Cobey Black / 1922-2014Isle celebrity columnist rubbed elbows with stars
A newspaper writer, Black was interested in high achievers
By Michael Tsai
Gifted with a keen intellect and driven by insatiable curiosity, columnist Cobey Black captivated readers of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin and The Honolulu Advertiser with smartly written and painstakingly procured glimpses of thousands of the day's most popular and accomplished entertainers, intellectuals and politicians.
Black died at her Diamond Head home Thursday at the age of 91.
Through Black's popular "Who's News" and "Cobey" columns, local readers gained rare insight into the lives of everyone from Elvis Presley to the Dalai Lama, Lucille Ball to Susan Sontag, U.S. presidents to yo-yo wizards.
"Cobey was egalitarian," said veteran Hawaii journalist Denby Fawcett, a longtime friend of Black. "It didn't matter who you were or where you came from as long as you were interesting. And she could pull something of substance, something interesting, out of almost everyone she met."
And as her long and illustrious list of achievements and experiences attests, she was at least as substantial and interesting as the celebrities she profiled.
Margaret Bell Cobey was born in Washington, D.C., and educated at Wellesley College in Massachusetts.
After graduating in 1944, Cobey moved to California to pursue an acting career. She eventually joined a USO troupe on a tour of Europe.
While in Paris, she ran into an old friend from home, Army officer Edwin Black, whom she would later marry. Politically, the two were polar opposites, Cobey a liberal who supported socially progressive causes and Ed a dedicated patriot with conservative values. Yet, friends and family agreed, the two were deeply in love and steadfastly loyal to each other.
Back in the U.S., Black leveraged her writing skills into a job as women's editor for the Washington Daily News, a post she held from 1947 to 1950. She was entertaining an offer to become a style writer for the Washington Post when her husband was reassigned to Hawaii.
Black was reluctant to move but changed her mind once she visited Oahu.
"She came to take a look, and that was it," said daughter Noel Ackerman. "She saw how beautiful everything was and never wanted to leave."
Hawaii was on the cusp of historic change when Black, then 31, arrived in 1954. Statehood was on the near horizon, Big Five control was being usurped by a Democratic Party energized by returning war veterans, and the advent of cheap jet travel was about to transform the local economy.
Black recognized Hawaii as a site of rare cultural, historic and social intersection and saw in its appeal to traveling celebrities an opportunity to fill a niche.
Shortly after she arrived in Hawaii, Black approached Star-Bulletin Editor Bill Ewing and talked her way into writing a celebrity column.
Making good on her promise to secure interviews with visiting celebrities wasn't easy, but Black's earnest, down-to-earth approach proved highly effective in getting even the most resistant public figures to grant her a few minutes. Many of her tales became the stuff of local journalism legend. She wore down a reclusive Robert Mitchum as he sat at the bar in the Moana Hotel, lay on the grass to interview a prone and unwilling-to-move Marlon Brando, even coaxed a wary Henry Fonda to re-enact his famous Tom Joad speech from "The Grapes of Wrath."
"She was a genuine person," said friend Judy Murata. "There was no BS, no game-playing, no manipulation. It was just her. If she had an agenda, it was simply to get to know you."
Black relied on a network of Waikiki bellhops and desk clerks to get the skinny on who was staying where, but her interest was never in scandal or salaciousness. Friends say she was fascinated by the qualities that high achievers possessed and delighted in sharing stories of hard work and accomplishment.
Few readers would have guessed that Black accomplished such feats while also caring for six children.
Daughter Star Black recalled nights when, roused from sleep, she and her siblings would be herded into the family car so Black could drop off her latest column before deadline.
Given the nature of Black's work, it was no surprise for the children if they came home to find Secret Service agents in the living room, or Danny Kaye cooking in the kitchen, or Jack Lord freshening a cocktail at the bar, or their father playing chess with nuclear scientist Edward Teller. They didn't flinch when the received postcards informing them that their mother was visiting a camel market with Sir Edmund Hillary or learning the finer points of snake wrangling.
"We couldn't have asked for a better mother," said youngest son Brian. "She had a great way of instilling a sense of pride and hard work without being obvious about it. We always wanted to live up to a higher standard because of her."
Though she first came to public notice through her column, which continued to run into the mid-1980s, Black was also a successful author, penning well-reviewed books on Princess Pauahi Bishop and legendary kumu hula Iolani Luahine. Her 2002 book "Hawaii Scandal," published when she was 79, is considered one of the definitive texts on the infamous Thalia Massey rape case.
She was working on a collection of columns about prominent African-Americans at the time of her death.
At her former Kahala home, she threw parties that might have made Gatsby blush but also opened her home to countless people in need of a place to stay.
"She enjoyed the adrenaline of life," said son Bruce.
Cobey Black is survived by sister Betty Senescu, daughters Star Black and Noel Ackerman, and sons Nicholas, Bruce and Brian. Funeral arrangements are pending.
Our deepest condolences to the family and friends of the deceased