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Explorer on panda search an unlikely hero

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Ruth Harkness was a 1930s Manhattan socialite who designed dresses, loved to party and refused to walk more than a city block if there was a taxi nearby.

But before her life ended tragically at 46, Harkness would travel halfway around the world to China and Tibet, hike 20 to 30 miles a day through rugged terrain, and become the first person to capture a live panda and bring it to America.

How this sophisticated city woman transformed herself into a female Indiana Jones is the subject of Vicki Constantine Croke's new book, "The Lady and the Panda" (Random House, $25.95).

The story begins in 1936 when Harkness' husband, Bill, dies in China on a panda-hunting expedition and she abruptly decides to take his place.

"She always loved books about adventure and travel," says Croke, 46, a former reporter for the Boston Globe. "Her husband would come home from one of his expeditions and tell her all these great stories. She always thought this was her destiny."

Once she arrived in China, Harkness hired Quentin Young, a Chinese college student, to guide her on the 1,500-mile trek into the Tibetan highlands. Against overwhelming odds and fierce competition from male explorers, the inexperienced socialite captured a baby panda and, skirting a few laws, brought it to the United States.

Back home, both became overnight sensations. Hundreds of thousands of visitors crowded into the Brookfield Zoo outside Chicago to see the baby panda. Harkness was hailed as a hero and featured on the front pages of nearly every newspaper in the country.

Harkness would make two more trips to China and bring back another panda, but her fame was short-lived. Her affair with Quentin Young ended badly, Croke writes, and she died alone of alcohol poisoning in a Pittsburgh hotel in 1947.

In a recent interview, Croke talked about her research into the life of the woman she describes as "part Myrna Loy and part Jane Goodall." Q: How did you learn about Ruth Harkness? A: I read about her in an old Brookfield Zoo publication, and it sounded like a plot from Hollywood's golden era. This was a long-forgotten tale of an unlikely explorer who beat all the odds with grace and good humor. Q: Why has she been forgotten? A: Many heroic stories of exploration were lost after World War II. That's when the expeditions by Indiana Jones types were taken over by scientists who were more scholarly and much less swashbuckling. Q: Why did Harkness succeed at capturing a panda when experts failed? A: It's the classic joke about men refusing to ask for directions. The rich male adventurers would barrel into a country, look at their maps and then hire locals to carry their bags. Harkness worked with a Chinese explorer and listened to his advice. She also thought to bring a baby bottle with her in case she found a young panda. Su-Lin was not a specimen to her, but a precious, living infant. Q: How did you learn about the details of Harkness' life? A: Digging up her story sent me to archives at Harvard, Cornell, Tulane [universities] . . ., the Library of Congress, the Brookfield Zoo and more. Sometimes there were spectacular surprises. An account of Ruth in the Chinese frontier by a British noblewoman who saw her there, for instance, or the diary entry of a friend who revealed the depths of Ruth's agony in later life. The very best piece of historical material . . . was a cache of hundreds of letters Ruth wrote over three expeditions, many of them banged out on her portable typewriter under the glimmering light given off by an oil lamp in the field. Q: Why did her life end so sadly after she had been a national hero? A: She was heartbroken when she realized what her captures had unleashed. There was a gold-rush mentality and the great peaceful valleys she had explored became killing fields in the desperate race to bring more and more of these wildly popular animals to the West. Then, when World War II prevented her from returning to China, she never again felt as fully alive and purposeful as she had during her three campaigns there.

Copyright 2005 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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