Hijinks in high places are a news staple. But few tales are as riveting or appalling as "The Massie Affair," which once upon a time mixed...

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Hijinks in high places are a news staple.

But few tales are as riveting or appalling as “The Massie Affair,” which once upon a time mixed sex, pride and prejudice in a tropical paradise.
The paradise was Hawaii, and the time was 1931. It easily could have passed for the British Raj. As recounted on PBS’ “American Experience” at 10 tonight on KCTS, the tragic Massie story marked the peak of imperial racism, United States-style.

“It’s a little-known story to most Americans,” says executive producer Mark Samels. “But to a great extent, this ignited Hawaii’s own civil-rights movement.” Novels such as “From Here to Eternity” long ago exposed the unsavory aspects of military life in Hawaii before World War II, characterized as a stifling community of rigid protocol belied by freewheeling off-base behavior among locals.

At the same time, another group was prominent during that period: the visiting wealthy, whose privilege and position allowed them to consort with and exploit native Hawaiians.

“Anything that you need to do that involves frolicking, the beach boys were there to satisfy,” describes historian Kanalu Young. “And it’s said they certainly did satisfy.”

Soldiers and sailors, many from the American South, resented the sight of rich white women dancing with dark-skinned men. By the early 1930s, tensions among the groups were growing.

CORBIS

After a mistrial was declared on rape allegations, accused islander Joseph Kahahawai was killed. PBS’ “American Experience” documents the true crime story that rocked 1930s Hawaii.

The situation wanted only a spark. That was supplied by 20-year-old Thalia Massie, a temperamental socialite whose marriage to Navy Lt. Thomas Massie was characterized by heavy drinking and public fights.

By many accounts, Thalia Massie did not fit in very well. Her husband had asked for a divorce, and she was being given one last chance to behave when they attended a Navy gathering on Sept. 12, 1931, at the Ala Wai Inn, a Honolulu nightspot.

She blew it. After slapping another officer and storming out, Thalia Massie disappeared for several hours. When her husband finally reached her by telephone at their house, she claimed to have been kidnapped and sexually assaulted by a gang of men.

In fact, rape could not be proved. The men eventually accused, all of Asian ancestry and from poor backgrounds, were cleared after a mistrial and later investigation by Pinkertons. Even many police officers did not believe the men had been involved.

Yet Thalia Massie’s claim soon ignited a national reaction.

LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Thalia Massie, center, her mother, Grace Fortescue, and husband were tried for the murder of Joseph Kahahawai.

It would bring out Americans’ worst attitudes toward color and ethnicity, with ringing cries for revenge from the armed forces, Congress and major newspapers such as the Hearst chain.

Propelled by such pressures, “The Massie Affair” would take a turn that few crime novelists could image.

The result would be the kidnapping and murder of one of the young men, Joseph Kahahawai. On trial for it would be Thomas Massie; Thalia Massie; her formidable mother, Grace Fortescue; and two of Thomas Massie’s fellow sailors.

Their attorney was Clarence Darrow, hero of the Scopes Trial. Asked why Darrow undertook their defense, scholar David Stannard notes that Darrow said he had been wiped out by the Wall Street crash and needed the $30,000 fee. Also: “I had never seen Hawaii.”

“The Massie Affair,” written, directed and produced by Mark Zwonitzer, brings all these details to vivid life. Because the case was so widely covered, there is an abundance of newsreel footage and still photos that put viewers right on the scene.

There’s also Hawaii itself. Skillfully weaving contemporary images of the islands with long-ago film that has a faded-postcard prettiness, Zwonitzer and photographer Michael Chin create an atmosphere of mystery and tension that’s well beyond the usual industrious news documentary.

Tightly edited and neatly structured, the program also finds space to recount the political and economic relationship between Hawaii and the United States before 1931, as well as the role played by international events.

All these are vital ingredients toward understanding how a vociferous accusation became a major headline. Among the well-charted injustices that are part of our history, “The Massie Affair” is an overdue chapter.

kmcfadden@seattletimes.com