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Lady and the Panda: The True Adventures of Ruth Harkness, the First American to Capture China's Most Exotic Animal

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Here is the astonishing true story of Ruth Harkness, the Manhattan bohemian socialite who, against all but impossible odds, trekked to Tibet in 1936 to capture the most mysterious animal of the day: a bear that had for countless centuries lived in secret in the labyrinth of lonely cold mountains. In The Lady and the Panda, Vicki Constantine Croke gives us the remarkable account of Ruth Harkness and her extraordinary journey, and restores Harkness to her rightful place along with Sacajawea, Nellie Bly, and Amelia ...
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Overview

Here is the astonishing true story of Ruth Harkness, the Manhattan bohemian socialite who, against all but impossible odds, trekked to Tibet in 1936 to capture the most mysterious animal of the day: a bear that had for countless centuries lived in secret in the labyrinth of lonely cold mountains. In The Lady and the Panda, Vicki Constantine Croke gives us the remarkable account of Ruth Harkness and her extraordinary journey, and restores Harkness to her rightful place along with Sacajawea, Nellie Bly, and Amelia Earhart as one of the great woman adventurers of all time.

Ruth was the toast of 1930s New York, a dress designer newly married to a wealthy adventurer, Bill Harkness. Just weeks after their wedding, however, Bill decamped for China in hopes of becoming the first Westerner to capture a giant panda-an expedition on which many had embarked and failed miserably. Bill was also to fail in his quest, dying horribly alone in China and leaving his widow heartbroken and adrift. And so Ruth made the fateful decision to adopt her husband's dream as her own and set off on the adventure of a lifetime.

It was not easy. Indeed, everything was against Ruth Harkness. In decadent Shanghai, the exclusive fraternity of white male explorers patronized her, scorned her, and joked about her softness, her lack of experience and money. But Ruth ignored them, organizing, outfitting, and leading a bare-bones campaign into the majestic but treacherous hinterlands where China borders Tibet. As her partner she chose Quentin Young, a twenty-two-year-old Chinese explorer as unconventional as she was, who would join her in a romance as torrid as it was taboo.

Traveling across some of the toughest terrain in the world-nearly impenetrable bamboo forests, slick and perilous mountain slopes, and boulder-strewn passages-the team raced against a traitorous rival, and was constantly threatened by hordes of bandits and hostile natives. The voyage took months to complete and cost Ruth everything she had. But when, almost miraculously, she returned from her journey with a baby panda named Su Lin in her arms, the story became an international sensation and made the front pages of newspapers around the world. No animal in history had gotten such attention. And Ruth Harkness became a hero.

Drawing extensively on American and Chinese sources, including diaries, scores of interviews, and previously unseen intimate letters from Ruth Harkness, Vicki Constantine Croke has fashioned a captivating and richly textured narrative about a woman ahead of her time. Part Myrna Loy, part Jane Goodall, by turns wisecracking and poetic, practical and spiritual, Ruth Harkness is a trailblazing figure. And her story makes for an unforgettable, deeply moving adventure.

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Editorial Reviews

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In 1936, the American public, mired in the Great Depression, was generally unaware of the existence of the rare giant panda. It was also unfamiliar with a recently widowed young Manhattan socialite named Ruth Harkness. But all that would change amidst a frenzied public maelstrom over a baby black-and-white bear named Su-Lin and the young woman who found her. Together, like Seabiscuit, they gave a disheartened populace something to cheer about.

Harkness was an accidental explorer. Shortly after their marriage, her husband, a wealthy adventurer, left for China on a quest to capture a panda. Thwarted by a series of bureaucratic snafus, he unexpectedly succumbed to the ravages of throat cancer. Despite such cautionary circumstances, Ruth decided to honor his memory by completing the mission herself. People told her she was crazy, but Harkness was undaunted. Facing treacherous con men posing as guides, bandits, hostile government employees, and rival teams of adventurers, she also traversed some of the most difficult and dangerous mountain terrain on earth. And even if she managed to find a bear, nobody knew how to keep one alive in captivity.

As in all truly important adventure stories, the real progress is made within the adventurer herself. On her final panda-hunting expedition, Harkness makes a very different decision regarding the animals she finds, honoring both humanity and her beloved pandas in the process. Croke's deft portrayal of this visionary woman and her extraordinary quest is exciting, sensitive, and meticulously researched. (Fall 2005 Selection)
Janet Maslin
The Lady and the Panda winds up stranger than fiction but no less poignant. Ms. Croke has worked hard - with an effort that often shows - to give it dramatic shape. She summons just enough romance, rivalry, victory, disappointment and redemption to make this book reflect a woman who wore lipstick in the jungle. Like its heroine, it stakes everything on exotic glamour.
— The New York Times
Vicki Conastantine Croke
Were The Lady and the Panda simply an account of this journey, the book would be astonishing enough. But it is Vicki Constantine Croke's achievement to make this most improbable of explorations resonate like a classic quest narrative in which the journey into the unknown is as much about inner transformation as external conquest. Fighting public skepticism and professional jealousy, Ruth Harkness, the novice explorer, succeeded where the established fraternity of animal hunters had repeatedly failed, and in doing so discovered what she finally wanted.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
During the Great Depression, inexpensive entertainment could be had at any city zoo. The exploits of the utterly macho men who bagged the beasts also made good adventure-film fodder. Yet one of the most famous animals ever brought to America-the giant panda-was captured by a woman, Ruth Harkness. Constantine Croke, the "Animal Beat" columnist for the Boston Globe, became fascinated by bohemian socialite Harkness, who was left alone and in difficult financial straits in 1936 after her husband died trying to bring a giant panda back from China. Instead of mourning, Harkness took on the mission. Arriving in Hong Kong with "a whiskey soda in one hand and a Chesterfield in the other," she soon found herself up against ruthless competitors, bandits, foul weather and warfare. Luckily, she was accompanied by the handsome and capable Quentin Young, her Chinese guide and eventual lover. This gripping book retraces their steps through the isolated and rugged wilderness where pandas hide, and then back to America, where the strange bears took the West by storm. Despite her remarkable journey, Harkness was derided and ignored by male adventurers. In dusting off this exciting tale, Constantine Croke (The Modern Ark: Zoos Past, Present and Future) returns Harkness to her rightful place in the top rank of zoological explorers. B&w photos. Agent, Laura Blake Peterson. (On sale July 5) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Following the death of her husband, a young Manhattan socialite named Ruth Harkness decided to carry out his work-to find and bring a giant panda to the United States. Amazingly, she succeeded, much to the chagrin of the male explorers and adventurers of the 1930s. Harkness was not only successful in bringing the first known giant panda to the Western world, but, even more astonishingly, she was also able to keep it alive. Even today, with cutting-edge procedures and knowledge, zoos struggle to breed and raise endangered species in captivity. In 1938, Harkness wrote a book about her adventures, joining the elite ranks of women such as Jane Goodall who made exceptional contributions to our understanding of the behavior and ecology of the world's vanishing animal species. Drawing on her access to hundreds of Harkness's letters and conversations with family members, Croke (The Modern Ark: The Story of Zoos Past, Present and Future) provides a rich and thoroughly engaging story of a captivating and remarkable woman. This well-written, exhaustively researched and documented book should be on every library's shelves. Highly recommended.-Edell M. Schaefer, Brookfield P.L., WI Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The Boston Globe's "Animal Beat" columnist tells the story of Ruth Harkness, the explorer who brought America its first panda bear. When her husband died while exploring China, Harkness-a woman who brooked no fools and met the world armed with the wit of Dorothy Parker-decided to take up his goal and capture a live panda. In 1936, she traveled to China and set out for panda territory, literally wearing her dead husband's clothes and boots (which had been refitted for the widow by Chinese tailors and shoemakers). Croke (The Modern Ark, 1997) recounts the expedition in all its exciting and exhausting detail: risky crossings of the Yangtze, bandits trying to attack the explorers. If danger was in the air, so was Eros, and Harkness had a fling in the mountains with her hunky expedition guide, Quentin Young. On November 9, she and Young found their baby panda. Harkness named the three-pounder Su-Lin, which translates as "a little bit of something very cute." Harkness fed Su-Lin from a baby bottle and hardly let the bear out of her sight as she traveled back to Shanghai and then on to America. The pair, lady and panda, made a media sensation (Su-Lin graced the front page of The Chicago Tribune for nine days in a row). Clever capitalists marketed toy pandas, which could be had for $2.50, and Harkness eventually settled Su-Lin at the Brookfield Zoo. Croke chronicles Harkness's subsequent journeys back to China, her eventual slide into alcoholism, and her mysterious death in a hotel bathtub in 1947. But she and Su-Lin had a long-lasting impact: the adorable panda galvanized more conservationism than a thousand speeches by activists ever could. "Every time a biologist treks into the bamboo forest,or a conservation group underwrites research," writes Croke, "Harkness's mission lives on."Kudos are due for recovering the story of a larger-than-life woman and her tiny, famous panda bear. Author tour
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375507830
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 7/5/2005
  • Pages: 400
  • Product dimensions: 6.37 (w) x 9.53 (h) x 1.28 (d)

