags were flown at half-mast – and she was buried in the Royal Mausoleum (the 12th Hawaiian royal to be interred there).
Governor of Hawaii, Josh Green, said, “Abigail bore the weight of her position with humility and enriched the lives of everyone she touched and like so many Ali’i who came before her, she left a legacy dedicated to her people in perpetuity.”
He went on to say, “There has been much public praise for her and much whispered criticism”. Nevertheless, he credited her with starting the Hawaiian Renaissance, the social and cultural transformation of Hawaii.
Her partner Veronica said, “Abigail will be remembered for her love of Hawaii and its people.”
In an interview in 2019, Abigail had said, “Heritage dictates that I must take care of the Hawaiian people.” Consequently, half of her fortune has been left to her foundation to fund good causes throughout the state.
It is estimated she died with a fortune of $215 million.
She outlived her cousin Edward so technically she became Queen of Hawaii.
The Hawaiian press said she had been, “a living reminder of Hawaiian national identity.”
RIP- Royal Imperial Princess