Saturday, June 30, 2012

No Angel: A Seaside Mystery

Here's something I collected a while back, and a mystery I hope you can help me solve.  In 1996, my son Ned was stationed in Hawaii and his sister, her husband and I visited him on Oahu for a week.  During the trip we took a flight to the "Big Island," the Island of Hawaii, for a one-day volcano tour and near the end of the trip I snapped this photograph on a black sand beach not too far from Hilo. 

The photo shows the top of a low stone wall at the edge of the beach where someone had spelled out, "I'M NO ANGEL," with small shells in the mortar on top of the wall, and signed the message, "Mae."

When I travel, I photograph monuments, cityscapes, and scenic views like everyone else, but I also look for the small traces of individual lives and ephemeral moments – window displays, graffiti, folk art, odd things left behind, hand-crafted details, and other things that catch my eye, or connect me to someone else who passed that way.  The note left in shells on this wall was certainly intriguing, and worth a shot.  "I'm no angel?" One could imagine a number of stories that could be hidden in that message – lost love, despair, repentance, renewal – who knows?  

The mystery of the message seemed to float into my mind whenever the subject of Hawaii came up, and a few years later, on a whim, I searched the internet for that message and I found that Mae West had made a movie in 1933, titled, "I'm No Angel," co-starring with a young Cary Grant.  Mae West was a box office sensation at the time, and this ribald, satirical comedy about a woman from the wrong side of the tracks was a big hit.  West wrote both the story and the screenplay. The movie also included the title song, "I'm No Angel."

Here's a link to a recent review of the movie, written by Tricia Saiki, for the Honolulu Media and Culture Examiner:

Is it possible that Mae West visited Hawaii and put this message in the mortar at the time this wall was built, or did a movie fan do this?   Our guide that day told me that he had never noticed it.

My friend Charlie grew up in Hawaii near Hilo on the Big Island, but lives in Connecticut now and I see him once a year or so when we take a kayak/canoe trip with other friends.  I asked him about this message from "not-an-angel," but he knew nothing of it.  He visits family in Hawaii every year, and on his next trip he searched for this rock wall without success.

The problem is, I can't pinpoint exactly where I took the picture. There was no one else on the beach when we visited and no boat docks nearby.  It seemed to be semi-isolated stretch.  

I have searched using Google Earth and following the roads we drove that day, and my best guess is that the site was near Keaukaha Beach Park, Hawaii – but that's only a guess.  I recently sent Charlie a scan of the photo and he passed it along to his relatives in Hawaii. Their best guesses so far are Hilo Bay or the old Pu'umaile Hospital site at the end of Kalaniana'ole.

Did Mae West put this inscription on the wall?  It seems unlikely – I find no reference on the internet of her ever visiting Hawaii. (note: see addition below) If she didn't write it, who did, and why?  We may never know, but it a fun little puzzle to work with.  I would be quite happy if someone else could identify the spot and take a current photo of it, if it still exists.  There have been a number of strong storms that struck this area throughout the years, including a tsunami in 2011, so it's possible that the wall no longer stands.

So, if you blog readers find anything, have any ideas, or know the answer – "... come on up and see me sometime" –  well, at least by email.

"It's better to be looked over, than overlooked." – Mae West

7/2/12 Note: As you can see by the second comment below, it appears that there is a good chance that Mae did visit Hawaii in 1934, the year after the movie.  Did she leave us this note?


  1. I think the next step is obvious: family trip to Hawaii is in order.

    It's not odd for another person to quote her, but it is odd for another person to sign the quote like that. So, I'm going to believe it was her.
    --mary helen

  2. In "Mae West: It Ain't No Sin," Simon Louvish writes that in July 1934 'Movie Mirror' reported that Mae West 'will spend her vacation in Hawaii....' hmmm

  3. I have been doing research on Honolulu's burlesque history and found a small article on Hawaii nightclub impresario, Jack Cione. In it, the writer credits him with bringing Mae West out to my island home. No detail beyond that but if I find anything more I will share!
    Best, Violetta Beretta, Hawaii Burlesque Bombshell/Part time historian


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