The ink is barely dry on her new book, The Lady and the Panda (Random House), and author Vicki Croke is already getting her fair share of attention in a tough month for authors that have seen the new Harry Potter installment and the Woodward and Bernstein deep throat thriller hogging all the press coverage. I have known Vicki Croke for a number of years as a pet columnist for the Boston Globe and as the author of The Modern Ark: The Story of Zoos ” Past and Present. Her pedigree is impeccable. Well, it’s my great pleasure to tell you that she has climbed a tall mountain this time and gotten to the top with her new book without a falter. She has written that elusive thing an author dreams about, a work of substance that is at the same time a page turner. This book defies classification since it is about the giant panda, a heroic woman (especially for her time), a love story, a breathtaking adventure and a disheartening peek at the men’s club of the thirties, one that embarrasses me.
Ms. Croke has always been first and foremost a journalist and a sharp newswoman. Her reportage of the Westminster Dog Show, for example, as well as her Boston bound animal columns have always made good reading, which is why she is a permanent fixture at one of the nation’s great papers. I knew she had been working on this book for a number of years but lost track of it and frankly, thought it would be unkind to ask about it. Writers get enough pressure elsewhere without getting it from friends. Which is why I was surprised and delighted to get an invitation to hear her speak about her panda book at the American Museum of Natural History, one of the great places to visit in New York City. She finished it. Thank God. I didn’t have to be polite anymore.
I don’t know how these things happen, but to me it is a major triumph to place an author on the stage of that distinguished museum where Margaret Meade’s spirit hovers above the cavernous hallways along with anthropologists and explorers of the past, watching over their magnificent exhibits. How I envied Ms. Croke, although the significance of speaking there might have overwhelmed me. It was quite appropriate for her though, considering how key representatives from the American Museum of Natural History (and the Bronx Zoo) came to greet the first living giant panda to enter the United States, back in 1936, lending credibility and prestige to the event. So here she was, 70 years later, at the very museum that lent its prestige to the accomplishment of the hero of her panda book. How fitting is that? Now, she has inherited the mantle of giant panda advocate. I’m sure she’ll wear it well considering its loving treatment in her book.
The Lady and the Panda is about Ruth Harkness, an unlikely hero of the thirties. She was the first woman to find the mysterious animal along the China-Tibetan border and managed to get it out of China without getting it shot, as did explorers before her such as the Roosevelt boys, Kermit and Teddy, Jr., whose expedition was financed by “a generous patron of the Field Museum in Chicago.” When their panda got here it was dead. They had shot their find like other hunters of the time. The twenties and thirties were a time when it was okay to find and shoot sumptuous animals for sport, adventure, and voyeurism of the tabloid readers. No wonder giant pandas were hard to find. Like Bambi’s mom, they must have thought with trepidation, “Man is in the forest.” The few caught by earlier adventurers were brought into the country in various states of taxidermy. This panda book presents us with one hell of a great story, especially for animal lovers, generating the same excitement as the Indiana Jones movies with the exception that it is true and our hero happens to be a combination of Myrna Loy and Jane Goodall, as Ms. Croke tells us. Her transition from a Manhattan dress designer and Martini-toting socialite to a lady explorer discovering the person within is a stunning story of raw courage and usefulness.
Ruth shows off Su-Lin to the United States. Courtesy Mary Lobisco.
In an interview with me, Ms. Croke said, “There was a huge spiritual element to all of this. When Harkness went to China, she felt in some inexplicable way she went home. You could see her love of the country deepen into something more. She found a spirituality that she was searching for. What surprised me was how much she believed in her own destiny. An entire dimension opened up as I was working on the book, particularly because of the letters.” Here she is referring to a windfall of personal letters written by Harkness to her best friend, Hazel Perkins, who was safely ensconced in Connecticut. She wrote most of the letters from China, some of them by kerosene lamp in a small tent in the mountains of Tibet.
She continued, “The letters really changed everything. I got my book contract before I knew of the existence of these hundreds of letters that Ruth had written from the field. So, I think that I anticipated a dryer book but those letters opened up another world. I was able to gather astonishingly vivid detail from so many sources, especially once I had the letters. I had the letters, I had her own book, I had other people’s memoirs, which reflected that time with Ruth Harkness, I had microfilm newspapers from that era, and then the China journal. There were instances where I could set up a scene. I could always look up a weather report. I could always look up what was happening around there. I could find astonishing detail about place settings at the Palace Hotel where Harkness was and what was actually said. Early on, I understood what I wanted the book to be, which was the most important part of her life, the three expeditions to China, ’36, ’37 and ’38. The book concentrates on that part of her life. All through, we discover that Hazel Perkins was her rock.”
Accompanying Ms. Croke on her book tour was Robin Perkins Ugurlu, the granddaughter of Hazel Perkins, Harkness’s best friend and correspondent while in China. It was one of those great strokes of good fortune when Ms. Ugurlu read an article by Vicki Croke in the Washington Post Magazine about Ruth Harkness. She eagerly made contact with Croke and told her about the hundreds of letters from Harkness to Perkins, most written from China. Up to this point, no one knew this treasure trove existed, getting brittle and yellow in a dusty attic.
“These letters have been in my family for seventy years. They were my grandmother’s and when she passed away, she left them to my father, Bruce Perkins, and they have been up in my attic all this time. I took them to school for show-and-tell in the first and second grade and added them to my school report on the panda. I just loved the story and always wanted to go to China. I would read them and then reread them. Something new always pops up in the letters. There are hundreds of them and they helped me learn a lot about my grandmother.”
Ms. Croke added, “Both women were the kind you wanted to be friends with. Ruth was very exciting, adventurous. Hazel wanted to do all those things but she was as solid as a rock, raising children, and always there for Ruth. It was ‘Perkie” who continually went to bat for her and dealt with her family.”
The author with a friend. Photo: Jolly Young King and Robin Perkins Ugurlu.
If time and space allowed, it would be tempting to tell you so much more, because it is a big broth of a story, and frankly, would make one great film. I’m already in line for it.
What makes it all so compelling is the way the author has laid it out for us, warts and all. While it is a true adventure story, Ruth Harkness was not a perfect human being, she made some big mistakes and paid dearly for them. In the end though, what she accomplished changed things considerably: attitudes towards animals, towards women and towards a world in chaos.
For those of you who are writers, want to be writers, or enjoy reading about writers and the work they do you may appreciate this thought: It is a joy to finish writing a good book, one that has demanded all your time, your skill and your talent. It is a special kind of pleasure when a friend and a colleague has accomplished all these things. It is fortunate for all of us that Vicki Croke took on the large task of digging into the forgotten past and given some stature and recognition to Ruth Harkness, who in her own unique way, was a remarkable woman of the twentieth century.
Mordecai Siegal’s next book will be “I Just Got a Kitten. What Do I Do?” published by Simon & Schuster, to be released in 2006. His latest book is, “The Cat Fanciers’ Association COMPLETE CAT BOOK. The Official Publication of the CFA,” published by HarperCollins. This feline reference book is comparable to the AKC’s Complete Dog Book. His most recent dog book is “The Good Life: Your Dog’s First Year (Simon and Schuster). His most durable books are “Good Dog, Bad Dog (Henry Holt),” “When Good Dogs Do Bad Things (Little, Brown),” the 10th Anniversary Revised Edition of “I Just Got A Puppy. What Do I Do? (Simon & Schuster),” “The Cornell Book of Cats (Villard),” “The Davis Book of Dogs (HarperCollins),” “The Davis Book of Horses.” He is President Emeritus of the Dog Writers Association of America and a founding member of The Cat Writers’ Association.