Meet the Author

VICKI CONSTANTINE CROKE has been covering pets and wildlife for more than a decade, and writes the “Animal Beat” column for The Boston Globe. A former writer and producer for CNN, she has been a contributing reporter for the National Public Radio environment show Living on Earth and consults on film and television projects, most recently a two-hour documentary on gorillas for the A&E channel. Croke is the author of The Modern Ark: The Story of Zoos–Past, Present and Future, and has also written for Time, People, The Washington Post, Popular Science, Gourmet, National Wildlife, Discover, International Wildlife, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

DEATH IN SHANGHAI

It was a bitter winter night, February 19, 1936, and on the outskirts of Shanghai, far from the neon and the wailing jazz, thirty-four-year-old William Harvest Harkness, Jr., lay in a private hospital, blood-stiffened silk sutures tracking across his pale abdomen. He was dying, and alone in his agony. His original expedition mates, four adventurous men with dreams of capturing the giant panda, had all deserted him long before. Though he knew people in the city from previous trips and more recent escapades in notorious nightclubs and bars, in the end he had stayed true to some deeper nature, pushing them all away and stealing off in secret. His family, including his young wife back in Manhattan, had no idea he was even sick. With what little strength he could summon, he had been writing sunny notes home that masked his horrible condition. Perhaps he really believed his own words, for just weeks earlier he had been pressuring the doctor to release him so he could get back to his campaign. But, finally, on this frigid night, scarred by other attempts to scalpel tumors from his neck and torso and wretched from his latest incision, he found himself unable to eat or drink, then even to breathe. The sportsman who lived to rough it in the wild died under starched white sheets, in a ward reeking of antiseptic. His young life had ended in the pursuit of the most mysterious animal of his time, yet he had never managed to set a laced boot in the great snow-covered mountains that separated China and Tibet.

A world away, back in the noise and lights and rush of Manhattan, it had been an even chillier winter, one of thesnowiest and coldest anyone could remember. Late in the afternoon, on the very day her husband took his last breath, Ruth Harkness was making her way home from a salon where she had enjoyed a luxurious shampoo. Bundled up, she happily picked her way along icy sidewalks that were dusted with ash for traction and walled in by freshly shoveled snow. Friends were due for cocktails shortly, and in the larger scheme of things, she had even more to look forward to. Now that things were beginning to go well for Bill, she thought, he might just be home within months. Then the two of them could travel the world as they had always imagined.

But as she stepped inside her comfortable West Side apartment, before she had time to hang up her coat, her “pretty little mulatto maid” and her houseguest, Margaret Freeland, confronted her with the horrible news: Bill was dead. A cable message had been relayed by telephone.

Her first reaction was stunned disbelief. It was too awful to accept. This must be some fantasy of the press—reporters were fascinated by Bill and the other men of high adventure, but in their hunger for sensational stories, they were always getting things wrong. It had to be one of those false bulletins. Surely, over the course of the afternoon, that would become clear.

So she waited, as the winter darkness descended and lamps inside the apartment were snapped on. But hours later a telegram from Secretary of State Cordell Hull made it official. The love of her life was gone.

The devastation of that loss would consume her for weeks, and haunt her always. “Do you have that tremendous necessity of needing one person,” Ruth Harkness would ask a friend in the bruised aftermath of Bill’s death, “some person who understands you and trusts you completely in everything you do and you are—and ever can or will be? Someone with whom you can let down all barriers? All pretense of any kind and still be liked or loved? . . . That is what Bill meant to me and in return I gave him what he needed.”

Through their ten years together, few understood the singular nature of their bond. To the outside world, Ruth and Bill were opposites. But they were also as perfect a fit.

Both had arrived in Manhattan in their early twenties. It was the Jazz Age, when under the cover of darkness, whites began slipping into Harlem for the music. People spoke openly of birth control, and women were enticed by the makers of Chesterfield cigarettes to “blow some my way.” Josephine Baker had her own nightclub in Paris. Films turned talkie. Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic. D. H. Lawrence imagined a scandalous dalliance in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and Margaret Mead was discussing sex among young Samoans. It was the birth of Time magazine, The New Yorker, and the Milky Way bar. For young party-minded Manhattanites during Prohibition, speakeasies were all the rage. It was no surprise, then, that the worlds of two hell-raisers would eventually collide.

Handsome, short, and slender, with slicked-back straw-colored hair and light blue eyes, William Harvest Harkness, Jr., was born to privilege. The sound of his name alone declared it. He was not a member of the famous Standard Oil Harknesses. But Bill had graduated from Harvard, class of 1924; he was a rich boy whose name showed up in the society pages, the son of a successful New York City attorney, and the scion of a wealthy New York family, as the press described him. The Harknesses were powerfully connected and accustomed to doors being opened for them.

But those points alone certainly would not have been enough to attract Ruth. Bill Harkness also had grit, and smarts, and a wry take on the world. Never arrogant, he was nonetheless sure of himself, and unconcerned with proving anything to others. His singular nature defied easy definition. As one friend pointed out, Bill had “inherited the wiry toughness of his Scotch-Irish ancestry along with a lot of mysticism, anomalously mixed with hard-headed Yankee shrewdness.”

Both bookish and athletic, cynical and sensitive, Bill Harkness was a man of appealing contradictions. His complicatedness was something that Ruth would love.

In Ruth, Bill saw a novel act. She was nothing like the girls he had met at Harvard dances. With her black hair parted in the middle and pulled severely back, a penchant for the dramatic, even exotic, in her dress, and a fondness for bright red lipstick, Ruth Elizabeth McCombs stood out. She was a newly minted dress designer who possessed a rare polish and poise. Speaking with a cultured lilt, she had a deep voice and a light wit. She could fill a room with her presence, her outsized personality invariably prompting people to say that she was tall, even though she stood only five feet four. She had, according to one society watcher, “that quality which Hollywood chooses to call glamour.” Over the years, her panache would carry her through lofty circles in New York City and beyond, bringing her top-notch invitations wherever she went. She appeared the ultimate city slicker but had started life as anything but.

