He masqueraded as a maharaja in San Francisco. He claimed to be a descendent of King Kamehameha I’s brother, Kaleimamahu. He called himself the Prince of Keawe. He claimed he would have been king, if Hawaii still had a monarchy.
He was a penniless prince who had a talent for writing. Unfortunately, the form it took was often bogus checks. His name was Samuel Crowningburg-Amalu.
Some called him stylish, witty or flamboyant, a Hawaiian playboy, a poet. The Honolulu Advertiser called him a “widely respected con man.”
Amalu told people he was a prince and a pilferer. “As Popeye used to say, I am what I am: a grand thief, no more, no less.”
In 1956 the balding playboy met 44-year-old Jane Tomberlin in Colorado Springs, Colo. A week later they were married. But the newly wedded prince went from the honeymoon suite to jail for writing a bad check for $45,000. Tomberlin filed for divorce.
Amalu served four years at the United States Penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kan., for that. Maybe he liked prisons. He also served time at Folsom, San Quentin and two other prisons. That made him a penologist, he joked.
Amalu’s huge hoax
In 1962 he launched his greatest hoax ever: A mysterious Swiss-based syndicate called The Presidium offered $75 million for the four Sheraton Waikiki hotels, the Molokai Ranch and Chinn Ho’s Makaha property.
Acting on his behalf were Franklin Carson, Phil Reagan and Gary Spence, “pro- regents,” who turned out to be vacationing college students Amalu had picked up hitchhiking. They were offered jobs paying $100,000 to $200,000 (in today’s dollars).
“Actually, we were nothing more than high-class errand boys,” Spence said. “Amalu gave us a free place to live, free meals and took us around town, so what could we lose?”
He also had a respected Realtor and practicing attorney representing the “undisclosed buyers who controlled unlimited moneys from people all over the world.” The hui offered cash, meaning the credit-worthiness of the group wasn’t an issue.
Negotiations went on for over 10 days, and stories of the proposed sale were published in local and mainland papers. The Honolulu Advertiser initially heralded it as “perhaps the biggest deal of its kind in Hawaii history.”
The five major Swiss banks reported that they knew nothing of The Presidium or its members. Rumors spread that President Gamal Nasser of Egypt might be part of the group.
A newspaper telephone interview with an unidentified man with a British accent — later found to be Amalu — said the hui represented large and small American, British, European and Asian estates.
It began to unravel after 10 days when the 42-year-old Amalu was arrested in Seattle for writing bad checks. Amalu claimed to be a banker named Albert Wilcox and that he had a degree from Oxford University. He said he was not part of The Presidium, just an intermediary for them, but the police put him in jail and the deal fell apart.
The three pro-regents claimed they never were paid and were trying to find a way to get back to the mainland.
Were there any other deals planned? the Honolulu Star-Bulletin asked the three students.
Yes, one of them said. Amalu wanted to build a $5 million soundstage near KGMB’s studio on Kapiolani Boulevard. A hundred movie stars would be flown in from Hollywood for the grand opening.
He also planned to build a five-story lodge near the Moana hotel, where the descendents of Hawaiian royalty could live in style in Waikiki. Each floor would be reserved for a different branch of the royal family. It really sounded like a great idea, the way Sammy described it, one of the pro- regents said.
Following his imprisonment, psychiatrists were asked why many people were sympathetic. “There’s a little bit of Sammy Amalu in all of us,” one theorized.
“Some con men want to sell the Brooklyn Bridge,” said another. “Amalu is the kind who wants to buy it.”
“Amalu likes to put things over on people. That’s how he gets his kicks,” a third believed.
Five years later, former pro-regent Phil Reagan said in an interview that the 1962 “mystery hui” hoax was “lots of fun and one of my greatest experiences.”
Amalu was paroled in 1965 but went back to jail for trying to purchase $1 million worth of automobiles (two Rolls-Royces, two Jaguars, five Cadillacs and a Bentley) with bad checks. He was sent to Folsom prison this time.
During an interview from jail, Amalu said the period in Hawaii during the Kamehamehas, Kuhios and Kalakauas incorporated the best of all possible worlds.
“He has the imagination of Salvador Dali, the eloquence of Norman Vincent Peale and a near-genius intelligence,” said reporter Ted Kurrus. Too bad he couldn’t put them to productive use.
But it was in prison that he did find a career that used his skills in a positive (i.e., legal) way.
Columnist from jail
A letter from prison to his former Punahou classmate, Honolulu Advertiser Publisher Thurston Twigg-Smith, describing his life behind bars was so funny and interesting that the Advertiser ran an edited version of it in the paper. Readers ate it up.
That led to his being offered a column, “The World of Sammy Amalu.” It was probably the only one in the U.S. written from jail.
One day, Amalu read in the paper that Eddie Sherman said Amalu was “languishing” in prison.
Be assured, he replied, “I have lived each of my days — perhaps self-centered, as indeed I am — to its fullest, though too unfortunately not to its best. Languish indeed! Sherman must be mad.”
Sen. Daniel Inouye is intelligent, Amalu said, and “therefore must feel an overwhelming loneliness in Washington. Or in Honolulu for that matter.”
Diamond Head was just a pile of dirt, he told his readers. Hopefully, Henry Kaiser will level it with his pink bulldozers and build another Forest Lawn (cemetery).
The University of Hawaii is an “unspiced dish of academic goulash, an insipid thing that leaves a bad taste.”
There is nothing Hawaiian about aloha shirts, he wrote in another column. They are “absurd apparel,” more suited to Palm Beach or Nairobi.
When Duke Kahanamoku died in 1968, Amalu said he was a very “difficult person to evaluate — not because he was such a complicated personality, which he was not, but because he was such a simple person. He was simply himself — no more, no less. But that self was the finest thing a human being could be.”
On King Kalakaua he wrote that “it was he, more than any other, who made his throne known over all the world, and who gave a lustre to that throne far greater than it deserved.”
“He walked as equal among the greatest sovereigns of the world, and his kingdom was but a speck on the wide Pacific sea.”
When he was paroled in 1971, a large crowd greeted him at Honolulu Airport like a returning hero. He said he’d continue his column and maybe run for governor — or king. He couldn’t decide.
The Advertiser said his column had “grace, verve, old world propriety and new world humor. And when he punctured balloons — his specialty — he did it with delightful style and no rancor.” His column generated more letters to the editor than any other.
Twigg-Smith compared him to a comic strip character who never grows up. He was paid the 2019 equivalent of about $65,000 a year.
Amalu said he had been “flooded with letters from all over the world — from persons who are utter strangers to me — from others who recall a fleeting meeting that I had almost as quickly forgotten.”
“I love these letters, for they open shaded windows out to the world that surrounds me — windows whose curtains ought very truthfully to be thrown back. And as I look out, I send you all my fondest aloha.”
Amalu died in 1986 at age 68. “I like the good life,” Amalu said, “and I’ve enjoyed every minute of mine.”
Have a question or suggestion? Contact Bob Sigall, author of the five “The Companies We Keep” books, at Sigall@Yahoo.com.