Book revisits ‘Camelot years’ at Coco Palms

“Anyone can die. It doesn’t take all that much talent. It is the living that counts and how we lived, and what useful things we did,” states a single quote found in Grace Buscher Guslander’s papers after her passing at the age of 89. Perhaps no one can be more articulate in expressing just how well, how gracefully, how significantly Grace Guslander lived her life in Kaua‘i than author David Penhallow.

What began as a biography became a comprehensive visual and historical work describing the “Camelot years” on Kaua‘i. The magical magnetism that surrounded the Coco Palms Hotel from 1953 to 1985 is re-created by Penhallow through extraordinary photographs, letters, anecdotes, fond remembrances by former employees, dear friends and Penhallow himself. Yet setting aside the real-life accounts, the amusing stories, the celebrity visits, Penhallow feels he wrote a love story.

“As far as I am concerned, love stories are the only ones worth telling … if you want to know about their real enduring love story, look at Grace and Gus’s faces in the photographs of them together; those photographs reveal a thousand words,” writes Penhallow in the preface of his 370 page book.

It was Penhallow’s desire to share and remind the island and those who knew Kaua‘i in the middle of the last century of the “magic days,” of the woman behind a hotel operation that was more like a family than a business, more like a cultural icon than a place to spend the night. The love story that Penhallow recounts, is not only between Grace and Lyle Guslander — it is also between Grace and Kaua‘i, Coco Palms and the world.

From working as a cigarette girl in New York City to an astrologer’s assistant on the “Jersey Shore,” Penhallow weaves an enthralling story of how Grace’s unique life led to a sensitive and sincere respect for Hawaiian culture, turning her into one of the most successful and honored business women in America. “She came to listen, to support and then to honor the essence of this culture, and then she was able to create what became the image of Hawai‘i to America,” Penhallow said.

Penhallow includes anecdotes that exemplify Guslander’s approach to running a hotel in one of the most mysterious and precious places in the country. Organically creating the “fantasy of Hawai‘i” through her close relationships with kupuna such as Sam Mia, Sarah Kailikea and numerous Kaua‘i residents, “from the beginning she listened, she absorbed what was here and magically created a place where the true nature of the island could exist… for anyone of us around at that time, it was a gift to witness. I see this book as my gift to her,” reflected Penhallow on the assemblage of a legend.

While Hollywood luminaries from Bing Crosby to Elvis and political dignitaries from the Shah of Iran to U.S. Senators were drawn to Coco Palms’ status as a holiday destination. Vibrant food and exotic shows were only the outer garments of what Penhallow claims as Grace’s greatest contribution to the island culture. The nightly call that became known world-wide with the lighting of the torches and blow of the conch, was not for mere show, “it was a ritual … she took it very seriously. All serving stopped. Conversation went silent,” said Penhallow.

That kind of sincere reverence for the end of each day, the beginning of the night, was not empty protocol — “there was a real feeling to it all, we fell under her spell,” he said.

Interviewing over 50 people, collecting hundreds of never-before published photographs, and spending three years writing the text, Penhallow hopes, “this book would serve as a reminder. Stop us in our path and make us remember how it’s possible to preserve what is important. There are still people here that can carry on the torch,” he said.

While he admits the island has changed a great deal from the black-and-white-and-Technicolor-heyday-Guslander Coco Palms, “Sometimes … I can still smell it. I sit on a beach and I smell a certain plant, a certain breeze, and I am reminded that the magic is still here.” The same magic, no doubt, that Grace found and shared with the world.

While Penhallow’s family has been here for five generations, his mother is still living in Lihu‘e at the celebratory age of 100, no one is more dedicated to telling the story of what “has always been the unique and separate island kingdom, we must remain vigilant in keeping it Kaua‘i,” he said.

With his new book, Penhallow succeeds in recalling an era, a place and a woman who also strived to do just that.

Meet the author

Penhallow’s “The Story of The Coco Palms Hotel: The Grace Buscher Guslander Years 1953-1985” is an extended family album of one of the island’s most definitive and brilliant times. The book is now available at Borders in Lihu‘e. Penhallow will be speaking and signing his book tomorrow from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. at Borders in Kukui Grove. He will also be signing the book at The Coco Palms Sales Office from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday.

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