Robert Keable in Tahiti with Hall & Nordhoff

Robert Keable in Tahiti with Hall & Nordhoff

July 02, 2022

Meeting the children of James Norman Hall and Charles Nordhoff 

While researching Robert Keable’s time in Tahiti for my book Utterly Immoral I came across an amazing cast of characters, including the British writer Alec Waugh, the artist Robert Lee Eskeridge, novelist Zane Grey and the Tahitian ‘Helen of Troy’, Princess Ina Salmon.

Two others, surely the most famous Americans living on Tahiti at that time, were the writers Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall. Already well known in the 1920s as writers they later went on to write The Mutiny on the Bounty. Robert Keable knew both men although he was much closer to James Norman Hall, who is the more celebrated of the two today, with a museum on the island dedicated to his memory.

Hall’s war-time experience had been extraordinary. Aged 27 he travelled to Europe after finishing universityand finding himself in England when the First World War broke out, he volunteered, and joined the 9th Royal Fusiliers, pretending he was Canadian since Americans were not permitted to serve in the British army. He was a machine gunner at the Battle of Loos and was given an honourable discharge when his nationality was discovered.  Back in America he wrote about his adventures in a successful book called The Kitchener’s Mob and returned to France to write about the formation of an American Pursuit Squadron. Typically, instead of writing the article he joined the squadron and after training in three French Aviation schools he joined the Lafayette Escadrille. In June 1917 he had an encounter with 7 German airplanes, was shot through his shoulder and lungs and fell 12,000 feet. Miracously he survived and within three months was flying again. Having joined the United States Air Service in Jan 1918 he was shot down again this time behind enemy lines and was captured and held as a prisoner of war. From the French he gained the Croix de Guerre with five palms, the Medaille Militaire and later, when an American Officer, the Legion d’Honneur. From General Pershing he received the Distinguished Service Cross.

Hall and Nordhoff were commissioned after the war to write the history of the Lafayette Flying Corps together, and since they got on well decided to travel to the South Seas to write another book. Hall first arrived in Tahiti in 1920 and he lived there on and off until he died in 1953. Robert Keable first met him, with Jolie in 1923, and then become reacquainted when he returned to Tahiti in 1925. Having written a couple of books with Nordhoff – The Lafayette Flying Corps published in 1920 and Faery Lands of South Seas published the following year – Hall seems to have gone through a quiet writing patch finishing only one book Mid-Pacific On the Stream of Travel between 1921 and 1929. I suspect he was very much guided by Nordhoff and the two of them only wrote together when Nordhoff was in the mood.

When I visited Tahiti in 2016 I knew Robert Keable had lent Hall, and his new wife Sarah, his house for their honeymoon. I also knew it was Hall who acted as a sort of secretary for Robert Keable when he became ill at the end of 1927 and that Hall had been the first to write to Robert Keable’s father when Robert died.

I was keen to meet anyone related to either James Norman Hall or Charles Nordhoff and realised that the James Norman Hall mueum was likely to be the best place to start my search. Below are extracts from my diary at the time.


Tuesday 12th July 2016

Today is all about James Norman Hall. Before arriving in Tahiti I had emailed Vivienne Millet, the manager of the James Norman Hall museum a number of times, and explained that I was planning to visit the museum at about 10.00am on Tuesday, and she had said she was looking forward to seeing me.

Driving through Papeete, trying to cling to the coast, I got lost round the port, but eventually found the right road, a speedy dual carriageway with roundabouts every kilometre or so. Which was fortunate since I shot past the James Norman Hall Museum and had to turn round. Coming back I shot past the turning to the seaside car park reserved for the museum. So I had to turn again and go past the museum and turn a last time to reach the grass car park which led onto the black beach of Ure.

Crossing the busy road you pass an unnecessary kiosk and walk up to the entrance of the lovingly restored house. The real house had been next door slowly decaying through termites whilst James Norman Hall’s daughter kept applying to have it turned into a museum. With the mayor of the area a different political hue to the central government the plan was always rejected. Eventually when the new mayor was of the same sympathies as the government – by which time the house was beyond repair – plans and money were provided to build an exact replica on the next door plot.

