Jackie O’loha: When Jacqueline Kennedy Lived in Hawaii for Seven Weeks

Jackie Kennedy on the balcony of the Hawaiian Governor’s office.

She was forever associated with New York, Washington, Boston and Paris and she knew London, Newport, Rome, Athens and Palm Beach like the back of her hand.

June 5, 1966: Mrs. Kennedy leading her son John through a gift shop in the New York airport named for her late husband, before boarding their plane to Hawaii.

On this day in 1966, however, the world’s most famous woman, President Kennedy‘s widow and a Jet-Set global celebrity her own right by then, Jackie Kennedy fulfilled a dream she’d held for nearly twenty years and finally got to explore Hawaii. She so fell in love with the islands that she planned on  buying a home there.

Unlike so many of the resorts and High Society watering holes of the Eastern seaboard and European coasts and cities, she was stunned to realize there was a place on the planet where everyone knew who she was, yet let her alone to relax as herself, with her two young children, Caroline and John, then ages eight and five, respectively.

“I had forgotten, and my children have never know what it is like to discover a new place, unwatched and unnoticed,” she remarked. Originally planning to visit for four weeks in a rented house within view of Diamond Head mountain, not far from the famous Waikiki Beach, she stayed another three and a half weeks, having been loaned an even grander estate to stay on.

Jacqueline Kennedy heading towards her plane at JFK Airport, taking her to San Francisco, from which she flew to the islands. With her is son John and niece Sydney Lawford.

It was something of a family event. Along with her two children, Jackie was being joined by her brother-in-law by marriage, Peter Lawford, recently divorced from the late President’s sister Patricia, along with his two children Christopher, 11, and Sydney, 9, who had become a particularly close friend to her cousin Caroline. While some were startled that the Catholic presidential widow would be chaperoned, so to speak, by her recently divorced in-law, a claim that the Hawaiian trip was made solely with the intention of continuing in private a romantic liaison already underway was never suspected or discovered at the time of Jackie’s Hawaiian sojourn.

President Kennedy with Warnecke.

According to what he later told several of her posthumous biographers, John Carl Warnecke, the late President’s friend and the architect designing his at Arlington National Cemetery gravesite, was then in the midst of a love affair with the former First Lady and that the subject of marriage had even been broached.

The Hawaiian State Capitol Building.

Warnecke, a renowned architect, was then completing his vision of the Mid-Century Modern Hawaiian State Capitol Building, as well as the master plan for a resort development on the island of Maui.

There was some slight speculation about it at the time, but overlooked or ignored is the less gossipy reason for her visit which Jackie Kennedy told reporters when she landed in Honolulu, and was bestowed with the traditional welcome lei:

“At college, a group of girls from Hawai‘i were my friends. I had never heard any people speak of home with such nostalgia as they did—the waters, the winds, the names, the flowers, the peace—I always wanted to come to the place that was loved so much.”

Jacqueline Kennedy and Peter Lawford Arriving In Honolulu.

Among the most socially prominent of those with native Hawaiian and immigrant blood on the islands, and related to the royal Hawaiian family, the elderly Cicely Johnston helped arrange for Jackie to rent the Honolulu home of Colorado’s U.S. Senator Peter Dominick for $3,000 for the full month, in the exclusive Kahala section of Honolulu.

Jackie would become so relaxed so quickly that within days she could be found most mornings at Mrs. Johnston’s home, (just down Kahala Avenue from her rental home), serving breakfast to her sons.

Upon her arrival at the airport, she bruised a lot of eager natives who had turned out to the astounding number of 5,000, with a full and official welcoming ceremony, including young girls in grass skirts doing a hula – which caused young John to ignore his mother’s imploring to stay by his side. He kept running up to all the little girls.

Jackie drew a crowd larger than President Johnson had – or any official visitor for that matter, including President Kennedy when he visited exactly three years earlier. Intending for the entire trip to be genuinely private, however, she completely ignored the large welcome to instead immediately cram with her family into their waiting car. Although the streets of the city were lined with people waiting to glimpse and cheer her, the car diverted to a less obvious route.

