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How a party girl went in search of a panda

The true tale of a 1930s New York socialite who trekked Tibet determined to bring home a cub

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Ruth Harkness was a chain-smoking, hard-drinking socialite and dress designer in New York in the 1930s. But she also had a thirst for adventure, which led her, in 1936, to leave her rollicking city life for China in search of the giant panda, a reclusive animal that had been seen alive by only a handful of Westerners. Harkness wanted to be the first person to capture a live panda and bring it to the West.

Against all odds, she succeeded.

It's not hard to understand why Vicki Constantine Croke, a journalist who writes about animals, was drawn to the story, which would seem improbable if told as fiction. "The Lady and the Panda" tells the story of the journey that made Harkness a celebrity in her day.

The book begins with the death of Harkness's wealthy husband, an adventurer who died in China on his own panda-hunting mission. Left with a tiny fortune, Harkness decided to use it to follow in his footsteps, a stunning decision for a woman who, Croke notes, "wouldn't even walk a city block if there was a taxi to be hailed."

The early part of her journey, from New York to Shanghai, has a whiff of romance that brings to mind Somerset Maugham novels in which Europeans and Americans in the Far East swill cocktails until dawn.

Once in China, Harkness teamed up with a young Chinese college student named Quentin Young, who had some experience as an explorer, and the two mapped out a 1,500-mile trek into the Tibetan highlands, which they undertook in late September 1936.

Young handled the logistics and managed the team of hunters, cooks, and coolies who carried their equipment, a team which consisted of as many as 23 people at some points.

Their trip took them into deep wilderness, rough mountainous terrain, cloaked in heavy fog. Harkness appears to have adjusted admirably, even heroically. On foot, the group traveled as many as 30 miles a day in temperatures as high as 100 degrees. But for Harkness it was also exhilarating. Nor was the former party girl lonely: She and Quentin Young began an affair on their journey.


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