Born on September 21, 1900, the third of four children, she came from hardworking, frugal stock in Titusville, Pennsylvania, with American roots going back to the eighteenth century. Her father, Robert, was a carpenter, lean, fit, and kind. Her mother, Mary Anne Patterson McCombs, was a bit bulky and more than a bit stern. A stay-at-home seamstress, she was as old-fashioned as the long skirts she wore. The McCombses lived comfortably, in a big brown two-story house that was more sturdy than fancy. It symbolized the McCombs way of life: solid and straightforward. The land, blessed by a nearby creek, dotted with fragrant apple trees, and able to accommodate a small kitchen garden, had been in the family for generations. Robert had been born on the very site where the big house now stood, in a log cabin, in 1872.

Though not poor, the McCombses were far from wealthy. And Titusville knew wealth—oil money, in fact. The nation’s first commercially productive oil well had been drilled there, propelling a few families into an elite circle. They wintered in warm places and sent their children to private school. Their mansions were huge and ornate. But in the small-town culture, rich mixed easily with poor, and Ruth gained an intimacy with affluence, forever finding herself both repelled by and attracted to the rarefied world of the rich.

No matter where she went in life, she would always carry with her a number of family traits. Chief among them were resolve and stoicism. The hardscrabble McCombses were people who picked themselves up and dusted themselves off. Honesty was the number-one commandment. The family strengths were timeless, but to Ruth, it could also seem that her parents were hopelessly mired in the last century.

Chafing at the crabbed environment at home, where liquor and religion were shunned in equal measure, she found refuge in books, which took her to the far corners of the world. But even the family’s temporary move to nearby Erie could not relieve the claustrophobia that she had begun to experience in Titusville. It was a pensive Ruth McCombs who looked out from the city’s 1918 high school yearbook. Her entry, unlike the chirpy and chummy ones of her fellow students, read, “Ruth is rather hard to get acquainted with, but after you know her you find that she has many good qualities and is a friend worth having.” If few people in northwest Pennsylvania really understood her, that was fine by Ruth. Like her older siblings, Jim and Helen, she planned to cut loose at the first possible opportunity.

After a semester at the University of Colorado and an experiment teaching English in Cuba, Ruth, with twenty-five dollars as her war chest, headed north to New York City.

Raven-haired and slim, Ruth Elizabeth McCombs was twenty-three years old when she first remade herself. Powdered and dressed up, she took on Manhattan, finding a job in fashion, where she could design and sew dresses for a population that bought up all the Paris knockoffs Seventh Avenue could produce. She took to her new life like a natural—utterly at ease at the center of a party, rarely seen without a smoke in one hand and a highball in the other. She became as quintessential a flapper as Clara Bow, one of the brassy, fun-loving girls in shimmering cocktail dresses who were, in the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald, “impudent” and “hard-berled,” who flouted convention and danced with abandon. Ruth said there were only two things in the world she hated: going to bed at night and getting up in the morning.

She might have been in great demand, but it wasn’t because she was pretty (she always said her face was not her fortune, and that it took an expensive photographer to bring out her best). She was so striking, though, that when she walked into a room, men noticed, and Bill Harkness was no exception.

It didn’t matter that she came from working folks in a small town, and he from big-city upper crusters. It meant nothing that she “had to work like the devil for a bare living,” and that he maintained his comfort without a thought to employment. He was intrigued.

Together, they knew how to enjoy themselves, to kick up their heels at naughty, high-toned soirées and low-down speakeasies alike. During the postwar era of sexual freedom, the two bohemians became a full-fledged couple. They were as good as married, without the traditional, stodgy sanctity of a wedding. Neither was a prude, and both loved physical pleasure. Ruth even joked about scandalous notions like being spanked on “a bare derriere.”

At the beginning of their courtship, they found themselves constantly tucked away in some corner, slugging back bootleg booze and lost in intense conversation. Addicted to reading, they soon began swapping books on their favorite subject—exotic travel. Their leather-bound volumes were filled with high adventure and glimpses of strange cultures. Often they contained delicate fold-out maps shaded in beautiful colors, veined with blue rivers and dappled by the shadowy wrinkles of mountain ranges. The most captivating among these atlases were the half-finished ones, those in which the dense, busy portions would end abruptly, leaving blank whole uncharted territories—regions of the world still steeped in mystery. Here were the places that had not given up their secrets to Western travelers and mapmakers. Sitting together in the haze of cigarette smoke, warmed by a glass of whiskey, their imaginations racing, Bill and Ruth always found themselves drawn to those patches of the unknown.

Bill had spent most of his short adulthood “on game trails in remote corners of the globe,” Ruth said, visiting India and China, Java, Borneo, and other islands of the Dutch East Indies. He thrived on the rough-and-tumble life in the field leavened by stints of footloose merriment in exotic cities. In long letters home, and then in intimate getting-reacquainted sessions on his return, he entranced Ruth with his tales of treks abroad.

His accounts, no doubt, were as gracefully told as the sagas the couple read together. For Bill was the romantically literary type with a classical education. He had passed college-entrance examinations in Latin, Greek, French, English, and ancient history. He described himself as an author and a man of letters and was an American intellectual in the mold of Teddy Roosevelt—the brave outdoorsman, as familiar with Milton as with a “Big Medicine” .405 rifle.

He and Ruth spent weekends at his family’s estate in Connecticut, and sometimes slipped off for tropical romantic getaways to places like the Virgin Islands. They drank and philosophized. “A dash of absinthe,” Ruth said, “and you analyze the hell out of everything.” They read books, walked on the beach, and poured their hearts out to each other.

And there was so much to talk about. Each of them was haunted by a penetrating, persistent loneliness, suffering bouts of it even in a crowded room. Yet they craved solitude. To Bill and to Ruth, being alone was a complex state: the satisfaction of solitude played against a chronic sense of loneliness.

As they settled into a life together, and even after they were married, their rather elastic relationship was marked by intimacy and long periods of separation. Paradoxically, they seemed to grow closer while apart. When traveling, Bill found he could be utterly open with Ruth. In addressing her, he wrote more easily, and with greater clarity, than when scribbling in a private journal. Her intuition, her understanding of his very nature, was so complete, that just placing her name at the top of the page, he said, drew him out. He was so certain of a mystical connection between them that he never worried about how they would keep in touch despite the vagaries of international mail service and the fluid nature of his itineraries. “He had a divine faith,” Ruth explained, “that I’d somehow know how to get letters to him and strangely enough I did.”

Her responses were encyclopedic. She couldn’t help “rambling”—telling him every detail of her activities and thoughts.