Don Ho, the hit of Hawaii in the days of Jackie’s time there. He pushed her into a pool – and she loved it.

While in Honolulu, she would be spotted at parties hosted by tobacco heiress Doris Duke, as well as Cicely Johnston.

During a formal party at the Kahala Resort, where Lawford and his children were staying,  Jackie’s nephew pushed her niece into the pool, and then her son pushed someone else into the pool.

The former First Lady turned to the  famous Hawaiian singer Don Ho, who was entertaining guests and said mischievously, “Wouldn’t it be funny if we all ended up in the pool?”

The pool at the famous Kahala Resort – where Don Ho pushed Jackie in.

Taking that as his cue, he lifted her and threw her in.  The Secret Service agents were enraged but when one reached down to help her out, she pulled him in. Don Ho wrote an apology note the next day to which Jackie responded, “Don’t worry,” and assured him it was just what she needed.

Three years before Jackie’s Waikiki visit, Duke and some of his old-timer beach boys at the Outrigger Club.

It was during a party at the Outrigger Club, a legendary private beach club, that Jackie met some of the expert native Hawaiian swimmers and surfers who, despite being middle-aged, were known as the famous Waikiki Beachboys.

Jackie relaxing in Hawaii with Peter Lawford.

She was nearly overcome with tears when she learned of how loyal the crew of friends had remained for decades and how humble they had remained, for despite their chances at greater wealth on the mainland, none were willing to abandon Waikiki.

No photos of the encounter have surfaced and while it isn’t known if she met the most famous of them, Duke Kahanamoku, she did come to know Ah Kin Yee – known as “Buck,” an expert diver and oarsman, who had been a swimmer with the Healani Yacht and Boat Club, and later joined the Outrigger Canoe Club.

Once she felt assured there were no photographers lurking, Jackie coaxed Buck into teaching her how to surf.

One aspect of her life in Honolulu which grew into a compelling fascination for Jackie was the process, just then beginning, of watching the historic restoration of the nearly century-old Iolani Palace, where the Hawaiian royal family had lived.

The Iolani Palace.

After the Kingdom had been seized by the U.S. and then became a Republic, territory and finally – just seven years before her visit – a state, the palace had been used as the legislature and governor’s office.

Once Warnecke’s new state capitol would be completed in 1969, the palace would be slowly restored, room by room, its antiques and furnishings having been stripped and sold off when the U.S. government seized it.

Jacqueline Kennedy toured the rooms of the palace, especially impressed with the throne room, the only one even partially restored at the time.

So began a new and lifelong fascination with yet another culture.

Unlike her interest in European history which she had begun as a child, Hawaii and its monarchy had was entirely unknown to her before she had come to Hawaii; she pursued its study with her typical passion for gathering and storing information, obtaining reading material from the state archives and visiting the Bishop Museum of Hawaiian history.

All of this had been greatly induced by the coincidence of her being in Honolulu on June 11, the annual holiday celebrated state-wide to honor King Kamehameha, who unified the island’s colonies.

Jackie and John Kennedy watch the King Kahmehameha Day parade from the balcony of Governor John Burns.

Jackie joined some of the Hawaiian royal family descendants on the balcony of the governor’s office at the Iolani Palace, to review the King Kamehameha Day parade.

Jackie Kennedy quieting her restless son during the parade.

When the gift of a toy truck failed to quiet young John Kennedy, who then began acting out, the former First Lady had no hesitation in making a scene – and reprimanding him in front of others, as any 60s mother would.

Jackie and John Kennedy with Kamokila Campbell at Kamehameha Day ceremonies.

Jackie Kennedy placing flower lei at the foot of King Kamehameha’s statue in Honolulu.

Mrs. Kennedy Swimming with John Jr.

Once he quieted down, he joined her and his sister at the base of the statue of King Kamehameha. There Jackie placed a lei in his honor, as was the tradition.

