In 1962, a few years before Duke Kahanamoku’s death, the surprise-biography show This Is Your Life celebrated him by bringing onstage his family, friends, and colleagues. Ralph Edwards told the studio audience about Duke’s early life in Waikiki through his success in swimming—three Olympics, two gold medals for the 100 m freestyle, and three successive world records in the latter event—and politics—13 two-year terms as sheriff of Honolulu. The documentary also touched on his contributions to the popularization of surfing, which would later earn him the honorific “father of international surfing.” Through all of this adulation, Duke seems shocked, pleased, and humbled. There is no hint of “it’s about damn time” in his smile.

This Is Your Life roughly parallels the published biographical work on Duke in its emphasis on his athletic achievement, political service, and live-aloha humility. Waterman: The Life and Times of Duke Kahanamoku by David Davis far exceeds the contributions of previous work, though, by substantiating, correcting, or contextualizing these aspects of Duke’s life. Davis both gives the charming and impressive details of the three Olympic games in which Duke participated—1912, 1920, and 1924 (gold, gold, and silver in 100m freestyle)—and corrects the record regarding his nonparticipation in the 1928 Olympics. In addition to the well-worn stories about Duke sleeping at the wrong time and nearly missing his heat or behaving gracefully toward those he vanquished, Waterman contains an extensive description of his rivalry with Johnny Weissmuller. Duke’s persistence in competing with Weissmuller, his admission of conclusive defeat, and the disparity owing to race between the two men’s success in Hollywood are all there.

Duke’s attempt at a film career is worth dwelling on, because it represents a humiliation only partially explored by previous biographers. It is well-documented that Duke could only command minor roles in film, and amateurism rules of the day prohibited him from using his swimming fame for commercial gain. The extent to which racism overrode his hard work, though, has never been so carefully explained:

[T]he barrier that Kahanamoku could not overcome in Hollywood was racism….

The Duke (L) and Duke (R)

Studio bosses would sooner sacrifice their casting couches than have Duke play a swashbuckling hero who vanquishes the bad guy and gets the girl.

Of course, when Hollywood stumbled upon a white “name” athlete whom they could mold into a movie star, they jumped at the opportunity. That person was none other than Johnny Weissmuller. Following his success at the 1924 Amsterdam Olympics [in which he defeated Duke], Johnny had not hesitated to turn pro….

The loincloth-clad Weissmuller made six Tarzan movies for MGM and another six for RKO. He became a global icon outside the pool and earned a small fortune doing so.

Kahanamoku never expressed public bitterness about this. But the fact that his arch rival was able to land such a plum role, while his years-long apprenticeship in Hollywood amounted to little, was an insult. Years later Duke appeared in small parts in Wake of the Red Witch (1948), starring John Wayne, and Mister Roberts (1955), directed by John Ford. Otherwise, his movie career was pau (over).

Duke tried to “go professional” twice—he was talked out of the first time, and the second one fell through. His lack of career progress led to nasty public criticism that did not account for his limitations—primarily, his skin tone and the needlessly strict rules of amateurism. The success and financial support he did receive from his swimming fame was, therefore, a source of conflict in his biography. The Hawaiian Territory—run by the white aristocrats and oligarchs who deposed the island monarchy—modestly financed his swimming career. He was therefore dependent on the same sort of people who rebuffed his attempt as a young man to join the Outrigger Canoeing Club and blocked him from starring roles in Hollywood films. Later, though, he would identify himself as a cash-strapped member of Hawaii’s elite by joining the Outrigger when finally invited, and he owed much of his political influence and late, modestly lucrative business ventures to that elite.

Such contradictions are not a sign of inconsistent character; indeed, Davis portrays Duke as humble and grateful at most points of his life. Rather, bringing out and explaining how Duke worked with rather than against the repressive Hawaiian political/commercial machine absolves his admirers of following an impossible example. He was not a man set apart by his achievements or moral fiber; he struggled to make his life an example for the native Hawaiian population, but he made himself a part of the ruling class—albeit a financially depressed member. Reading Waterman should certainly be good news to those of us who struggle daily to live up to what we say we believe—and, importantly, what others think we believe.

The biography is also a salve for those steeped in humiliation, both actual and perceived. Just as Duke could never resolve the conflict between his native Hawaiian heritage and Hawaii’s ruling class, his struggles to succeed mostly ended in public failure. These were not adversities he overcame; they were trials he endured, and not always gracefully. The most profound moment of humiliation recorded in Waterman was a rambling interview from late in Duke’s life, when he was in deep financial straits (he lost his job as sheriff when Honolulu abolished the position). Duke first stated that he would run for lieutenant governor and bumped up his aspiration to governor, stating,

Once elected, he claimed, “I’ll get my cabinet to run the government. Then I’ll double-back, see, and become ambassador-at-large for the state of Hawaii. That’s what I really want. But I got to go through it this way.”

He disclosed two motivations for seeking office. “I got to pay for food, taxes, gas for my car, everything,” he lamented. And, he said, “We never had a Hawaiian governor before. When I’m pau, no Hawaiian left who can do it.”

My heart broke for Duke when I read this passage. I very nearly cried.

Waterman demonstrates that Duke was a hero and a flawed man living in a world that alternately helped or hurt him. You can catch a glimpse of this perspective in one scene of This Is Your Life—the segment in which Duke received a surprise visit from three men he saved when their boat capsized on Corona Del Ray in 1925. Duke and a friend were surfing and saw the Thelma tip and go upside down. Duke was directly responsible for saving eight lives, and he received a medal and ticker-tape parade as thanks from the city of Los Angeles. When Ralph Edwards noted, as an aside, that five people perished in the accident, Duke’s face darkened, probably with regret. He shows such vulnerability at that moment, and, to me anyway, that sums up his life as portrayed in Waterman. He sincerely tried at every stage of his life and succeeded often; he also experienced tragedies and failures that broke him, little by little, until his death in 1968. David Davis has given his readers a great gift—a portrait of a beautiful life that was obscured until Waterman made its way into the world. Mahalo nui.