Mementos of a Royal Hawaiian Love Story

Winona Love, a half English, half Hawaiian hula dancer of great fame, in a screen shot from the Hawaii travelogue “Blonde Captive.”

A matched set of silver goblets. A great golden bed. A marvelous and mysterious hand-stitched quilt, of a unique design not found in the index of the Hawaiian Quilt Research Project. These are the mementoes of one of Hawaii’s great love stories, between Francis I’i Brown, a young man with royal Hawaiian blood in his veins, and Winona Love, a hula dancer.

Winona was half English, half Hawaiian, like so many other island residents. A native of Honolulu, she was heir to a legacy of dance. Experts in the field called her “a great authority on authentic hula.”

An autographed photo of Francis I’i Brown, renowned golfer, politician and conservator of ancestral Hawaiian grounds.

Their love story begins on the shores of Waikiki. The Jazz Age was in full swing in 1927 when the Royal Hawaiian Hotel opened to great fanfare, hailed as the finest resort hostelry in America.

Among the ornate pink hotel’s first guests was Francis Hyde I’i Brown, champion golfer, a force in territorial government and a descendent of a noble Hawai’ian family. Francis traveled the world playing golf—setting a record on St. Andrew’s Old Course in Scotland—and competing in tournaments on every continent.

The dapper playboy with slicked-back hair and A-list wardrobe could scarcely overlook the lovely hula dancer clad in flower leis and a ti leaf skirt when he saw her framed against the Diamond Head sunset.

Winona Love starred at the Royal Hawaiian during its grand opening. One of the most famous Hawai’ian performers of her day, she was renowned for her lovely dance style. Johnny Noble, the famous bandleader, called her “Hawaii’s sweetheart and most graceful dancer.” In his history of Hawaiian entertainment, Tony Todero says, “(Winona’s) great beauty and graceful hula hands made her one of the most popular dancers in the history of Hawaii.”

The two young people, both famous in their own way, seemed fated for each other. Francis and Winona fell in love amid the Royal Hawaiian’s grove of tall coconut palms, trees that once shaded the palace of Hawai’i’s queen.

They never married, but Winona and Francis remained together for the rest of their lives.

Both continued their successful careers, Francis as a legislator and golfer, Winona as a proponent of the hula and prominent Honolulu hostess.

In 1929 and 1931, movie travelogues “Aloha Hawaii” and “The Blond Captive” featured Ms. Love as the ideal of Hawaiian culture. Her style was considered so beautiful that David O. Selznick and King Vidor hired her as a consultant on their RKO movie “Bird of Paradise,” the first full-length Hawaiian talkie. Her task: to teach star Dolores del Rio how to do the hula. Del Rio’s graceful hand movements can be credited to Winona, although the Latina star’s hip movements proved less easily tamed.

Both “Bird of Paradise” and “Blonde Captive” are available for free viewing on the Internet, so you can judge for yourself. A few seconds of Winona’s hula can be found about six minutes into the otherwise unwatchable “Blonde Captive.”

In Honolulu, Winona appeared regularly with Johnny Noble and his orchestra at the Royal Hawaiian and Moana Hotels.

Meanwhile, Francis I’i Brown continued to gain stature as both a politician and a sportsman.

Brown’s family had a long tradition of public service. Named for his grandfather John Papa I’i, a noted historian, judge and educator who served in the courts of Kings Kamehameha II-V, Francis was elected in 1927 to the Territorial Senate. He remained in office for 20 years, retiring in 1947.

A set of eight matched silver goblets engraved with the initials “FHIB” used at many a festive gathering hosted by Winona Love and Francis Hyde I’i Brown.

But Francis Brown’s greatest fame was as a sportsman and golfer. Known as “Mr. Golf of Hawai’i,” he is considered one of the finest golfers ever produced by the islands and is an inaugural member of the Hawai’i Sports Hall of Fame. Between 1920 and 1934, he won nine Manoa Cup championships, then the top golf tournament in the state. He made 14 holes-in-one during his career and shattered course records at St. Andrew’s and Pebble Beach. In 1929-30, he won a string of championships, making him simultaneously the top amateur golfer of Japan, California and Hawai’i.

Brown was also an avid fisherman and boater and took an interest in competitive swimming, tennis and polo, helping to build the famous Mokule‘ia Polo Field. And he never missed a Hawai‘i Islanders baseball game.

Soon after they met, Francis whisked Winona away for a romantic sojourn on the Kohala Coast, on the west side of the Big Island. His royal ancestors ruled the area in the days of the Kamehamehas and Brown returned to his roots, purchasing several properties north of the village of Kailua-Kona, at Keawa’iki Bay and eight miles north at Kalahuipua’a, tropical oases set amid black lava that flowed down from Mauna Kea in ancient times.