She also had the chance on Maui to teach her son some of her own expert swimming skills, and would continue to do so later in the year, when they visited Antigua.  Despite being a heavy cigarette smoker, Jackie Kennedy never lost her ability for long-distance swimming, even in treacherous waters;  it was an ability she passed on to her son.On several Sundays, she left the kids at home, and joined friends for a raucous brunch in Lehaina on Maui at the old Pioneer Inn.

The Kaiser estate where Jackie and her kids extended their Hawaiian stay.

Extending her stay to a full seven weeks, Jackie explored the other islands as well, and was given the use of an amazing and vast estate, owned by Henry Kaiser, a member of a prominent Hawaiian family. She participated in something of a tradition by planting a tree at the famous Coca Palms resort  on Kauai and then lived for about ten days in a remote camp, in isolated paradise. It was marred only when John was playing around a campfire and fell into the hot coals; e had to be rushed by helicopter to be treated at the hospital for his burns.

Jackie studies Chinese art drawing in Hawaii.

Apart from her time with her brother-in-law, nephew, niece, son, daughter, the various prominent Hawaiians, and Warnecke, Jackie Kennedy also ensured that she had hours of full solitude each day, to pursue her own artistic talents.

She enrolled for ten days of lessons with professor Chew Hee in a study of Chinese painting and calligraphy, purchasing special pens, inks, paints and brushes and coming each day to Hee’s Kaneohe studio for her instructions.

The former First Lady in the hall outside the art school she attended all through June of 1966.

Hee also snapped some photographs for her to remember that time. Five months later, at Christmas, Dr. Hee sent Jackie a copy of the Tao of Painting: A Study of the Ritual Disposition of Chinese Painting.

All too soon, it was time for her to leave the islands and return to the mainland and the same global obsession with everything she said and did, every item of clothing to be scrutinized, every male friend she was seen with predicted to be her next husband.

One thing that had astounded her in Hawaii was how rarely she was stared at or stopped for an autograph or praised for her courage during the president’s assassination and funeral. More remarkably, she was never assaulted with cameras by either professionals, locals or tourists.  It’s one reason there are almost no pictures of her seven weeks spent living there.

She was so shocked and appreciative of this that before she had returned to the East Coast on July 26, two days preceding her 36th birthday, Jackie Kennedy wrote a letter to the editors of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin and the Honolulu Advertiser for publication throughout the islands:

“I want to thank you for all that you have done to make this vacation such a perfect one for my children and for me. From Governor Burns who so kindly watched over us and asked people to help make our visit private to the driver of a vegetable truck who went out of his way to lead us several miles, when we merely asked directions, everyone in Hawaii has been the same. I hope the aloha spirit is contagious, because it could change the world.”

An ink and watercolor rendering of a bird in a cage – with the door left open – which Jackie created during her memorable life in Hawaii, seemingly to represent herself.

During her class instructions, one of the pieces which Jackie Kennedy produced (and kept on a wall in her apartment until her death almost thirty years later), was a small ink and watercolor rendering of a bird in a cage.

The cage door is left open, seemingly so the bird could have the protection of shelter or fly out and explore, to come and go as it pleased.

Besides the image she simply wrote, “Jackie, 1966.”

Whether she signed it as the artist or titled it as the name of the work – only she knew.


Categories: First Ladies, History, Regionality, The Kennedys

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10 replies »

  1. thank you for making my day Carl – on this sad day 5th june 1968, im devilishly happy as a fan, to read about the rumor of an affair between the architect and jackie kennedy back in 1966 which puts bobby kennedy out of the picture and slams their in-laws similar rumor around those years as NY senator… anyways, great detais and images about jackie and hawaii… i giggled when i read about singer trowing jackie in the pool (reminds me of ethel kennedy at hickory with her guests) – just wondering: did jackie tried to learn surfing while her sejour?

  2. That’s an awesome article. It must have been odd to be the “de facto” first lady of the US three years after the President’s death. I can’t think of any other first lady who so eclipsed her successors–or predecessors, for that matter.

    It must have been particularly tough for Lady Bird Johnson, who wrote of her relief when Mrs. Kennedy became Mrs. Onassis.