For Ruth, who would always feel that her family misunderstood her, there was, in this distant intimacy, a familiarity. She was accustomed to physical and emotional separations, and as Bill continued a life constantly on the campaign, his presence was a palpable part of her life.
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First Chapter

Chapter One

DEATH IN SHANGHAI

It was a bitter winter night, February 19, 1936, and on the outskirts of Shanghai, far from the neon and the wailing jazz, thirty-four-year-old William Harvest Harkness, Jr., lay in a private hospital, blood-stiffened silk sutures tracking across his pale abdomen. He was dying, and alone in his agony. His original expedition mates, four adventurous men with dreams of capturing the giant panda, had all deserted him long before. Though he knew people in the city from previous trips and more recent escapades in notorious nightclubs and bars, in the end he had stayed true to some deeper nature, pushing them all away and stealing off in secret. His family, including his young wife back in Manhattan, had no idea he was even sick. With what little strength he could summon, he had been writing sunny notes home that masked his horrible condition. Perhaps he really believed his own words, for just weeks earlier he had been pressuring the doctor to release him. But, finally, on this frigid night, scarred by other attempts to scalpel tumors from his neck and torso and wretched from his latest incision, he found himself unable to eat or drink, then even to breathe. The sportsman who lived to rough it in the wild died under starched white sheets, in a ward reeking of antiseptic. His young life had ended in the pursuit of the most mysterious animal of his time, yet he had never managed to set a laced boot in the great snow-covered mountains that separated China and Tibet.

A world away, back in the noise and lights and rush of Manhattan, it had been an even chillier winter, one of the snowiest and coldest anyone could remember. Late in the afternoon, on the very day her husband took his last breath, Ruth Harkness was making her way home from a salon where she had enjoyed a luxurious shampoo. Bundled up, she happily picked her way along icy sidewalks that were dusted with ash for traction and walled in by freshly shoveled snow. Friends were due for cocktails shortly, and in the larger scheme of things, she had even more to look forward to. Now that things were beginning to go well for Bill, she thought, he might just be home within months. Then the two of them could travel the world as they had always imagined.

But as she stepped inside her comfortable West Side apartment, before she had time to hang up her coat, her "pretty little mulatto maid" and her houseguest, Margaret Freeland, confronted her with the horrible news: Bill was dead. A cable message had been relayed by telephone.

Her first reaction was stunned disbelief. It was too awful to accept. This must be some fantasy of the press -- reporters were fascinated by Bill and the other men of high adventure, but in their hunger for sensational stories, they were always getting things wrong. It had to be one of those false bulletins. Surely, over the course of the afternoon, that would become clear.

So she waited, as the winter darkness descended and lamps inside the apartment were snapped on. But hours later a telegram from secretary of state Cordell Hull made it official. The love of her life was gone.

The devastation of that loss would consume her for weeks, and haunt her always. "Do you have that tremendous necessity of needing one person," Ruth Harkness would ask a friend in the bruised aftermath of Bill's death, "some person who understands you and trusts you completely in everything you do and you are -- and ever can or will be? Someone with whom you can let down all barriers? All pretense of any kind and still be liked or loved? . . . That is what Bill meant to me and in return I gave him what he needed."

Through their ten years together, few understood the singular nature of their bond. To the outside world, Ruth and Bill were opposites. But they were also as perfect a fit.

Both had arrived in Manhattan in their early twenties. It was the Jazz Age, when under the cover of darkness, whites began slipping into Harlem for the music. People spoke openly of birth control, and women were enticed by the makers of Chesterfield cigarettes to "blow some my way." Josephine Baker had her own nightclub in Paris. Films turned talkie. Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic. D. H. Lawrence detailed a scandalous dalliance in Lady Chatterley's Lover, and Margaret Mead was discussing sex among young Samoans. It was the birth of Time magazine, The New Yorker, and the Milky Way bar. For young party-minded Manhattanites during Prohibition, speakeasies were all the rage. It was no surprise, then, that the worlds of two hell-raisers would eventually collide.

Handsome, short, and wiry, with slicked-back straw-colored hair and light blue eyes, William Harvest Harkness, Jr., was born to privilege. The sound of his name alone declared it. He was not a member of the Standard Oil Harknesses. But Bill had graduated from Harvard, class of 1924, a rich boy whose name showed up in the society pages, the son of a successful New York City attorney, and the scion of a wealthy New York family, as the press described him. The Harknesses were powerfully connected and accustomed to doors being opened for them. But those points alone certainly would not have been enough to attract Ruth. Bill Harkness also had grit, and smarts, and a wry take on the world. Never arrogant, he was nonetheless sure of himself, and unconcerned with proving anything to others. His singular nature defied easy definition. As one friend pointed out, Bill had "inherited the wiry toughness of his Scotch-Irish ancestry along with a lot of mysticism, anomalously mixed with hard-headed Yankee shrewdness."

Both bookish and athletic, cynical and sensitive, Bill Harkness was a man of appealing contradictions. His complicatedness was something that Ruth would love.

In Ruth, Bill saw a novel act. She was nothing like the girls he had met at Harvard dances. With her black hair parted in the middle and pulled severely back, a penchant for the dramatic, even exotic, in her dress, and a fondness for bright red lipstick, Ruth Elizabeth McCombs stood out. She was a newly minted dress designer who possessed a rare polish and poise. Speaking with a cultured lilt, she had a deep voice and a light wit. She could fill a room with her presence, her outsized personality invariably prompting people to say that she was tall, even though she stood only five feet four. Over the years, her panache would carry her through lofty circles in New York City and beyond, bringing her topnotch invitations wherever she went. She appeared the ultimate city slicker but had started life as anything but.

Born on September 21, 1900, the third of four children, she came from hardworking, frugal stock in Titusville, Pennsylvania, with American roots going back to the eighteenth century. Her father, Robert, was a carpenter, lean, fit, and kind. Her mother, Mary Anne Patterson McCombs, was a bit bulky and more than a bit stern. A stay-at-home seamstress, she was as old-fashioned as the long skirts she wore. The McCombses lived comfortably, in a big brown two-story house that was more sturdy than fancy. It symbolized the McCombs way of life: solid and straightforward. The land, blessed by a nearby creek, dotted with fragrant apple trees, and able to accommodate a small kitchen garden, had been in the family for generations. Robert had been born on the very site where the big house now stood, in a log cabin, in 1872.

Though not poor, the McCombses were far from wealthy. And Titusville knew wealth -- oil money, in fact. The nation's first commercially productive oil well had been drilled there, propelling a few families into an elite circle. They wintered in warm places and sent their children to private school. Their mansions were huge and ornate. But in the small-town culture, rich mixed easily with poor, and Ruth gained an intimacy with affluence, forever finding herself both repulsed and attracted to the rarefied world of the rich.

No matter where she went in life, she would always carry with her a number of family traits. Chief among them were resolve and stoicism. The hardscrabble McCombses were people who picked themselves up and dusted themselves off. Honesty was the number-one commandment. The family strengths were timeless, but somehow, to Ruth, it could also seem that her parents were hopelessly mired in the last century. Chafing at the crabbed environment at home, where liquor and religion were shunned in equal measure, she found refuge in books, which took her to the far corners of the world. But even the family's temporary move to nearby Erie could not relieve the claustrophobia that she had begun to experience in Titusville. It was a pensive Ruth McCombs who looked out from the city's 1918 high school yearbook. Her entry, unlike the chirpy and chummy ones of her fellow students, read, "Ruth is rather hard to get acquainted with, but after you know her you find that she has many good qualities and is a friend worth having." If few people in northwest Pennsylvania really knew her, that was fine by Ruth. Like her older siblings, Jim and Helen, she planned to cut loose at the first possible opportunity.

After a semester at the University of Colorado and an experiment teaching English in Cuba, Ruth, with twenty-five dollars as her war chest, headed north to New York City.