The area abounds in fishponds built by the ancient Hawaiians to ensure a steady supply of fish for royal feasts. These ponds were considered sacred and, in the spirit of his ancestors, Francis Brown restored the ponds, building cottages for himself and his friends. His favorite retreat was a tiny lava rock pavilion, just big enough for two, set on an island in the middle of one of the fishponds.

On these isolated shores, looking west over the Pacific Ocean, Winona and Francis gathered their friends for parties that soon achieved legendary status. Here the sounds of surf and wind in the palm trees blended with the gentle rhythm of ukuleles as the sun set into the ocean, signaling another night of revelry.

The hospitality matched the setting. Feasting on fresh fish gave way to toasting from silver cups and the singing of songs, old and new. When the lyrics moved them, people would dance, telling the song’s story with hula hand gestures.

Another silver mug belonging to Winona Love, engraved with the date October 26, 1912.

No guest lists from these parties exist, but Helen D. Beamer, the great composer and founder of a prominent family of Hawaiian musicians, wrote a song about the parties at Keawaiki and her friends there:

“Here is an invitation from Keawa’iki
To visit, to relax, to gather together,
To feast with this company…
Beautiful and truly pleasant
This home by the sea’s edge
There may you prosper
Beloved child of Hawai’i
You’re a real favorite of ours.”

In the 1930s, Francis expanded his holdings, buying the nearby cottage built by James Frank Woods for his bride Eva Parker, both descendents of the founder of Parker Ranch. The romantic cottage, a favorite getaway for Winona and Frank, and today a museum at the Mauna Lani Resort, remains a popular spot for weddings.

Brown is responsible for much of the current charm of the fabled Mauna Lani. He restored the Kalahuipua’a fishponds, built roads and repaired walls, and planted many of the palms and other tropical trees that dot the property today. With his friend, Noboru Gotoh, chairman of the Tokyu Corporation, he first visualized the transformation of his estate into an exclusive and uniquely Hawaiian resort.

The Mauna Lani’s two championship courses, considered some of the best and most beautiful in the world, are named for him. Carved into the lava flow, the Francis H. I’i Brown courses feature emerald greens set amid black a’a lava roughs, a fitting tribute to Hawaii’s Mr. Golf.

At sunset, Mauna Lani guests can set sail aboard a catamaran named for Winona, another fitting tribute, this one to a graceful and lovely lady.

This unique Hawaiian quilt, traditionally fashioned in red and white, with intricate and delicate stitchery, features a rare pattern, not found in any Hawaiian quilt collection.

Winona Love and Francis Brown charmed all who met them and became friends with many Hollywood stars and sports figures, including the great surfer Duke Kahanamoku, winner of five Olympic medals for swimming.

Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Babe Ruth, Phil Harris and his wife Alice Faye along with many other golf-loving celebrities were among their regular guests, both at their Big Island retreats and at the homes Francis and Winona maintained in Honolulu and at Pebble Beach, Ca., where Brown was a frequent contender in Bing Crosby’s famous Pebble Beach Clambake.

“My aunt and uncle loved to give dinner parties,” says Winona Love, niece and namesake of her aunt Winona. “I met so many famous people around their dinner table.”

The younger Winona, the daughter of Winona’s brother Alan “Turkey” Love, grew up in Honolulu just down the street from her aunt and uncle and spent much time with them. “I was sort of the child, or grand-child, they never had,” she says.

From her aunt, she inherited many mementoes of the years Winona and Francis spent together. Among them are a set of eight matched silver goblets engraved with the initials “FHIB” used at many a festive gathering, plus other silver used on Winona’s table, including a custom sterling silver cup created by Allan Adler, “silversmith to the stars.” Other evocative pieces include furniture from Winona and Francis’ homes including a massive bed, made of golden koa wood.

Among the treasures is a unique Hawaiian quilt, traditionally fashioned in red and white, with intricate and delicate stitchery, but a rare pattern, not found in any quilt collection. Perhaps the heart-shaped leaves that form the pattern are those of the milo tree, used in ancient love charms by the Hawai’ian kahunas, who said: “Milo is the plant; love goes round and round.”

It’s a saying that Winona and Francis, both descendents of the ancient Hawaiians, would have known and loved.


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  1. Chuck James says:

    Lovely vignette. I’m wondering if Ms. Wright, who omitted any mention of their marital status, knows the reason this near-legendary couple never married; which, if included in this little story, would undoubtedly cast it in an even greater romantic incandescence?

    • M Lapeyre says:

      I had the pleasure of meeting them both while visiting a grand nephew of Ms Love. The story was that Mr. Brown’s mother who was an Hawaiian Princess forbid the marriage with disinheritance. Whether true or not it always seemed romantic to me. I remember with fondness a minah bird they had which greated Mr. Brown every morning.

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