May 18, 2015

Duke Kahanamoku: A Life Devoted to Surfing and Men

Born in 1890, Duke Kahanamoku was "the fastest swimmer alive," who popularized the sport of surfing, and to a great extent popularized Hawaii.  He won gold medals for swimming at the Olympics in 1912 and 1920, and a silver in 1924 (Johnny Weissmuller won the gold).

In 1925, he won even more international fame when he rescued eight drowning men from a sinking ship off Newport Beach, California, using only his surfboard.

He divided his time between Honolulu and Hollywood, where he appeared in 14 movies, playing a lifeguard, an Indian chief, an Arab, a pirate, and a "devil-ape," most notably as a Pacific Island chief in Mister Roberts (1955).  Later in life he appeared in the surfing documentaries Free and Easy (1967) and Surfari (1967).  He died in 1968.

He married Nadine Alexander rather late in life, at age 50. Although they apparently enjoyed ballroom dancing together, he spent most of his time with men, and surrounded himself with both Hollywood hunks and Speedo-clad beach boys.

He knew all of the athletes and beefcake stars of the day, including Buster Crabbe (top center), Wallace Beery, and Tyrone Power.  He was a particularly close friend of fellow Olympian and 1930s Tarzan Johnny Weissmuller (left, the one with the bulge).

The punk group The Queers has a song about him:

It ain't the waves you catch
It ain't the drugs you do
You'll never be as cool as Duke Kahanamoku

More conventionally, he has been honored with a statue in Waikiki (where the Oahu Gay Surfing Club meets) and a postage stamp.

See also: Jack London and the Gay Surfers.

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