Raven-haired and slim, Ruth Elizabeth McCombs was twenty-three years old when she first remade herself. Powdered and dressed up, she took on Manhattan, finding a job in fashion, where she could design and sew dresses for a population that bought up all the Paris knockoffs Seventh Avenue could produce. She took to her new life like a natural -- utterly at ease at the center of a party, rarely seen without a smoke in one hand and a highball in the other. She became as quintessential a flapper as Clara Bow and all the other brassy, fun-loving girls in shimmering cocktail dresses who were, in the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald, "impudent" and "hard-berled," who flouted convention and danced with abandon. Ruth fit right in, saying there were only two things in the world she hated: going to bed at night and getting up in the morning.

She might have been in great demand, but it wasn't because she was pretty (she always said her face was not her fortune, and that it took an expensive photographer to bring out her best). She was striking, though, and when she walked into a room, men noticed. Bill Harkness was no exception.

It didn't matter that she came from working folks in a small town, and he from big-city upper-crusters. It meant nothing that she "had to work like the devil for a bare living," and that he maintained his comfort without a thought to employment. He was intrigued.

Together, they knew how to enjoy themselves, to kick up their heels at naughty, high-tone soirées and low-down speakeasies alike. During the postwar era of sexual freedom, the two bohemians became a full-fleshed couple. They were as good as married, without the traditional, stodgy sanctity of a wedding. Neither was a prude, and both loved physical pleasure. Ruth even joked about scandalous notions like being spanked on "a bare derriere."

At the beginning of their courtship, they found themselves constantly tucked away in some corner, slugging back bootleg booze and lost in intense conversation. Addicted to reading, they soon began swapping books on their favorite subject -- exotic travel. Their leather-bound volumes were filled with high adventure and glimpses of strange cultures.

Often they contained delicate fold-out maps shaded in beautiful colors, veined with blue rivers and dappled by the shadowy wrinkles of mountain ranges. The most captivating among these atlases were the half-finished ones, those in which the dense, busy portions would end abruptly, leaving blank whole uncharted territories -- regions of the world still steeped in mystery. Here were the places that had not given up their secrets to Western travelers and mapmakers. Sitting together in the haze of cigarette smoke, warmed by a glass of whiskey, their imaginations racing, Bill and Ruth always found themselves drawn to those patches of the unknown.

Bill had spent most of his short lifetime "on game trails in remote corners of the globe," Ruth said, visiting India and China, Java, Borneo, and other islands of the Dutch East Indies. He thrived on the rough-and-tumble life in the field with the accompanying stints of footloose merriment in exotic cities. In long letters home, and then in intimate getting-reacquainted sessions on his return, he entranced Ruth with his tales of treks abroad.

His accounts, no doubt, were as gracefully told as the sagas the couple read together. For Bill was the romantically literary type with a classical education. He had passed college-entrance examinations in Latin, Greek, French, English, and ancient history. He described himself as an "author" and a man of "letters" and was an American intellectual in the mold of Teddy Roosevelt -- the brave outdoorsman, as familiar with Milton as with a "Big Medicine" .405 rifle.

He and Ruth relished the high life. They spent weekends at his family's estate in Connecticut, and sometimes slipped off for tropical romantic getaways to places like the Virgin Islands. They drank and philosophized. "A dash of absinthe," Ruth said, "and you analyze the hell out of everything." They read books, walked on the beach, and poured their hearts out to each other.

And there was so much to talk about. Each of them was haunted by a penetrating, persistent loneliness, suffering bouts of it even in a crowded room. Yet they craved solitude. To Bill and to Ruth, being alone was a complex state: the satisfaction of solitude played against a chronic sense of loneliness.

As they settled into a life together, their rather elastic relationship was marked by intimacy and long periods of separation. Paradoxically, they seemed to grow closer while apart. When traveling, Bill found he could be utterly open with Ruth. In addressing her, he wrote more easily, and with greater clarity, than when scribbling in a private journal. Her intuition, her understanding of his very nature, was so complete, that just placing her name at the top of the page, he said, drew him out. He was so certain of a mystical connection between them that he never worried about how they would keep in touch despite the vagaries of international mail service and the fluid nature of his itineraries. "He had a divine faith," Ruth explained, "that I'd somehow know how to get letters to him and strangely enough I did."

Her responses were encyclopedic. She couldn't help "rambling" -- telling him every detail of her activities and thoughts. For Ruth, who would always feel that her family misunderstood her, there was, in this distant intimacy, a familiarity. She was accustomed to physical and emotional separations as Bill continued a life constantly on the campaign. No matter where he was, his presence was a palpable part of her life.


So on that wintry February afternoon when Ruth found out that Bill was gone, her emotional loss was complete. She felt in a fog -- incoherent and, she would reflect later, impossible to deal with. The friends who rallied around her quickly became concerned about a practical matter. It was clear that the widow would receive a relatively small inheritance. With Bill and his father both dead, Bill's stepmother, who had inherited about $150,000 two years before, was the keeper of the estate. Ruth would always say that money didn't matter to her, and she proved it now as her financial state changed drastically. Facing life without Bill's purse, she didn't lift a finger to fight for a scrap of it. She was to receive about $20,000 -- a not-unpleasant sum in 1936, but not enough to last much more than a year for a Fifth Avenue address. It was for a young woman perhaps sufficient to live on for years if she scrimped and lived a small life. But small wasn't in Ruth Harkness's vocabulary.

Her friends were distraught over the inequity of the distribution. And they saw that the apartment, the maid, the expensive portrait photographers, the luxury Ruth Harkness had been enjoying, would all go. In no time, she would be in the same pickle as everyone else living through the Depression.

She left it to her dearest friend, Hazel Perkins, an industrious and ambitious woman raising two boys alone, to negotiate and sometimes spar with Bill's stepmother to retrieve some of his most personal effects from the family home -- furniture, books, and his mother's jewelry.

Security wasn't Harkness's passion; in fact, it would be the last thing she would spend time dwelling on now. Over many chilly days and nights, she was drinking through teary-eyed reveries. In those sad, quiet hours she might even have heard echoes of a jaunty, bittersweet rendition of "Vilia," the signature aria from The Merry Widow, about a forest nymph who falls in love with a mortal man. Bill used to absentmindedly whistle the tune, which now could serve as a melancholy anthem for the couple.

Already in the numbed ache of those days, though, she had an inkling of what she wanted to do, and the twenty grand would be just the ticket. The rage of emotion that welled up inside her was being marshaled into conviction, a resolve that was probably too outrageous to say aloud. She decided that she wouldn't leave Bill in failure -- she would pick up his mission and carry it to victory. After all, she reasoned, exploration was in her blood as much as it had been in his. She had spoiled for the voyages into the unknown just as Bill had. And at this point, who knew what the future would hold, so why live a modest life when she could have herself "one grand adventure"? She had the money, the purpose, and, with her husband's death, something else, something surprising. As she sent instructions for Bill's body to be cremated, her own freedom began to emerge from his ashes. Like a swimmer who dives to the bottom of a pool and pushes off, it was often from the position of lowest circumstance that Ruth would rebound with enormous energy. Now she'd need it. For her to enter Bill's realm would be considered heresy.

Bill Harkness's background and exploits had placed him among an elite group of the time -- wealthy lads with a taste for adventure, a cocktail shaker in one hand and a pistol in the other, as comfortable in black tie as they were in field khaki. Teddy Roosevelt's sons Theodore and Kermit described their brethren as the "brown lean men who drift quietly into New York" making plans to launch great expeditions, trekking "to lonely places where food is scant" and "danger a constant bedfellow."

