O‘ahu in 1937: Stories From When the Vanderbilts, George F. Baker and Henry Robinson Luce Visited Hawai‘i

​You had to be somebody to make this magazine’s society page back in the steamship and “China Clipper” days. Here we see how the other half lived on vacation—sometimes breaking the law in style—and even, in one instance, dying.


It’s a simple page, “Our Visitors.” But if you were following the news in 1937—about dock strikes, fears of a European war, Japan’s army on the move—a few words could pack a punch. In fact, our magazine’s anonymous writer seems to be holding up the splashy lives of the tycoons for comparison to the era’s harsher realities.


​Our Visitors: Tourist Tycoons of 1937

Historical Hawaii

The Vanderbilts, illegal border crossers.


“The Vanderbilts came ashore last night [May 23] and are now at Waikīkī,” explained Captain Daniel Malman of the Vanderbilt yacht Cressida that docked May 24. Mr. and Mrs. George Vanderbilt and Mr. and Mrs. S. B. Jones left the yacht in their power launch. A $2,500 fine was imposed by Customs. Fine remitted June 22, by order of Washington.”


Translation: These fine young Vanderbilts didn’t just jump the queue at U.S. customs—they skipped it altogether. Instead of detention, they had their fine fixed and their holiday continued unblemished.


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“Mortally ill, George F. Baker arrived at Honolulu on board his yacht Viking, May 28. Mrs. Baker arrived on China Clipper, May 29. Mr. Baker died, May 30.”


Sic transit gloria: Matson liners made the trip from San Francisco to Honolulu in five days, but Baker, the president of the First National Bank of New York and worth more than $8 billion in today’s money, preferred his slower yacht. Far out at sea his appendix burst. As the nation watched via radio-telegram updates, a passing liner dropped off a doctor passenger to perform surgery. But the Viking took another five days to make land. Famed during his life for his avoidance of publicity, Baker died in a blaze of 60-point headline glory.


SEE ALSO: Hollywood in Hawai‘i


“Henry Robinson Luce is taking several weeks of time to visit Hawai‘i. With Mrs. Luce (Clare Booth Brokaw) … Among his many interests in life is directing the destinies of Time, Life, Fortune, and so forth.”


Translation: The Jay-Z and Beyoncé of their day. Really. The man who remade magazine journalism into what we know today, Luce was escaping controversy—he’d divorced his first wife in 1935 and married his second, Clare, the same year. Clare Boothe Brokaw—her misspelled name adding salt to our writer’s reminder of her homewrecker status—was even more famous than Luce, first as editor of Vanity Fair, but especially due to her 1936 Broadway play, The Women, an epic catfight and hit.


Henry and Clare would fall in love with Hawai‘i, building a Kāhala beachside estate, where Clare lived between stints as ambassador to Italy and Brazil. Eventually tiring of Honolulu society, she left Honolulu for good in 1983.


The Martin M-130 China Clipper was a giant seaplane that island-hopped from San Francisco to Manila.

Find more photos from Honolulu’s past every Thursday on Instagram: @honolulumag.


Read more stories by Don Wallace