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Book Review 219:Georgia O'Keeffe's Hawaii

November 20, 2011 - Harry Eagar
In 1939, Georgia O'Keefe was not only a star fine art painter but enough of a celebrity that Dole Pineapple financed her to three months in Hawaii in exchange for the promise of two paintings.

Patricia Jennings was the 12-year-old daughter of the sugar plantation manager in Hana.

“Georgia O'Keefe's Hawaii” is the charming, funny memoir by Jennings, who lives in Kamuela, of 10 days that changed both their lives.

It also reproduces all O'Keefe's paintings from that trip, along with a revealing and thoughtfully chosen collection of historical and family photographs and paintings by others of Hana.

In those days, even the plantation manager's kids went barefoot, and a photo shows Patricia as a typical haole kid of the Territory – blonde, brown and with splayed toes. She read Vogue and Time's arts section and knew who O'Keefe was and that she had a reputation for being “difficult.”

Tense might be a better word for it. The encounter between the anxious girl and the touchy woman – O'Keeffe was 51 and childless – was rocky at the start but developed into real affection in the end.

This is not merely Jennings' romantic memory. O'Keeffe's letters, which are reprinted here, confirm it. At first, Jennings is merely “the child” to her, but toward the end, she becomes a real person.

The letters, compared with Jennings' memoir, also demonstrate that O'Keeffe lied freely – or, at least, confabulated – in her letters to her husband, which should create headaches for her biographers.

The book presents three interesting views of Maui on the verge of the war that would change everything – O'Keeffe's outside interpretation, and Jennings' combination of childlike memories and adult interpretation.

The encounter had a lasting impact on both women.

O'Keeffe is associated with New Mexico, but her letters show that by her own assessment her Hawaiian tour influenced her art strongly.

Although affectionate by the end with Jennings, O'Keeffe certainly was difficult for Dole. She never did paint a pineapple in Hawaii. Dole had to send her one, which she painted in Manhattan.


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