Outside was a sign saying ‘Please remove your shoes’, and as I began to take off my sandals a loud voice called from inside – “No, no you don’t need to take them off, come, come.”

As I walked in I was greeted by Vivienne – kiss, kiss, and offered coffee and water and perhaps I would like some food. The museum was all mine, if I wanted to look in any of the bookcases, she would open them up. She was so sorry she hadn’t been in touch more but her computer had got a virus and had been at the repairers for ages. Whatever I wanted to see just say. I couldn’t quite believe my welcome since I had been expecting to pay my entrance fee and beg for any extra access. Vivienne firmly refused any entrance payment from me which was a little embarrassing as I believe I could have upped the days takings by 20% if I had paid. Maybe Tuesdays are always quiet.

Anyway over coffee Vivienne was full of questions. Would I like to meet Nancy, James Norman Hall’s daughter? And what about meeting one of the oldest ex-pats on the island?

Vivienne was also expecting a video company man who she was hoping would film Nancy talking about the old days, and sure enough a handsome, French-only speaking, smartly dressed, man arrived to be greeted by more kisses from Vivienne and her friend who also was working that day. As they all talked I went for a wander around the house. All very small – a long corridor with a timeline on one side and wonderful old blown up photos on the other – then if I remember correctly four rooms devoted in general to firstly his First World War experience; then his life in Tahiti; next the writing and filming of the Mutiny on the Bounty; and, finally, in his study, his other writing. The walls were full of framed pictures including one of James Norman Hall and his new wife Sarah standing outside Robert Keable’s house as they started their honeymoon.  (You can see I like writing James Norman Hall – it has a great ring to it. Maybe I should stick to Hall.)

Vivienne found me again and rushed me outside to meet Nancy, Hall’s daughter, who was about to drive off for a doctor’s appointment and we agreed to have lunch together on Friday. 12.00 was fine she said and off she drove. Next Vivienne suggested a drive up to meet the ex-pat. She drove and I followed, to a retirement home.

The home consisted of perhaps five rooms off a main dayroom with a kitchen area round the back. Two elderly women sat staring vacant-eyed at the TV whilst a thin man in a white loose fitted long night shirt quickly became convinced that I was the doctor. The first time he saw me he said – ‘le docteur’ and from then on every time he was led away and turned back he shouted ‘le docteur’ and started to rush towards me. Twice he held my wrists firmly repeating ‘le docteur’ before a lady working there could stop him. Vivienne and I went in to see the ex-pat and he was in a bad way. Very frail with difficulty lifting his head up off the pillow. Vivienne chatted a little and introduced me and he suggested that I wait so he could have a shower and get dressed. Vivienne said goodbye and left me outside at the same time leading the shouting ‘le docteur’ man over to a seat near the television and persuading the man to sit. The horror on the faces of the two women was a sight to behold as they craned their heads forward ever so slowly without moving the rest of their bodies. If they could have hissed they would have.

Eventually the ex-pat appeared in a wheelchair that he steered himself and he looked revived after his shower. I had photos ready for him to see both of Robert’s time with Jolie in 1923 and scenes in Tahiti Isles of Dreams to give us something to talk about. But he was very loquacious.  He told me how he came to the island back in 1947. He left university and was torn between Law and Marine Science. (An unlikely pairing especially after university!) He and a friend answered a small ad for two men to travel to Tahiti to fish for sharks and to send back the shark fins for soup, which he assured me was an excellent source of vitamin E. Anyway the two of them paid $1,000 each with presumably the promise of money back, and more, following the successful trip. The man was a ‘charlatan’ the ex-pat concluded the story. So ever since he had stayed on the island and acted as a guide. He knew everyone he told me, especially the family of Charles Nordhoff, Charlie Mauu’s son, and James Norman Hall’s son. At over 90 he was the oldest ex-pat now living on the island but of course having only arrived in 1947 he had never met Robert Keable. The man in the white shirt came again confidently calling “Le docteur” and the ex-pat took one look at him and said “Just go away!” very fiercely and the man turned around and walked away. “He is mad, quite mad,” said the ex-pat and continued talking. I showed him all the photos and he recognised no one and didn’t seem to know any of the places in the Tahiti book. Still he was an amazing man and we must have talked for over an hour. Eventually his daughter breezed in – one of those people so full of energy and cheerfulness that they seem to fill the room when they arrive. I made my excuses and left.    

