Why did Ursula go to Hawaii? Unlike with her travels in Europe, I don’t have her own words to tell us her reasons, what her experiences were like or what she thought of the U.S. territory. There are only a few concrete details of her time in Hawaii; the rest must be left to our imaginations, based on her own life history and the events, music and culture of the day.
Though her mother was always nearby, Ursula had gotten her first taste of independence as a student at University of California, Berkeley and then as a protégé of opera luminary Emma Calvé, studying in Europe. After a brief romance, Ursula married an American in Italy but split with her husband shortly thereafter, returning to California with her mother and living with her in Los Angeles after that.
Traveling to Hawaii with her friend Elizabeth and living there for a year gave Ursula a chance to experience even more freedom in an era—the Roaring Twenties—when single women in general were enjoying greater autonomy than ever before. Voting! More work choices! Short skirts (well, knee-length—short for the time) and shorn hair! Nude stockings! Cocktails! Petting parties…even sex! Cars! Jazz!
I’ve wondered whether Ursula’s divorce would have posed a social hindrance then, but according to the 1931 book “Only Yesterday—An Informal History of the 1920’s,” during that decade, divorced men and women in urban communities were socially accepted without question. “Indeed,” the author wrote, “there was often about the divorced person just enough of an air of unconventionality, just enough of a touch of scarlet, to be considered rather dashing and desirable.”
In the past, several California newspaper articles had mentioned how charming and popular Ursula was among the “younger set,” and I have no doubt she continued to be so in Waikiki. I imagine her stylishly dressed and coiffed, with an elegant and sophisticated (having traveled abroad), but open, air about her.
The European travelogue she wrote for her sorority’s quarterly journal made it clear that she approached new places with curiosity, enjoyed seeing the sights and appreciated natural beauty. Hawaii would not have disappointed her!
Island life offered plenty to do, and Ursula didn’t have to go far. Sunbathing, swimming, riding surfboards, body surfing and canoeing were favorite pastimes at Waikiki beach. Ursula and Elizabeth could have rented surfboards right at their hotel’s bath house, and paid for expert surfing lessons and Outrigger canoe rides from the famed Waikiki “beach boys.” With nicknames like Chick, Rabbit and Steamboat Mokuahi, beach boys also fished, kept the beach clean and safe, wove hats, and entertained tourists with story, music and song. A 1932 Honolulu souvenir map explains:
Beach boys with their ukuleles and steel guitars add distinctively Hawaiian atmosphere to Waikiki—their Sunday night concerts on the Moana pier, featuring the songs of old Hawaii, are famous.
Ursula would have enjoyed more live music, and dancing, at her hotel. The Moana Hotel Orchestra played there regularly under the direction of composer, arranger, and performer Johnny Noble, dubbed “The Hawaiian Jazz King.” According to a program on the Territorial Airwaves, the band achieved a mellow, tropical sound with saxophones, stringed instruments and drums, but no horns. Johnny Noble was known for developing compositions that mixed traditional Hawaiian music and American ragtime (jazz). The nearby Royal Hawaiian Hotel also put on music shows, including performances by the Royal Hawaiian Girls Glee Club.
Here’s a song that Johnny and his orchestra—”his Hawaiians”—recorded in 1929:
If you’re interested in exploring the history of Hawaiian music, including listening to recordings of 78rpm records, check out Territorial Airwaves, a great source.
More to come next week!