He can walk out the front door of his 19th-century mansion, climb into his yellow Le Baron and drive 20 minutes at 50 mph in any direction without ever leaving his domain. And a spectacular chunk of real estate it is: 225,000 acres cradled by the mist-shrouded, 13,796-foot-high dormant volcano Mauna Kea and the Kohala Mountains, sprawling west to the windswept Kohala coast. In between, 50,000 head of Herefords graze on broad plains and emerald hillsides, watched over by 50 paniolos (Hawaiian cowboys) on horseback. Sometimes they ride through a blue-gray haze of volcanic ash, a subtle reminder that temperamental Kilauea, 50 miles to the south, is still very much alive.
This is the Parker Ranch on the Big Island of Hawaii, and it is the largest individually owned cattle ranch in the world. (Texas’ celebrated King Ranch, though bigger, is controlled through a family corporation.) That distinction may soon end: Some 200 people in Hawaii and the mainland U.S. claim to be rightful heirs of the founder, John Palmer Parker, and have lodged a suit demanding that the property be turned over to them.
On this day, however, the reserved, almost courtly gentleman who has been lord and master of the Parker Ranch for the past 69 years has more important things on his mind. He is sitting in the cavernous living room of his art-filled, pink stucco pied-à-terre at the base of Honolulu’s Diamond Head. Richard Smart is briskly ticking off the guest list for his 70th-birthday party—a “Rose Ball” to which all the folks came wearing various shades of the flower that grows in abundance on the Big Island: “Jack [Hawaii Five-0] Lord and his wife, Marie, were there, and of course Lana [Turner]. Olivia [de Havilland] and Joan [Fontaine] weren’t able to come,” he sighs. Then, Smart adds with a giggle, “I used to date them both, you know…”
Given his languorous elegance and a decided penchant for the flamboyant gesture, he isn’t exactly the epitome of a rawhide-rough cattle baron. Preferring the glitter of Broadway to the lot of a wheeling-and-dealing land baron, Smart has spent much of his life trying to lasso stardom on the stage. Starting in the 1930s, the lanky (6’3″), dark (he is one-quarter Hawaiian) baritone sang and hoofed through a series of Broadway hits and flops before returning in 1959 to run his spread full-time.
The ranch is as rich in history and lore as it is in livestock. John Palmer Parker was a sailor from New England who stopped off in Hawaii on his way back from China in 1838 and charmed King Kamehameha III into granting him a two-acre deed. The easy-living Hawaiians had no special use for the cattle that had been imported by Europeans over 30 years earlier and were letting them roam freely. Reasoning that whalers and other haoles (whites) would need beef when they passed through en route to the Orient, Parker imported Spanish and Mexican vaqueros to teach the Hawaiians how to handle the animals, expanding his herd and his grazing lands in the process.
The Parker Ranch had already mushroomed to more than 100,000 acres by the time Parker’s great-grandson wed Elizabeth Jane Lanikila Dowsett, a member of Hawaii’s alii (noble) class. In turn, their daughter, Thelma, met Virginia businessman Henry Gaillard Smart on shipboard while returning from a vacation in Europe, and they married the following year.
Their only son, Richard, was not yet 2 years old when his parents died—his mother from tuberculosis and his father during surgery—leaving the boy sole heir to the ranch. While trustees ran the day-to-day operations of the cattle empire, Smart attended public schools in California, living there with his Hawaiian grandmother, Elizabeth. “Everybody called her Tootsie,” he remembers, “but my grandmother was a disciplinarian and a fighter who always played poker with the boys.”
It was Tootsie who recognized Richard’s promise as a singer and encouraged him to pursue a showbiz career. Smart dropped out of Stanford in 1934 to do summer stock and at the height of the Depression headed for New York City. There, a fledgling director named Josh Logan gave Smart his first break with Eve Arden, Alfred Drake and Betty Hutton in Two for the Show. Smart never bankrolled any of his own shows. “If I had,” he explains, “everybody would just say I’d bought my way in. I wanted to do it on my own.”
Smart spent World War II as a camouflage expert at an aircraft factory in L.A.; when it was over he was back on the boards—this time landing the lead opposite Nanette Fabray in the Harold Arlen hit Bloomer Girl. “It was a glorious feeling,” says Smart, but short-lived. Even after a 1949 bout with polio permanently damaged his left leg, Smart continued to act on Broadway and in summer stock until, at 46, he decided to return to the Islands.
“His show business aspirations were by no means idiotic,” observes no less an expert on Hawaii than James Michener. “Richard Smart is clearly a talented man. But what really impresses me is how much he is respected by the local people—particularly the native Hawaiians who work for him.”
Indeed, Smart’s tropical Ponderosa was losing money during the 1950s—until salvation arrived in the person of Laurance Rockefeller. The New York-based financier was looking for a place to build a spectacular luxury resort and found just the right spot on the beach at the foot of Mauna Kea. Rockefeller paid Smart millions to lease the approximately 500-acre parcel for 99 years, and the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel opened its doors in 1965. (The resort is now owned by United Airlines.) Says Smart coyly: “It’s on land the cows don’t like but the tourists love—hot and barren.”
Smart, divorced since 1944, has poured some of the money back into the community, building a visitors’ center, museum and theater complex at the Parker Ranch headquarters at Kamuela. He flies to New York twice a year to prowl the galleries and catch up on Broadway’s latest offerings; he imports ballet companies and TV and movie stars from the mainland to perform at his 490-seat Kahilu Theater. Lately, Smart has been selling off some of his Impressionist paintings. “Why sell?” he asks in mock amazement. “Because,” Smart beams, “I can always use the cash.”
Neither Smart’s sons from his seven-year marriage to San Francisco socialite Patricia Havens-Monteagle—Gill, 42, an airline pilot, and 46-year-old Tony, a businessman—nor his three grandchildren are involved in the workings of the ranch. So Smart, who quit smoking and alcohol after a 1978 heart attack, intends to leave the bulk of the ranch in a trust to support the modest school he constructed for the 120 or so children of his ranch hands.
Provided, of course, that he wins his court battle for control of the mega-spread. “Richard Smart can’t leave the Parker Ranch to a school or to anyone because he doesn’t own the ranch,” insists Laulani Adams, the Honolulu housewife and descendant of the founder, who is leading the challenge to Smart’s ownership. Adams and the other plaintiffs in the case argue that John Parker II’s 1891 will, stipulating that the property be divided among the whole family, was never carried out, and that somehow the entire estate wound up in the hands of Smart.
Still, Adams does not bear a grudge against her courtroom rival. “Richard is very innocent of all this,” she concedes. “These things happened long before he was born. None of us has any animosity towards him. We just want what is rightfully ours.”
For his part, Smart, who can veer from wistful to curt in an instant, seems all but oblivious to the possibility that he may cease to be the world’s largest single rancher. “There are certain people,” he shrugs, “who go around trying to break wills. I’m not worried about it.” Michener, for one, remains a fan. “Running something as gigantic as the Parker Ranch is a damn tough job,” says the author, “and a lot of Hawaiians are just grateful that Smart came home to do it.”