After lunch I returned to the museum. Vivienne and I spent some time comparing photographs on the walls with mine taken in 1923, and she became convinced that Hall was in one of the photos with Jolie, which didn’t make sense with their timeline since in theory he was in Iceland at the time. Still that tallied with a letter Robert wrote in July 1923 mentioning Hall so I must remember to check with his daughter.

Vivienne decided I should be meeting more people and fetched the telephone directory. You must meet one of Ina Salmon’s relations, she said. I searched the directory and counted 103 Salmons across the island. And seven Nordhoff’s. She remembered a Walter Nordhoff had visited the house a couple of years ago and lived nearby. She phoned him. He had just come back from work and would have a quick shower and come down to the museum. ‘What now?’ I asked. ‘Of course’, she said.

So Walter turned up, limited English but a very gentle man, softly spoken, you would trust your life on him from a first meeting. He was a grandson of Nordhoff and had always lived on the island.

Charles Nordhoff had married as soon as he arrived on Tahiti in 1920 and settled down. As I have said he wrote the occasional novel with Hall and later, of course, Mutiny on the Bounty. He spent much of his time fishing and I read that he would, on occasion, climb a tree overlooking the sea and sit staring out for over an hour. He was quite a drinker by reports and Caroline Guild who lived on the island in the 20’s and 30’s said her servant would always rush to get a bottle of whisky and a glass ready at his favourite seat on the porch the moment his car started to appear down the drive. He was married, supposedly happily for many years, but eventually left  wife, and a couple of his children, and returned to America.

Walter had never actually met his grandfather and he told me that only his uncle Jimmy was left, of the seven children his grandmother and Charles Nordhoff had had. He had fond memories of his grandmother – oh wasn’t that her in one of my photos with Jolie and Robert – he was sure it was. He suggested, through Vivienne, that I should talk to Jimmy. He telephoned Jimmy’s house but got his second wife who said Jimmy was asleep but Walter should call back in 15 minutes. 15 minutes later Walter was on the line to Jimmy and handing me the phone. Almost immediately Jimmy, who had perfect American English, was telling me had been to London and had tracked down Captain Bligh’s grave. Can you imagine he said, he had no idea where it was but on his national service in London he had found it. 5 minutes later and I’ve agreed to visit him on Friday. Walter is drawing a map as Jimmy gives instructions. Phone when you get near, warns Walter. That is everyone’s instructions – Juliette said the same. Why? Because there are no house numbers or names on any houses in Tahiti. Can you believe it? Everyone knows houses by the PK mark – 12.7km or whatever - and if there are a few houses in the same area you either know who lives in which house because you are the postman, or a friend, or you don’t! Jimmy lives in a cul-de-sac with many houses. Phone I am told. But my phone doesn’t work in Tahiti. I decided to sort that one out later.

Walter left and I finally say my fond farewells to Vivienne.


