The Lady and the Panda

By Vicki Constantine Croke


Reviewed by Lynn N. Duke


When Ruth Harkness went into the wilderness in 1936 along the China-Tibet border, she was considered an eccentric at best and a meddling socialite at worst. But when she returned less than three months later with a live baby panda, she made the world pause, for just a moment, and reevaluate its perception of what women could do.


In the early 21st Century, that sounds absurd. But in Harkness’s day, braving the ash-strewn streets of Manhattan for cocktails was considered roughing it for women of her class; besting the men at their own game in the jungle was unthinkable.


Harkness, a New York dress designer who married into money, was determined to carry out the expedition that her husband’s sudden death cut short. And she did, becoming the first person to bring a live Giant Panda to the West.


In “The Lady and the Panda,” Vicki Constantine Croke retraces Harkness’s journey from her moneyed existence in New York to the perilous outlands of Tibet. Croke, “Animal Beat” columnist for the Boston Globe, interviewed dozens of people, used Harkness’s voluminous correspondence and some previously untapped diaries to tell the tale. It all adds up to a wonderful adventure, as much about the Chinese people and preservation of a species as it is about Harkness’s own spiritual awakening.


When she arrived in San Francisco with her panda, Su-Lin (“a little bit of something very cute”), just before Christmas 1936, Harkness was welcomed by a media stampede that would be hard to match even by today’s standards. She and Su-Lin (a mere bottle-fed babe in arms) were on the front page of almost every major newspaper, and in some cases remained there for weeks.


Those who knew Harkness weren’t necessarily surprised by her success, but simply that she would have undertaken the expedition in the first place. Although she loved to travel, Croke tells readers that Harkness was the first to admit her inadequacies as an explorer:


“She knew nothing of expeditions, hunting, or working with native trappers. She had no idea what to expect of the rough terrain or reports of murderous bandits deep in the interior of China. She wouldn’t even walk a city block if there was a taxi nearby to be hailed.”


Harkness was fashionable, but earthy – at home in lean-to or Shanghai’s Palace Hotel. She prided herself on being able to whip up a wardrobe on the fly, whether that meant having her late husband’s boots and breeches refitted by Chinese tailors, or turning a sheepskin coat into something elegant around the campfire.


She also thrived on breaking all the rules, whether that meant hiring an unproven guide for her first expedition (who also became her lover), skirting the red tape that had thwarted her husband’s quest for a Giant Panda or simply living on instinct rather than “expert” advice.


And it was a good thing, because not all of that advice came benevolent sources. Despite the adoring crowds, Harkness had her share of enemies and many of them were in China. Usually they were other Panda hunters who resented her success, and at least one launched a furious campaign to cast doubt on Harkness’s achievement.


Harkness would make two more trips to Asia, but bring back only one more Panda, Mei-Mei, who joined Su-Lin at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago.


Harkness seemed adrift after her final trip to China, which ended on a bittersweet note. Strapped for cash, she tried to expand her writing career (she had penned several books and numerous articles about her Panda travels) but floundered. Despite her deeply-professed love for Asia and its people, Harkness found herself in South America and later back in the States, virtually penniless and eventually so driven by alcoholism that even her closest friends couldn’t help her.


She died, anonymously and alone in the bathtub of a Pittsburgh hotel in July 1947, barely a decade after her triumphant return with Su-Lin. She was 46.


Although her time on the world stage was brief, Harkness’s story is a timeless reminder that stepping out of comfortable surroundings – physical and/or psychological – can lead to surprising and often rewarding experiences.