It was a time in which seekers in science didn't need advanced degrees or rigorous course work. Bill and others like him were amateur zoologists of fine breeding, with solid Ivy League educations, who enjoyed the privileges of good standing with the heads of natural history museums and zoos. Funding was effortless -- they either underwrote their own expeditions or used their status to hustle sponsors, always in the most gentlemanly way. Handsome, articulate, well-educated daredevils, they made great copy, and the market for their wares was phenomenal. The cavernous, echoing halls of museums of natural history were still in search of new exhibit specimens, while the zoos that had sprung up across the United States were on the prowl for anything new or unique. In Bill and Ruth's young lifetimes several large mammals had just been described for the first time, including the mountain gorilla and the velvet-coated cousin to the giraffe, the okapi.

Zoos were seeking more than just the novel; they were also desperate to maintain their collections of better-known animals, which in some cases suffered very high mortality rates. In 1931, gorillas were as scarce and perishable as wild orchids. The Bronx Zoo assured visitors that "the agents of the New York Zoological Society are constantly on the watch for an opportunity to procure and send hither a good specimen of this wonderful creature." But it also warned that the viewing opportunity might be short. "Whenever one arrives all persons interested are advised to see it immediately, before it dies of sullenness, lack of exercise, and indigestion," the guide read. Demand for animals was strong enough that the dashing boys of high adventure would never fill a fraction of the orders. There was work enough for an army, but a definite caste system was established. Bill's crowd was at the top; below them were many other men from all walks of life, driven by every impulse imaginable: scholarly inclinations, a love of wildlife, greed, or a hunger for fame.

If in Ruth's zeal to join Bill on his treks, she had noted the presence of those few women who were in the game, there couldn't be a more obvious example than Osa Johnson. Flying zebra-striped and giraffe-spotted his-and-hers Sikorsky amphibious planes, Martin and Osa Johnson thrilled Americans with the movies they produced of exotic people and animals around the world. By filming naked "savages" and charging rhinos, and in exploring places rarely penetrated by westerners, the Johnsons were able to command $100,000 speaking tours. In the dark times of the Great Depression, the American public couldn't get enough of their derring-do. There were documentary films made for the American Museum of Natural History in New York, popular big-screen movies such as Simba and Baboona and later, Osa's bestselling books, including I Married Adventure. Audiences and readers thrilled at the couple's stories of cannibals and cobras. In various scenes, Osa could be seen playing "Aloha" on the ukulele for a "cannibal king," or riding a zebra. As diminutive as she was, she once managed to pose carrying a full-grown Pygmy woman in her arms.

The Johnsons' keenest competition came from Frank "Bring 'Em Back Alive" Buck. In his own crowd-pleasing books and films, he battled man-eating tigers and venomous snakes. He was suave and dashing and was always able on film to emerge from seething jungles with his khakis still sharply creased.

Out of sight of the movie cameras and far below these high-toned characters were countless collectors working without advance pay and lacking formal association with any large institution. They were truly in the trenches, sweating it out in the tropics, freezing on snowy massifs, and always hoping for a big windfall. They often traveled on the cheap, trying to peddle whatever they had. In newspaper stories, these exploits were portrayed as thrilling -- crowded with bloodthirsty natives, marked by hidden peril at every turn. Rarely in the recounting was the casual cruelty of the actual captures related in detail.

Adult elephants often had their Achilles tendons slashed in order to let hunters collect the babies. If done correctly, the bleed-out would be painless, the men claimed. Distressed captive baby giraffes would often just crumple and die, despite the whole herds of goats employed to supply milk. Baboons would be tied, muzzled, and nearly mummified in cloth. Zebras might be whipped to exhaustion.

Over the course of his career, Buck boasted that he had delivered 39 elephants, 60 tigers, 62 leopards, 52 orangutans, 5,000 monkeys, 40 kangaroos and wallabies, 40 bears, and 100 snakes -- in all, 10,000 mammals and 100,000 birds. The numbers that died along the way were incalculable, with the loss viewed not in moral or ethical terms but as a monetary issue. "If enough specimens die en route, the collector finds himself 'in the soup,' " Buck wrote.

While unaware of these horrible practices, Ruth certainly had been versed in the game's colorful cast of characters. And in 1933 one player came knocking. Well over six feet tall, with a receding hairline and a devilish goatee, Lawrence T. K. Griswold was an old Harvard chum of Bill's, who pitched a proposal that would change the course of both Bill and Ruth's lives. He had an expedition in mind as he traveled to New York searching for a partner who had not only the backbone and temperament for such arduous travel but also the cash to float it.

Since Bill was the obvious first choice, Griswold went looking in the speakeasy district of New York at a little joint called Emilio's. As it turned out, he found Bill, who "was fortunately furnished with enough money to do whatever he wanted within reasonable bounds," idle at the moment and eager to go. And with Bill "in," it was easy to recruit the rest of the party.

Ruth Harkness wasn't impressed with Larry Griswold; she thought he was a bit of a sponger and a pretentious one at that. She also may not have cared for the way he took Bill away for such long periods on adventures that excluded her. She wanted to jump into the action herself. Alone, maybe Bill would have capitulated, but the team of Bill and Larry wouldn't budge: it was boys only.

The first Harkness-Griswold expedition targeted the Indonesian island of Komodo. They were in search of the biggest lizard on the planet, the elusive Komodo dragon, which had been introduced to the world in a scientific paper the decade before. The dragon was considered one of the most sought-after creatures in existence. Weighing up to three hundred pounds, the Komodo has huge, curved, serrated teeth, perfect for tearing flesh. Great head and neck muscles and a jaw hinged for extra-wide opening aid the animals in bolting massive amounts of flesh. The modern-day dinosaur would be a provocative prize. Through the campaign, Bill and Larry depended on each other, confident enough in their own fortitude to always find humor in the face of mortal danger. Gaining success with their particular style of careless rich-boy swashbuckling, the team came away from the island in possession of several fine live specimens. But in Shanghai, on the way home, there were more high jinks to come.

Too busy romping in the most notorious city in the world, Harkness was not aboard the ship, the Empress of Asia, as it pulled away. Realizing the clutch he was in, he cabled Griswold with a one-word message -- SKILLIBOOTCH -- which reached the Empress as she entered the harbor of Nagasake. It was "Bill's own invention," Griswold would explain later, "and used to indicate an attitude of encouraging nonchalance." In a series of maneuvers worthy of Errol Flynn, Bill Harkness quickly grabbed an express boat out of Shanghai and hopped a train at Kobe, calmly materializing in Yokohama in time to meet the ship.

Bill was at the top of his game. At thirty-two he was fit, happy, and, by pulling off the trapping of the great Komodo lizards, successful. He had now established himself as a gifted hunter. Back in New York in May 1934, showing off what The New York Times called three "Big Dragons," the Ivy League adventurers found that the experience had only whetted their appetite for more. They began plotting their next collaboration.

With "a yearning desire to blaze new trails in the field of zoology," Ruth said, Bill next made a plan as dangerous and exotic as they come. He and Griswold intended to travel to the other side of the world to capture the biggest prize of them all -- a live giant panda. Very few people had ever seen one of these animals alive. Most of the population beyond the Tibetan borderland had never even heard of one. The animal was so little known, in fact, that when Bill first mentioned it to Ruth, she thought he had intended to say "panther," not panda.


