story by Curt Sanburn
photos courtesy Cobey Black
Cobey Black didn’t own a television set in 1954 when she dashed up to the penthouse suite of Waikiki’s Surfrider Hotel to do a last-minute interview with the four stars of the hit TV show I Love Lucy: Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, Vivian Vance and William Frawley.
“So I got there,” Cobey remembers, “and began asking questions. After about five minutes, Lucy frowned and said, ‘You haven’t seen the show, have you?’ I had to say ‘no.’”
Lucky for Cobey, Arnaz had been ordering up Cuba Libres all afternoon, so Ball sportingly offered to improvise a show. “They made it up on the spot,” Cobey says. “They were supposed to be horses racing around the room, with Lucy at the back of the pack, gaining, gaining. They’re making a total ruckus, and the babysitter comes in from the other room and shouts ‘The children are trying to sleep!’
“Anyway, Lucy won the race, and I staggered home and wrote my column.”
Now 85, Cobey was one of Honolulu’s most popular and most prolific newspaper columnists for years. Neatly groomed and crisply dressed, she sits today in the spacious, pastel-toned living room at her home on the western slope of Diamond Head. Together, we are trying to stitch her long and productive life into some kind of neat narrative. It is almost impossible to do. She has traveled too much, written too much and raised too many children (six) for that.
Between her arrival in Honolulu in 1954 as the wife of US Army officer Edwin Black and her retirement from the newspaper game in 1985, Cobey estimates she produced somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 interview-based profiles for Honolulu’s two daily papers, first for the Who’s News column in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin and later for the Honolulu Advertiser, in which her column was called simply Cobey.
Without the aid of a tape recorder, Cobey filled her allotted inches thrice weekly with flattering descriptions and long, rambling quotes from the likes of Elvis Presley, Clark Gable, Marlon Brando, Ed Sullivan, Liberace, Bob Hope, Dinah Shore, Art Linkletter, etc. Over morning coffee, bookish types could read the reflections she harvested from literary luminaries like Truman Capote, Susan Sontag, James Michener, Bennett Cerf, Joan Didion and Herb Caen, or from visionaries like Edward Teller, Buckminster Fuller and the Dalai Lama. Curious and hard-working, Cobey was the infant island state’s wide-eyed ambassador and interrogator, deployed whenever the bigger world visited from across the sea.
“You see, back then we were a real crossroads,” Cobey says. She interrupts herself to offer me a cup of tea. “There wasn’t any place more exotic to go. There was no Bali then or Bora Bora. Waikiki was the exotic place. Another reason I was able to talk to all these people is they didn’t have staffs of minions protecting them. They were out here on vacation,
When she came to Honolulu from Washington, D.C. at age 31, she was reluctantshe had just been offered a job writing for the style page of the Washington Post. But, she says, she was instantly “overwhelmed” by her new home. “I fell in love with it physically. I didn’t know there were any mountains. I thought it was just lagoons and palm trees floating
somewhere in the Pacific. I had no idea Hawai‘i was so I mean, we live in paradise. This is the pinnacle.”
Within a week or so of her arrival, she noticed celebrities hanging out in Waikikiwithout benefit of local newspaper coverage. She went down to the Star-Bulletin, which then had twice as many readers as the Advertiser, to ask why the paper hadn’t interviewed, say, Henry Fonda, who was then in Honolulu shooting Mr. Roberts. Editor Bill Ewing told her nobody knew how to get in touch with them. “So I said, ‘If I do, will you hire me?’ And he said, ‘Sure, I’ll pay you $15 a column.’ So I did, and he did.”
A day later, as she tells it, Cobey walked onto the outdoor set of Mr. Roberts in Kane‘ohe and saw a man sitting in a director’s chair with the words “Henry Fonda” emblazoned on its canvas backrest. She walked up and said hello. “How did you get on here?!” Fonda asked her indignantly. “Well, I walked,” she answered. Back at his modest hotel room on Ala Wai Boulevard, he recited for her, alone, the famous “I’ll be everywhere” soliloquy from his role as Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath. “That’s something you don’t forget,” she says.
She approached Robert Mitchum while the big man was holding court at the bar under the banyan tree at the Moana Hotel. They sparred. She scored a few points, so he dabbed her nose with suntan lotion (she was wearing a bathing suit at the time) and gave her an interview. The spunky Wellesley graduate, born Margaret Bell Cobey into an old Washington, D.C. family, was learning fast: Waikiki was her beat, and on the beach, everyone was available.
In 1955, mega-star Frank Sinatra was sitting on the sand “as relaxed as a blown leaf,” Cobey later wrote. She sidled up and asked for an interview. He wasn’t exactly gracious, but he didn’t say no. “I’ve been singing for twenty years,” the living idol brusquely told her. “I’m 39. Never had a lesson. Has my voice changed? It’s settled and broadened. Sure, I’ll do more singing parts, serious parts, too. Everything. A stage show? Never. I couldn’t do the same thing every night. I’m not up to it.”
Julie Andrews, in town in 1965 to shoot the screen version of James Michener’s Hawaii, confided to Cobey that filming the famous mountaintop scene in The Sound of Music a year earlier had been sheer torture. “That sunny meadow, so filled with the sound of music, was actually a frozen pasture filled with an icy wind,” she said.