Thursday 14th July 2016

After a two, amazing, days staying in Robert Keable’s house with the current owners, Roger and Juliette Gowen, I set off to visit Jimmy Nordhoff. Roger and Juliette have shown me the road up to his house, past the pharmacy and first left, and Walter had drawn me a map of the approximate location of the house in the cul-de-sac. There was nothing for it but to guess at the approximate location and knock on a gate. I notice a gate closing and as I walk over, I can hear voices. A little English tells me Jimmy lives across the road up the slope. I drive up and am immediately faced with the front of the house, giant windows opening out onto a view of the sea and the porch full of Tahitian statutes, squat figures in weathered stone. I park round the back, walk to the front, and shout hello. Jimmy tells me to come through the door at the back and as I reach the door a car drives up and a grumpy looking, 40 something, Tahitian women gets out of the car. I initially ignore her and go past the kitchen into the main room. The T.V is on, loud, showing highlights of Bastille day in Paris and a frail old man, over 80, is sitting on the sofa. He starts to get up but with a bandaged wrist and weak looking legs it is quite an effort. His wife comes in with the shopping and as she walks over I ignore her stretched out hand and kiss, kiss. (Am I discovering my inner French? I don’t think so.) She helps Jimmy get onto his metal walking frame and he moves slowly to the large rustic kitchen table and slowly takes a seat. As he moves, I look round the room there are smaller sculptures and mementos everywhere. I compliment them and Jimmy tells me most of them are fake.

I sit down and he is immediately back talking about England and his trip to Bligh’s grave. He explains why he thinks his father’s portrayal of Bligh was right. Did I know that he was later governor of Sydney and they had him impeached? He was surely a great sailor but not a good man.

Jimmy has a great face a bit like a Stan Laurel with grit. He is certainly going to call a spade a spade. I mention that my grandfather knew his father and read out the bit from one of Robert’s first letters home:

Nordhoff is here, author of FAERY LANDS OF THE SOUTH SEAS etc. a yank of the nicest sort who is in touch with American publishing and has left civilisation to settle here.

           Jimmy smiles.

We talk about my trip to find Gauguin’s house. He worked on 2 + 2 school building the central area when before it had just the two wings. He insists that Gauguin’s house was a few plots away. I get the photos out to show the picture of the stream and he remembers it ran past the school. Still despite the evidence he knows Gauguin’s house was a few plots away. He never saw it but he knows it. I begin to disagree and then think what am I doing? I hadn’t come for an argument. He talks about Gauguin’s son Emile who he knew well. Awful man, so lazy, a complete bum. At one stage an American woman took him to Chicago to paint and he was so hopeless she ended up doing the painting and getting him to sign them. I said I had heard he sold his autograph to tourists and he said his brother tried to persuade him to paint his giant tummy, place a piece of paper on it, and then sign that. I show him some of Robert Keable’s photos but he doesn’t really recognise anyone.

I suggest that one of the men in the centre could be Harrison Smith after whom the botanical gardens were named. He peers at it and agrees it could be. ‘The thing that annoys me,’ he begins, ‘is that Harrison Smith never got half the credit for what he did.’ He goes on to explain that Harrison Smith also donated the money for a hospital and for a leper centre. ‘Like my father who gave lots of land to the government,’ he continues, ‘no credit, not even a plaque. Now if they had been French or Tahitian it would have been completely different. Pas.’ And he raises his good hand as if to say don’t get me started on the French. We talk a little more about Harrison Smith and he tells me that only Harrison Smith and his father of all the ex-pats on the island actually bothered to learn Tahitian.

I ask him about his time on the island and he tells me about his building business. I tell him that Roger said he was an incredible hard-worker and he seems pleased and agrees. At one stage he employed 54 men on the island and his firm built seven small airports on the smaller islands.

We talk about Roger and Juliette and I say they are sorry they hadn’t seen him for a while. He says what good people they are and how hard they work. I tell him I have seen the ex-pat and he says he can tell me a story about him. When the ex-pat and his friend first came to the island, they came to see his mother and they said they were friends of her husband, ‘The liars. They sponged off my mother for weeks getting her to cook for them and do their laundry. They didn’t lift a hand. And when they left they stole some of my father’s books. Absolute bums. They never did a day’s work.’

That conversation seemed to put a dampener on things. The sparkle in his eye seemed to go out. He stared into the middle distance. He talked about old age and said how shit it was. He used to be strong but now he couldn’t do anything. The first 60 or 70 years are good and now look at this. I try to cheer him up by talking about his family but he points out he is the only one of his brothers and sisters still alive. I tell him how nice Walter is and he nods.