    Wonder how much post-presidency celebrity Mrs. Kennedy wanted, if any. My guess would be that she would have appreciated the type of fame that comes to an acclaimed artist or writer–lots of prestige among the “right people” without the suffocating media attention.

    Years ago, at Reagan-National Airport, I saw a former first lady surrounded by her plentiful secret service escort walking down the terminal. It seemed as if she scanned the area to glean if she was still recognized. I would bet that was not ever necessary in the case of JBKO.

    • Thanks so much. I think that Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Clinton, like Jackie Kennedy, were also two First Ladies who continued to have global fame after leaving the White House. I think that from 1963 to 1968, Jackie Kennedy really believed that she deserved to be seen as a private citizen – save for her serving as the surrogate or symbol of the JFK Administration, and she wanted and used media attention to complete what she felt was her obligation that would have been JFK’s had he lived – the planning, fundraising and building of the JFK Library and Museum. Hoover, FDR, Truman and Ike had all either begun their libraries during their latter presidential years or during their post-presidential years, but JFK never went so far as to settle on an exact site, except his stated intention that it be near or on the grounds of Harvard University. Almost all of her continued public appearances as Mrs. Onassis were for the JFK Library, JFK Center for Performing Arts or as a symbol of JFK in campaign appearances for Teddy Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1980. It was her own identity – as editor Jackie Onassis, that she used in becoming an historic preservation advocate in the latter 70s and through the early 90s.

  3. Jackie looks just magnificent in these pictures, the “hot” floral shades of the rainforest really compliment her coloring. There is one dress that looks like Hilo Hattie, tho, Real Funky! I hope she was able to hike Volcano Park on big island. I’m surprised she never came back here, it is truly the most beautiful place on earth!

    • I think she also looks great because she had relaxed and was truly herself – and she was always at her best when she was producing something artistic. I agree with you – I have never forgotten my time in Hawaii and even writing this article brought it all back for me, down to the koa wood!

  4. It is nice to have a sense of peace of her the way you have written about her on this trip. To know that in her roller coaster ride of a life before, during and even long after this wonderful time away from her real world, she had a place in her mind to visit of fond memories, and to go there anytime by looking on her wall at her lovely work of art.
    I truely hope so, she deserved every ounce of peace in her lifetime.

    • And that was an awfully wonderful response it produced in you. It’s hard not to imagine how she would have loved the islands. I think that despite the cultural differences, it was important for her to live by the sea. It started with her childhood at the eastern tip of Long Island in East Hampton and other places there, then in Newport at her stepfather’s home, then at Hyannis on Cape Cod, then on the island of Skorpios and finally at her own home in Martha’s Vineyard. Thanks for such an upbeat reaction to this.

  5. I’d have to agree that those are some of the best, most natural pics of Jackie. She does look so relaxed – a person, not an image.

    For some reason, the Hawaii of the 60′s is all wrapped up with Elvis Presley movies and the Brady Bunch for me, which always made it seem like an odd place to find Jackie. Of course, my stereotype is totally ridiculous, but I just couldn’t shake it! Your article made it all come together.

    One other thing I love about Jackie – she seemed utterly fearless when it came to physical challenges – surfing, water skiing, snow skiing, even her final illness. I am afraid that this isn’t a quality I have in such a large amount!

    • I know what you mean – the perception of her as an Eastern seaboard summering person seems dyed-in-the-wool, but you know I think those years between the president’s assassination and her re-marriage – 1963 to 1968 – she was really expanding her base of knowledge and interest in just England, Italy, France and Spain and the big South American republics outward – to the Middle East, to Asia, to the Pacific. That thirst for first-hand knowledge and experience in new places really spoke to her sense of adventure. I think just as she did when she wrote and edited or refurnished her rooms or painted or did her few television appearances it was always about complete and absolute preparation – she was never a wing-it person when the result was serious to her and along those lines, her safety and well-being was important, so I think that although she ultimately seemed and appeared fearless in physical activities, it was always based on small steps of learning and be certain she knew the right way to physical handle a sport. And…it’s a quality anyone can learn to develop anytime – including you Jake!

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