In her Ala Moana Hotel penthouse suite in 1976, comedian Phyllis Diller shared one of the immutable facts of stardom: “I’ve always had some kind of magnetism, even as a child,” she told Cobey. “All successful show business people do. Steve Allen said, ‘If you’re not a comic by the age of 12, forget it.’ It’s something you’re born with, charisma. A better word for it is ‘attraction’ because that’s what you do in this business: attract people.”
“Friends would ask me, what quality did all these celebrities have in common? Well, enthusiasm, for one,” Cobey says. “They all loved what they were doing. They loved life. They were big, bigger than life!”
Several of her interviewees became friends, she says. “Sometimes I was the only person those people knew here, so when they arrived and needed something, anything, even companionship, they’d call me up!” She laughs heartily at her (mis)fortune. Actor Glenn Ford called once in the middle of the night after his secret paramour’s jewelry was stolen out of his room at the Kahala Hilton while the couple was at dinner. For reasons of discretion, the actor (who was married four times) could not call the police. So Cobey made the call, and scandal was averted.
Eva Gabor telephoned when she was staying at the Kahala Hilton. When Cobey told Gabor that she was moving to Thailand and was busy packing up her house, Gabor came right over to help. She showed up in a bathing suit and a bathing cap with big cut-out flowers on it. “Well, the packing came to a halt!” Cobey says. “The movers couldn’t believe it!”
Screen queen Joan Crawford wanted to go shopping in Chinatown. The movie star wore sunglasses and a conical hat with a scarf under it, Cobey remembers. “She wasn’t very tall, so no one recognized her, and we went out to buy Japanese fabrics and things. She was a nice person. She wasn’t ‘Mommy Dearest’ or whatever her daughter said she was. Not with me.”
“You know, writing is like shooting an arrow,” Cobey reflects. “You don’t know where it’s going to land. I didn’t know whether my little stories were educating anyone or whether anyone was reading them at all. I kept doing it because I enjoyed meeting those people.”
Meanwhile, her kids were growing up. Husband Ed became a brigadier general. The Black family took leave of Honolulu twice. They returned both times, and Cobey resumed her newspaper career as if she had never left.
First, to Washington, D.C. for four years in 1958. To mark her departure from Honolulu aboard the S.S. Lurline, somebody rigged a big “We Love You, Cobey” banner on Aloha Tower. She has a picture of it.
Then, in 1967, Cobey and the kids went to Thailand for two years during Ed Black’s six-year assignment there at the height of the Vietnam War. In Bangkok, the family took up quarters at the fabulous compound of legendary former spy, aesthete and silk merchant Jim Thompson, an American expatriate who was one of Ed Black’s best friends. Cobey created a perk-filled position for herself as the first travel editor at the Bangkok World. Looking back, she relishes the sheer audacity of her gig, flying off almost every week to places like Sri Lanka, Nepal, Taiwan, Cambodia, Jakarta, even Copenhagen, to write up all-expenses-paid, chauffeur-driven tours of Thai Airways destinations. “Can you believe it?” Cobey cries. “What a kick!” Her falsetto peals of laughter shake her whole body and nearly bring tears to her eyes.
In 1985, Ed Black died of cardiac arrest after winning a tennis match earlier in the day. He was 69. That same year, Cobey retired from newspapers. She was 62. Looking back, Cobey says she was discouraged and had lost her enthusiasm. Her grievances with the newspaper had been adding up: The Dalai Lama’s sacred name was rendered in lower case in a headline; a copy editor changed the literary term “picaresque” to “picturesque”; and “epiphany” had become “epitome.” “I thought, God! I don’t want my name on this anymore!” she says.
Two years later, she sold the big house in Kahala she and Ed had designed and built twenty years before and moved into her Diamond Head home, where she lives alone. Two of her boys, Bruce and Nicholas, both schoolteachers, live nearby.
Six years ago, at age 79, Cobey published Hawaii Scandal, her incredibly detailed account of the infamous 1931 Honolulu crime saga known as the Massie Case. All told, the book took her thirty years to write. She is working on a new project, a collection of her profiles of some fifty-odd African-American eminences who passed through Honolulu over the years. Among them: Marian Anderson, Joe Louis, Martin Luther King Jr., Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Jesse Owens, Edward Brooke, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Hank Aaron, Roy Wilkins and Sammy Davis Jr. “They’re all prominent,” she says, “and I hope it gets published, because I’ve always admired the fact that African-Americans bore the burden of development in our country, yet they’ve gotten no praise for it.”
Our conversation devolves into writers’ shoptalkdeadlines, copy editors, PR people, the state of newspapers today, and, across the generational divide, typewriters vs. computers.
Her son Brian has given her two Apple Macs, a desktop then a laptop, which she doesn’t use. I tell her it’s really easy, no Wite-Out, but she says I sound like her son and that she already tried taking a class, to no avail.
“Old dog, new tricks ” she sighs.
I ask if she plans to write a memoir. After all, she’s now a kupuna (a revered elder) with much to pass on, I tell her. She is visibly surprised by the term.
“Well,” she says, “I’ll have to dictate it to somebody! I’ve got lots of stories!” HH