I thank him profusely for seeing me and make my excuses and after a second equally unenthusiastic ‘kiss kiss’ with his wife I leave. She hadn’t tried to talk to me but did say she would open the gate to let me go.


           Friday 15th July 2016

Vivienne at the James Norman Hall Museum had suggested I get to Nancy about 11.30 as she liked to eat early. After a visit to Point Venus I drive to the museum where Vivienne is expecting me and is keen to have a copy of Robert’s photograph of James Norman Hall as well as of the letters and pictures of Gauguin’s house. After photocopying them she phones Nancy and says I am on my way.

The museum built beside the old house is almost at sea level but Nancy – Hall’s only daughter – lives with her husband Nick right at the top of the hill. They have an amazing property with a main house, guest apartment and various outbuildings spread out across a huge sloping garden.

Nancy is already seated at the outside covered table, laid for lunch for three. She is, as in her photo, a glamorous grandmother with white hair and a pleasing American accent. I am introduced to Millie, Juliette’s daughter-in-law and there is a Tahitian who serves us and who calmly carries out the impatient orders of Nancy. Soon Nick Rutgers, her husband joins us, wheeled in. He needs help eating – Millie’s job; and later Nancy explains that he is in the early state of dementia and has lucid days and less lucid ones. He says very little during the meal and I direct everything towards Nancy. The occasional knowing guffaws suggest he is having a lucid day.

Nancy says she is delighted to see me and then asks me my name. I tell her I am Robert Keable’s grandson, and she tells me to sit down next to her (she doesn’t get up until right at the end, to have a photograph taken, when I see she can hardly walk anymore). I sit down and give her a potted history of Robert and when he met her father. She asks me if I have seen the photo of her parents in their wedding finery at Robert’s house at the start of their honeymoon and I say I have. ‘That house was one of the first places Nick and I wanted to visit when we came to the island in 1951.’

She asks me to show her what I have bought and I begin by showing her the letters her father wrote to Robert’s father, and Jack and Rita, after Robert died alongside a letter Hall wrote on Robert’s behalf.

Next we start looking through the pictures that Robert took in 1923 with Jolie. The first one is supposedly of her father, and I ask if it is him. She hardly looks and says ‘Of course.’ (I had told Vivienne that if it is him then the timeline in the museum is wrong since they have Hall in Iceland during 1923. Don’t mention it please Vivienne said, Nancy paid a lot to experts to draw up that timeline). As she started to look through the pictures, I said I wondered if she recognised anyone else. ‘Why should I?’ she asked. She turned over a couple more pictures then pointed at a man in one of the photos. ‘That is Walt Solver, he was married to my godmother.’ She turned another and spotted her godmother, Paula Solver and next to her she recognised Mr Mauu and in another Mauu’s wife.

She launches into a story about her brother never forgiving her because he had to live in America because he had a medical problem.

           Nick speaks for the first time: ‘Twisted intestine.’

Nancy looks up surprised and, probably having not properly heard him, brushes off his comment and pointing says: ‘problem here.’ She goes on to explain that her brother Conrad lived with her godmother - the Solvers in America - whilst she lived with her parents in Tahiti. ‘It wasn’t my fault,’ she protested, ‘but he never forgot. Later he sold my father’s house without telling me. He kept all the money but I didn’t sue. We fell out over that, but the important thing is I get on with his children and they love me.’

Food started to arrive, and I took a seat by my laid place. Cold chicken, a potato salad, some lettuce and chutney were placed on a lazy susan and Nancy cut up Nick’s food and then helped herself, after which I took a little of everything. Millie moved round to help Nick but didn’t eat with us.

I asked about Nancy’s early life. She was born in America because her mother had previously miscarried and the only doctor on the island thought that would be safer. But then she spent her first 13 years on Tahiti. She was briefly in school but was then home tutored by a wonderful white Russian (in both senses) lady who was married to a Russian general. She remembers dropping all her shopping once and pushing all the bread back into the basket. By mistake she had put some horse droppings in there as well.

