HONOR KILLING

How the Infamous "Massie Affair" Transformed Hawai'i

By David E. Stannard

Viking. 466 pp. $25.95

On a steamy Saturday night in Honolulu in 1931, a spoiled society girl -- the young wife of a Navy man -- stumbles out of a party filled with booze and bad feelings. For an hour or so she goes missing, lost in the narrow streets where the natives live. Then a car driving down a deserted back road catches her in the headlights. The driver pulls over to see what's wrong. The girl's been roughed up, slapped around. But there's more to it than that: She's been raped, she says, ravaged by "five or six Hawaiian boys."

Thus began the sordid Massie affair, one of those strange moments in American history that played out like a classic piece of film noir.

As David E. Stannard explains in Honor Killing, his meticulous account of the affair, the battered victim was a woman with a past. Twenty-year-old Thalia Massie had grown up in a world of aristocratic privilege: Her father was the illegitimate son of a Roosevelt, her mother a niece of Alexander Graham Bell. They were also perpetually broke. So when Thalia was just 16, her parents happily married her off to a charming Naval Academy cadet, Tommie Massie. Thalia wasn't exactly a blushing bride. She drank too much, slept around and flew into violent rages; during one overheated quarrel, she took a bite out of her husband's arm. Tommie hadn't been stationed in Hawaii more than a few months before everyone on base knew his wife was bad news.

None of that mattered when Thalia Massie cried rape. Territorial Hawaii was ruled by an oligarchy of white businessmen and military officers who despised the mix of non-whites -- Hawaiians, Filipinos, Japanese and Chinese -- that made up a majority of the islands' population. Within a day of the alleged assault, the Honolulu police had five suspects in custody, all of them working-class men in their twenties, none of them Caucasian.

Had this been the Deep South, the suspects wouldn't have stood a chance. But the islands had a different political dynamic. Because Hawaiian law prohibited drawing juries from a single race, prosecutors couldn't play on white prejudices and fears the way Alabama attorneys did in the other spectacular rape trial of 1931, the infamous case of the Scottsboro Boys. After listening to three weeks of testimony and deliberating for a marathon 97 hours, the Hawaiian jurors announced that they were hopelessly deadlocked. The five suspects left the courthouse free men.

Enter the femme fatale.

When news of Thalia's rape reached the mainland, her mother, Grace Fortescue, raced to her side. At first she seemed more interested in enjoying Honolulu's soirees than in nursing her daughter back to health. But the thought that Thalia's attackers were now walking the streets prodded Grace into action. With the hapless Tommie lending a hand, she had one of the defendants kidnapped, hoping she might coerce him into confessing. Instead the man turned up dead in the back seat of Tommie's car -- a bullet through the heart. And both Grace and her son-in-law found themselves facing murder charges.

The case of the homicidal socialite immediately made national headlines. Never one to miss an opportunity, Grace parlayed the attention into a pile of cash. In short order, she raised a considerable defense fund, which she used to hire the best criminal attorney in the land, Clarence Darrow, then in the twilight of his fabled career. So the Massie affair took its final twist. Darrow -- champion of the oppressed, defender of radicals, union activists, African Americans and free thinkers -- came to Hawaii to defend the right of a wealthy white woman to engage in lynch law.

Honor Killing tells this lurid tale with all the breathlessness it deserves, and the climactic courtroom scenes are riveting. But Stannard's attempts to draw out the wider meaning of the affair aren't completely convincing. He argues that the controversy triggered Hawaii's transformation from white dominion to multi-racial democracy. But the ability of the suspects to defend themselves in court -- and the fact that Grace and Tommie were prosecuted rather than celebrated -- suggests that the case reflected Hawaii's unusual racial politics as much as it shaped them.

What's more, the story sags under Stannard's heavy hand. In his description, the Massies and their supporters don't have a single redeeming virtue. Even Darrow is despicable, an aged con man -- the liar in winter -- trading on tragedy to turn a badly needed buck. Hawaii's non-whites, in contrast, are invariably generous, hard-working, peace-loving people, idealized victims of a cruel social system. White supremacy was a cruel system, its barbarity enforced by rope and fire, but cruelty doesn't eliminate complexity. As the masters of noir understood -- and Stannard would have been wise to remember -- the most haunting stories take place not in black and white but in shades of gray. *

Kevin Boyle teaches history at Ohio State University. His latest book, "Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age," won the 2004 National Book Award for nonfiction and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in history.

Front page of a New York tabloid (Feb. 1, 1932)