He meant panda all right, and that summer of 1934, he brought Ruth up to speed on the animal that was the hottest treasure in the world. Even in its native haunts, where animals were seen as sources of medicine and myth, symbols for poets and artists, little had ever been written about the panda. It was a living mystery in a mysterious region, a place that in the twenties and thirties was absolutely fascinating to Americans. And as intriguing as China was considered, high Tibet went even further in imaginations, seeming to be more fancy than fact. Everything related to the search for the giant panda appeared rather otherworldly, as decade after decade, the animal dodged Western stalkers with an uncanny, some would say supernatural, skill. Yet each passing year, the brutal and punishing competition was becoming more of a siren call, one that often led to death, ruin, or disappointment.

It had all begun in the spring of 1869 with the journey of a French Lazarist missionary, Père Armand David, through Baoxing, or what was then known as Muping. The holy man, who was also a naturalist of some repute, was invited for tea and biscuits at the home of a local landowner. When he noticed a great woolly pelt of a black-and-white bear, he immediately grasped its significance. Though he would go on to be the first to describe much of this portion of the natural world to the West, and have many species named after him, nothing in his illustrious career would compare to this one dazzling moment of discovery.

Commissioning a group of hunters, he would within weeks have two skins of his own -- one of a young bear, another of an adult. He wrote in his diary that this "must be a new species of Ursus, very remarkable not only because of its color, but also for its paws, which are hairy underneath, and for other characters." He named the species Ursus melanoleucus, or black-and-white bear, and shipped the pelts off to Alphonse Milne-Edwards at the natural history museum in Paris, gushing that this new creature was "easily the prettiest kind of animal I know."

While Milne-Edwards may have agreed with the assessment of the animal's beauty, he objected to the missionary's placement of it within the bear family, launching a debate about its classification -- and whether it was closer to a bear or a raccoon -- that would live on for more than a century. At the time, there was already one panda known to science, the little raccoon-like red panda. Milne-Edwards wanted the new animal to be called Ailuropoda (panda-foot) melanoleuca (black and white).

The creature would come to be known as the great panda, then the giant panda, and very quickly, in the assessment of historians, "the most challenging animal trophy on earth."

The appraisal of experts in the field only made it more mesmeric. In 1908 famed botanist Ernest Wilson spent months surveying the kingdom of the panda. "This animal is not common," he wrote, "and the savage nature of the country it frequents renders the possibility of capture remote." Despite his extensive wandering in the heart of this habitat, Wilson himself never saw any more of the panda than its dung.

Still, he would consider himself lucky, for one could encounter worse things than failure when looking for pandas. There were natural calamities, injuries, and often confusion, as the men who came to hunt the panda would find themselves utterly lost in the unforgiving terrain. The most cautionary story was that of J. W. Brooke, a contemporary of Wilson's, who was killed by Yi tribesmen, then known as Lolo, during his hunting expedition in search of giant panda and other trophies. Brooke had been arguing with a local chief, and in a Western gesture of conciliation, which did not translate, he reached out to touch the man's shoulder.

His faux pas was met with a slashing sword. Injured and shocked, the explorer reflexively shot and killed the chief and then was killed himself by the outraged Yi.

So elusive was the panda at this point that even "possibly" being the first westerner to see one alive in the wild was an honor. And over the next few years, two men made that claim: brigadier general George Pereira, the British military attaché in Peking, and J. Huston Edgar. Spotting something that looked like a giant panda in the fork of an oak tree a hundred yards away inspired Edgar to write the poem "Waiting for the Panda," which read in part:

Waiting for the Panda,
Or the piebald bear,
Which I saw a-sleeping
In an oak tree lair.

Waiting for the Panda
In the Soaking mist;
Question: if he lingers
Can our camp exist?
. . .
Yet the wily Panda
Not in bamboo grass
But from crags uncanny
Sees the foeman pass;

And declares the Panda:
"What if lamas curse?
Bring your dogs and weapons
I'll be none the worse."
. . .
"But for this same Panda."
Sneer the ancient men,
"You may wait 'till doomsday,
Yes, and miss him then."

So we leave the Panda
Hoping that his bones
May some day be fossils
In the Muping stones.

And you'll see the Panda
In a charming zoo
That a dreamer's fancy
Has prepared for you.
Considering how many people had tramped through bamboo forests without coming upon a giant panda, it was natural for some to wonder if the animal had gone extinct, or perhaps never actually existed at all. Perhaps it was just "a fabulous animal," The New York Times speculated, "like the unicorn or the Chinese dragon." As doubtful, The Washington Post said, as a sea serpent.

By the time Teddy Roosevelt's sons Kermit and Theodore decided to step in, "the world was agog with expectation."

In the late 1920s, just returning from a central Asian expedition, the brothers reported hearing a seductive call. "Spirits of the high places of earth, from the barren boulders and snows, hinted of days when the driving storm caked the ice on beard and face; spirits from the desert sang of blowing sand and blinding sun," they wrote. Vowing not to return empty-handed, the brothers decided to head east in pursuit of the animal that had "never been killed by a white man." Funded by a generous patron of the Field Museum, to the tune, it was reported, of $100,000, the Roosevelts traveled to panda country via French Indochina with an impressive crew that included a handsome young Chinese American named Jack Young, who would go on to conduct many expeditions himself and play an important role in Ruth Harkness's life.

Grueling as the Roosevelts' journey was, the two brothers were successful, shooting a giant panda on April 13, 1929. In an impressive show of fraternal loyalty, they would always claim to have fired simultaneously, killing the animal together, and sharing the credit in equal parts.

As their panda, as well as the purchased skin of another, went to the Field Museum for examination, stuffing, and exhibition, envious natural history museums all over America began to pine for their own pelts. The Roosevelt triumph opened the floodgates, inflaming "the imaginations of the younger generation of American would-be explorers," The China Journal would write, launching waves of daredevils in "expedition after expedition" that marched into "panda country along the Tibetan borders of West China after this rare and elusive animal."

In New York, the summer of 1934, as Bill spoke to Ruth about his own plans for a new expedition, the bar on panda hunting had been raised even higher. Killing a panda could still bring glory, but capturing one alive would be a historic achievement.

Noting the competitive climate, The Washington Post predicted a gold rush. "Want to make a small fortune-perhaps as much as $25,000?" it asked. Nab a giant panda, and "the heads of all the zoos in the world will beat a path to your door to bid on it." It warned, however, that if hunters wanted that cash, they would have to be quick, for it would only be the very first live panda that would warrant such a large payday.

Bill Harkness and Larry Griswold did hurry, making plans to leave by the end of September. During the frenzied preparations, however, Bill found himself overtaken by something beyond expedition fever. At the very last moment, he and Ruth decided to marry.

In a civil service in Rye, New York, on Sunday, September 9, 1934, Ruth Elizabeth McCombs and William Harvest Harkness, Jr., made their relationship official. Plain and simple, the ceremony was held in a municipal building. There had been no ambition for a proper wedding, and now with the latest news from the field coming in, there was no time for a traditional honeymoon. Just two days before Bill and Ruth's vows, explorer Dean Sage had reached one of the farthest outposts in China in his quest to land a giant panda. The race was on.

Heading up what newspapers loftily referred to as the Griswold-Harkness Asiatic Expedition, Bill and Larry, along with two friends, headed out on September 22 for what they said could amount to a three-year endeavor.

