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>> John Dominis Holt, 1919-1993

   John Dominis Holt, the author of the Art of Featherwork in Old Hawai˙i, [1] remembered feather kahili, capes and lei in the households of family members, emblems of their high rank as Hawaiian chiefs. When the featherwork collection of Johanna Drew Cluney became available after her death in 1978, he purchased it.  An admirer of  Aunty Johanna Cluney’s artistry, he called her the “great feather worker of our time.” [2]   He donated the collection to the Kamehameha Schools and it is an important collection in the Kamehameha Schools Archives.

As a writer, his 1964 essay, “On Being Hawaiian,” spurred the Hawaiian renaissance in language, culture and the arts. As publisher of Topgallant Publishing Company, Ltd., Holt was a generous supporter of Hawaiian writers and of the Hawaiian culture. He was a trustee of the Bishop Museum.. Some called him a raconteur and bon vivant, others called him an elegant and artful communicator. Whatever the description, he was an erudite gentleman of the fading, privileged  hapa-haole world of the early 20th century.

In his autobiography, Recollections, Memoirs of John Dominis Holt, 1919-1935, Holt conveyed his  impressions and thinking as a hapa-haole man.  Genealogy mattered. Among his illustrious European ancestors were the English Lord George Paulet and the French Lucien Bonaparte.  His Hawaiian ancestors he best explains himself.


Our family identity was created and nurtured in part by those hapa-haole house odors, creating a greenhouse effect that flowed through the rooms.

But the air itself was Hawaiian. The smells of the land, trees, shrubs and flowers, the appearance of rocks covered with lichen and the various smells of the seashore were all unmistakably Hawaiian. The enormous reality of our having been people with Hawaiian ancestors who had lived for eons separated and distinct culturally and spiritually from the  other people of the world was a powerful, silent determinant in our emotional attachment to the idea of being natives of Hawai˙i.  Like it or not, somewhere in the complex regions of psyche, we kept this realization alive. It set us apart, linking us physically to the brilliant culture that existed here before Captain Cook, and later others, arrived to see for the first time this group of islands, its people, and their way of life.

In my teens, when I first gave thought to such matters, I questioned my parents sedulously about our Hawaiian ancestors. How many did we have? What did they do? Both my parents were well aware of their Hawaiian ancestors and could easily recite the complicated names of these native antecedents. They were never particularly happy to do this, as it had become outré to recite one’s genealogy, particularly if the names of well-known chiefs flowed out from the recitation.

My mother had two Hawaiian grandmothers. They have been previously described, but I will add a few details. They were both born in the 1850s…My mother always spoke of her people as “Maui people.” Her grandmother Emily Bailey came from the Naka˙ahiki and Na˙ili˙ili families, people who were long settled in ˙Iao Valley and the outer Wailuku area…My Fernandez great grandmother’s family came from the Kula and ˙Ulupalakua regions. She was born a Kanehoa. One member of that clan was the first wife of John Young…

My father’s parents were also part-Hawaiian, with a touch of Tahitian blood contributed to the family by my great great-grandmother Kauaki or Tauati, or Kalani-mama or Tani-mama…My great grandmother Hanakaulani was half-Hawaiian and half-English. Her Hawaiian ancestry was impressive. Her great grandfather was Kamehameha…

My father’s grandmother, Nancy Copp Daniels, was a hapa-haole. She was born to the Chiefess Ha˙ole and an Englishman, Charles Peter Copp…

How could I doubt being Hawaiian? This was something that was innately lodged in my consciousness…But with the rapid changes that came to the islands, I also became rapidly disconnected from things Hawaiian. Ours was a life in which we continually balanced the native and the foreign. …

At times, it was wonderful to have a mixed heritage. It was a pleasure to be at home in Hawai˙i picking and eating  ˙opihi, dancing the hula, saying old prayers and listening to the old folks unravel stories of the past in the beautiful cadences of the Hawaiian language.; it was also a pleasure to sit at a beautifully appointed dinner table in Paris or London discussing world problems, dressed in wonderfully heavy and well-cut clothes; or racing from one end of New York to another for a period of years absorbing haole culture.  At times, however, it could also be all quite confusing and quite painful. [3]

 Holt spent two years at Kamehameha Schools and graduated from Roosevelt High School in Honolulu. He attended Columbia University in 1943-46 never acquiring a degree.

Holt’s first wife, Fredda Burwell, was a New York artist. They returned to Hawaii where he worked as a landscape designer and contractor. 

After Fredda died in 1972, Holt married Frances “Patches” MacKinnon Damon, a granddaughter of Samuel Mills Damon, who was a konohiki of Bernice Pauahi Bishop, a bank partner of Charles Reed Bishop and a trusted friend.  Holt and Patches were community activists as well as patrons of  the arts. 

Born in 1919, Holt died in 1993 at age 73. He was survived by his wife, two daughters, Allison Kauikolani Holt Gendreau and Melanie Hanakaulani Holt Bostock, a son, Daniel Ahulii Ferriera-Holt, a sister, Eleanor Holt Pereira, brothers Samuel N. Holt and James R. Holt of Kamuela and seven grandchildren. [4]

[1]   John Dominis Holt, The Art of Featherwork in Old Hawai˙i.  Topgallant Publishing Co., Ltd, 1985.

[2] John Dominis Holt, Recollections:  Memoirs of John Dominis Holt, 1919-1935.  Honolulu, Hawaii:  Ku Pa˙a Publishing Incorporated, 1993, p. 370.

[3] Holt, pp. 355-358.

[4] “Author John Dominis Holt, 73, dies,”  The Honolulu Advertiser, March 31, 1993.



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