She talks about The Mutiny on the Bounty and says that of her father and Nordhoff’s trilogy, she prefers the middle one, Men Against the Sea about Bligh’s journey to Timor. Still, she repeats Jimmy Nordhoff’s point about Bligh being a bad man. ‘Did you know he faced three mutinies in his life. Once on the Bounty, a second in North South Wales, and one other.’

           I ask how many books her father wrote, and she says 32.

           ‘Nearer 47’, says Nick.

I ask whether she saw the Nordhoff children when she was young and she says she had never really done so. ‘Charles did not care for my Mother,’ she started, then added ‘and there was quite an age gap between us. Charles married much earlier than my Father. And they were very different. Charles was a womaniser and had a few children with the laundry lady. They are all dead now.’

I mention I had seen Jimmy and she asks how he was. She adds that she never really knew him. She was very impressed with what he has done with the land where he lives. ‘But he drank heavily and he wrote to me after the museum opened and said he was going to burn it down because it wasn’t called the Nordhoff and Hall museum. But it was James’ house and that is what the museum is about. Nordhoff never lived there.’

We had finished our meal – a delicious group of homemade ice creams to end. Nick is wheeled away by Millie to have a sleep. We discuss her Father. Did I know he wrote to his grandchildren when he was a prisoner of war in Germany long before he even had children? And have I seen the book of poems he wrote to her, one every birthday and he kept copies of all and presented a book of them to her when she married. What a dear sweetie he was.

Soon we are talking about the 1920s and 1930s. She says the ex-pats wouldn’t think anything of going halfway round the island for a party. I ask how many cars there were on the island and she says her father never learned to drive a car. I say I can’t believe it when he flew airplanes. She explained she tried to teach him and he learnt how to move the gear stick but when he was about to start driving he crossed his legs. So she gave up. He never drove. Her mother had a car but she never drove either. She had a chauffeur. I bring round the computer and show Nancy a quote about her Father in Robert’s letters:

Norman Hall and some American backers want the pair of us to go off together to Central Asia by way of Tokyo, Seoul, Mukden and –I think I am attracted. It might be amusing. Hall is amusing, to start with. He was an American flying ‘ace’ in the war, though I confess to you that I don’t actually know what an ace is, and he’s very American. “’Gee, Keable, that would be great!” He has no fear, no morals and no money except what he earns en route. But he also has no pride and no delusions.

           Reading over her shoulder I see the line about ‘no morals’ and say: ‘Of course, this was written before your father met your mother.’

           ‘No it wasn’t. She was 11 when they met. They married when she was sixteen.’

I start to tell her the story about her grandfather, her mother’s father, threatening to horse-whip Frederick O’Brien out of town but she knows the story and says her grandfather successfully sued O’Brien for libel and won £1,000.

Nancy is tiring so I end by saying how odd I find it that in all Hall’s writing he never mentioned my grandfather. Nancy doesn’t answer. She may have found it odd as well or she may not have heard what I said.

She finally says it is time for her nap. We have photographs taken together and she grips my hand and says how pleased she was I had come and how important it is to keep history alive. She heads for a sleep and Millie and I walk down to the graves in the garden.

           The grave has a lovely headstone:

James Norman Hall

April 22, 1887 – July 6, 1952

Look to the northward stranger

Just over the hillside there,

Have you in your travels seen

A land more passing fair.

Three other headstones, Nancy’s mother and grandmother and brother. I briefly talk to Millie. Her husband is retired, and her children have left home, one with a boyfriend. I ask if she likes the boyfriend and she says she sent him away – they were living together in her house – and her daughter followed him to another island. She tries to find photos of them and flicks though a picture of a party of 60 that was held up here last week. Millie is heading on down to her house also on the estate. As she goes I ask how often Nancy and Nick come over to Tahiti and she says not often but when they do they stay for a few weeks. Which means she has to provide the care, three meals a day, 7 days a week. It is like working in a rest home. ‘And I am not even from Tahiti I am from Tonga!’

  • Nancy Ella Hall Rutgers died in 2020 aged 90 and was buried next to her husband Nick, beside her brother’s grave and a few yards from her mother and father’s resting place.