Monday, December 23, 2013

This Week: Maui

The totally untrue story of Marilyn Monroe’s Maui House

My husband and I were riding in van, returning from a downhill bike tour of Haleakala Volcano. The tour company, Mountain Riders, picked up seven of us tourists from hotels in Ka’anapali in Western Maui at 2:30 AM and drove us to the 10,000+ foot summit of Haleakala volcano to watch the sunrise. That was 10 hours ago. After the sunrise, we coasted down the mountain on bicycles to the town of Pa’ia some 23 miles away where we had lunch. However, this activity is not the focus of this blog. That’s because I was more intrigued by a story our van driver Duane recounted on the return drive. The van had just dropped off the bike trailer at the Mountain Riders office in Kahului and was now returning us to our hotels, about a 35 minute drive. As we headed out of town on Highway 30, we passed a building so large it could easily be seen from the side of the mountain to the highway a few miles away.

“You see that house up on the hill?” asked Duane as he pointed in its direction. “That was supposed to be Marilyn Monroe’s house.” Even the three women chatting in the back of the van perked up at that statement. With the hook baited, Duane continued his story and it went something like this:

Marilyn Monroe had a house built on Maui with plans to retire in it, wanting to become a recluse like Brigitte Bardot. However, she died before she could move in. According to Duane the house was built, furnished and paid for by Monroe, but she never got to enjoy it. Then the house languished for many decades, but in the 1990s was purchased by a Japanese business man who then expanded the house into a clubhouse and built a private golf course around it.

As I sat in the van listening to this story, I thought how sad. I only knew the bare minimum about Marilyn Monroe, sex symbol, film star, multiple marriages, and tragic death by drug overdose. Monroe seemed to have a lot of demons and to hear she wanted to get away to a beautiful island paradise and retire would have been a happier end to her life. Brigitte Bardot is still alive today, age 79, and is a renowned animal welfare activist. What would Monroe be doing today?

This story so intrigued me that every time we drove by the house on Waikapu as we traveled around Maui, I would take photos. Mostly I wondered how different history and Maui would be if Monroe had succeeded in retiring to Maui. How would Maui with change with Monroe in residence and how would Monroe change after living on Maui?

A few weeks after returning home, I wanted to learn more about Monroe’s Maui house. I logged onto my computer and began a Bing search for “Marilyn Monroe Maui house” just to see what would come up. Sure enough, a few titles popped up, including a website for the golf course, called King Kamehameha Golf Club. I was on the right track. Frank Lloyd Wright’s name also appeared in some of the links, something Duane didn’t mention, along with photos of the building. I clicked on an architecture blog called “The Well Designed Life” by Ginger Brewton and learned that everything that Duane had told us in the van was completely wrong. Well, almost completely wrong. He was correct that a Japanese business man owns the property today, but that’s about it. So here, as paraphrased from the King Kamehameha Golf Course website and several other places, is the true story of the house on the hill in Maui.

In 1949 a wealthy Texas couple commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to design a house. His plans were quite extensive and called for 8,000 square feet, but for some reason, the couple never had it built. Wright filed the plans away. Then in 1952 the Mexican consulate to the US and his wife commissioned Wright to build them a home in Acapulco Bay. After a visit to the site, Wright pulled his Texas design and added to it increasing the building’s size to 10,000 sq. ft. However, the consulate’s son died suddenly and the building was scrapped. Wright put the plans away. Then in 1957 Marilyn Monroe and her third husband Arthur Miller called on Wright to design a cozy hideaway for the couple in a beautifully natural hillside setting. That setting…Roxbury, Connecticut, about as far from Maui as one could possibly get. The couple also had a few requests for the new home, a movie theater, a swimming pool and a nursery. Wright showed Monroe the plans he already had and she agreed to use them. The size of the house then grew to a whopping 14,000 sq. ft. In 1958 Monroe and Miller divorced and canceled the construction and Wright passed away about a year later. His plans were put away at his design firm, Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona. The home was NEVER built, on Maui or anywhere else.

Jump ahead to 1988 when Hawaiian business investor Howard Hamamoto and his partners were touring Taliesin West in hopes of finding plans for a golf course clubhouse. There were few clubhouse plans in the Wright archives, but he was shown the plans for the “Marilyn House” and between the plans and Monroe’s attachment to them, he was hooked. The plans were expanded to 74,000 sq. ft, however, most of the new space was put below ground, while Wright’s original plans were used for what people see above ground. It opened in 1993. The group sold the course a few short years later.     

This private members-only golf course was used mostly by rich Japanese men and when the Japanese economy tanked in 1999, the course was closed down and abandoned. Then Tokyo investor and part-time Maui resident Makoto Kaneko bought the property in 2004 for only $12.5 million. He and his investors poured another $40 million in renovations including design elements that emphasized Maui’s history and reopened the course in 2006.They also made an effort to include Maui’s residents to be a part of the course with a museum and other events as well as a men’s and women’s day spa that anyone can use. Today the clubhouse is an excellent example of Frank Lloyd Wright’s work. Many Wright devotees come to tour the building and a portrait of Wright hangs in the clubhouse, The property, which hosts many weddings,  is also known for stunning views Haleakala volcano to the east and both Ma’alaea Bay to the south and Kahului Bay to north as it sits on the isthmus between Maui’s ancient volcanoes.

So this interesting, yet minor story in the lives of both Marilyn Monroe and Frank Lloyd Wright have been brought to my attention because of an incorrect tale told by a bike tour guide. What should I make of Duane? It’s an interesting question because he also told us a house high on a hilltop near Lahaina belonged to Tom Cruise. I attempted to look that up online as well. I found out Mr. Cruise is an investor in a resort property on the neighboring island of Lanai, but could not find anything about a house in Maui. However, I don’t think Duane was intentionally lying. I sure he believed what he was saying. Or maybe he was telling us what we wanted to hear.