That meant that within two weeks of her wedding, Harkness was anchored at home in New York City, sitting vigil for a man who had darted to the other side of the world in the company of his little hell-raising fraternity. Before marriage, she would have been free to travel, but now, with a husband gone on a major expedition, her duty was to sit tight.


After a few wild adventures in and around Borneo, and some high-class socializing with Hollywood leading man Ronald Colman in Indonesia, Bill Harkness and company finally reached Shanghai in January 1935. Within weeks, everything began to deteriorate.

First of all, the members of the Griswold-Harkness Asiatic Expedition were bailing out at every turn, leaving only Lawrence Griswold's handsome and wild-hearted cousin LeGrand "Sonny" Griswold and Bill to carry on. Or attempt to carry on. They could go nowhere without permits, and the documents weren't materializing. Through charm and bribery, Bill Harkness had nimbly secured visas, permissions, and transportation in many countries. Here in China the bureaucracy wouldn't yield. His advancement was opposed by the all-powerful science bureau, Academia Sinica, and also by both national and provincial agencies concerned by the movement of Communist troops. Nonetheless, The China Journal, a well-respected magazine with a scientific bent, reported that given Bill's experience and the time he had allowed himself for the hunt, his chances for success were good.

Early on, Bill met up with an interesting character, nearly a generation older than himself, named Floyd Tangier Smith. Bill had money and no expedition, and Smith had expedition camps established in panda country and experience with Chinese officials, but no money. A partnership of mutual need was suggested. Ignoring his doctor's orders for three months of complete rest followed by a year of reduced activity, Smith signed on. Each man thought the other just might get him on track; neither had any idea of the deep and long-lasting consequences of their association.

The commencement of the new affiliation with Smith didn't seem to budge the permit process one bit, which led a frustrated Bill Harkness to begin a strange series of disappearing acts. The Shanghai papers just then were filled with stories of kidnappers and ransom schemes. Bearing a draft for five thousand dollars at the time of his first escapade, Bill seemed a perfect target.

On March 18, United Press carried a dispatch about him headlined SCIENTIST VANISHES FROM TRAIN IN CHINA: POLICE DOUBT THAT W.H. HARKNESS HAS BEEN KIDNAPED. The story said the "seeker of wild animals" was reported missing "under mysterious circumstances," having somehow evaporated on the train between Nanking and Shanghai four days earlier.

The next day, UP announced that the "famed American naturalist" was just fine at the Palace Hotel, but that he was not forthcoming about what had transpired.

Weeks later Bill went missing again. WILLIAM HARKNESS HUNTED IN CHINA: SHANGHAI POLICE SEEKING NEW YORK CLUBMAN ran the headline over an Associated Press report. It seemed that Bill was back on the lam, falling out of touch with his Western friends. His one original remaining expedition member, Sonny Griswold, confided it was clear that Bill had not been taken by bandits as had been reported. This time, Bill was found holed up in a hotel under the name Hansen. When the frustrated explorer was dragged before the district attorney, he explained that he was trying to "forget" his great disappointment over failing to secure a permit for his expedition. Worse, that same month, Bill slid further behind in the panda-hunting roster. The fourth panda to fall to a westerner was claimed by Captain H. Courtney Brocklehurst, a Brit who had been a game warden in the Sudan. Yet, the tally of giant pandas taken by westerners was still, according to historians, remarkably low.

More than ever, big museums in America were in a froth to get their own pandas. "As a result," historians have noted, "these hunting parties began to overlap with increasing frequency."

It was an exciting time to be in the field. But that was the problem. Bill wasn't in the field, he was stuck in Shanghai. And there was a further humiliation in store, as the authorities decided to monitor him. He was ordered to report personally to the district attorney's office every three days to ensure that a U.S. marshall wouldn't have to go looking again. A dejected Bill Harkness declared he would leave soon for home.


For nearly two years, Ruth Harkness's only glimpse of the Far East had come through her husband's correspondence -- tissue-thin envelopes with their exotic stamps and datelines: the South Seas, Tawi-tawi, Zamboanga, the Dutch East Indies, British North Borneo, Shanghai. She eagerly tore into them, craving news of the man she loved, hoping always that one would contain an invitation to come join him.

Through overtures in her own letters, Ruth managed to extract an offer from him; instead of having to wait for the next expedition, there was a chance that she could actually join him in China. Together, they would reach those mysterious places on the map whose very names, she said, "stir the imagination." As it turned out, though, the tantalizing proposition was quickly rescinded when Bill suddenly received permission to travel, allowing him to head up-country immediately.

By this point, Harkness and Smith had been joined by a latecomer. Just weeks before, an adventurer Bill had not known previously came aboard -- Gerald, or Gerry, Russell. He was of Bill's ilk -- a young, Cambridge-educated Englishman -- though one who had not so far proved himself much of a player. The press accounts of this expedition barely mentioned Russell at all, yet he would play a role in Harkness matters for quite some time.

Although one important government permission had been granted, many others were not in place as Bill began the journey to Chengdu, where Smith was waiting with the equipment. The three had decided to gamble that the rest of the authorizations would come through while they traveled.

Despite the uncertainty, as he flew over the great yellow waterway, the Yangtze, Bill must have been relieved to finally be on his way. In July 1935 The China Journal was reporting that the "Harkness Expedition" was in the field. But it wasn't to last. Right at the threshold to panda country, near Leshan, in Sichuan, the party was rebuffed because of unresolved permit problems. By September 30, Bill was right back where he started -- in Shanghai.

There was no mention of failure, and hardly any acknowledgment of Bill Harkness for that matter, in an interview Smith gave to the China Press that fall. Though Bill was underwriting the endeavor, his partner said only, "I always take a group of trained men, while on this next trip I have the good fortune to be accompanied by Mr. William H. Harkness, who is interested in collecting live animals from the interior." Later Smith would even say that aside from the money, Bill had only been a serious handicap. At the moment, Smith professed optimism, telling the press that the two would be up-country again soon, with plans to be back in Shanghai by February or March. He hoped to have secured a panda carcass by then.

Instead, Harkness and Smith would be dry-docked for months, awaiting permissions that did not come through until January. And by then it was too late; Bill Harkness had fallen ill. The heavy smoker and drinker was being ravaged by throat cancer.

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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 8, 2008

    An Interesting Book

    Let me start out by saying that I am interested in every type of book. When I was told that I had to read a biography for english, I was absolutely thrilled. However, when I got to the library, the only book left was The Lady and the Panda. Now like I said before, I like every type of book, but this one didn't jump out at me. When I started to read this book though, I was captivated. I was shocked by the animal cruelty in the world, even less then 100 years ago and by this one lady's great quest to find the panda. I think that this book is good no matter who you are, so give it a try.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 24, 2005

    An adventure with a message

    God, what a book! I saved this great adventure for vacation and just couldn't put it down. Croke manages to incorporate what are clearly years of research into a breathtaking adventure. Shanghai, the wilds of China near the Tibetan border, the turmoil as war gathered over Asia, incredibly cute baby animals ... it's all there. She's got a compelling heroine in Harkness, too, a self-made woman who learned to put on a brave face and do what was necessary. And she manages to show Harkness's growth, as well, as she sees what her panda success is beginning to do to the species. Her response -- which I won't give away -- brought me to tears, and shows why Croke, a gifted writer and wildlife advocate, chose to tell her story. This is a thrilling book, with a flawed but admirable heroine. A wonderful adventure between the covers!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 20, 2009

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 31, 2009

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