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.
By early November, they set up a camp in the midst of panda country, and Young and the hunters set off looking for pandas. Incredibly, they came across a baby panda within a few days. Harkness's team had not only been successful, but they'd also fulfilled their quest with amazing speed.
Upon her return to Shanghai, she was mobbed by eager reporters, and the media circus increased when she brought the panda back to the US and deposited it at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago, where it drew more visitors than any other animal in the zoo's history. Harkness wrote a popular travelogue about her journey which was first published, in excerpted form, in this newspaper.
But neither Harkness's story nor the panda's has a happy ending: The panda died after about a year in captivity and Harkness would never again be as happy as she had been on her first trip to China and her first exploring expedition, when she'd been heady with novelty, risk, physical privation, and a love affair. Less than 10 years later, after a handful of less wondrous expeditions, Harkness died of the effects of alcoholism.
It's a remarkable story, and one has to admire Harkness's pluck and feel compassion for a life that finishes so sadly. Nonetheless, one doesn't have to admire her in quite such uncritical terms as Croke does, which is, ultimately, the weakness of her book.
Croke is remarkably disposed to make a hero of Harkness, and does so in a depiction that is more fawning than nuanced.
Croke tells us that she relied heavily upon voluminous letters that Harkness wrote to her closest friend back in the US, but she quotes from these letters only sparingly, drawing mostly on passages in which Harkness writes about China with a tone of proto-New Age spirituality. "I have discovered this much at least," she wrote from her Western hotel in Shanghai, "that as long as one is 'earthbound by a desire for possessions' (that aspect does not worry me) and also by people, one will never get anywhere." Perhaps, paraphrases Croke, "this country felt so much like home because she was being reborn here."
But her professions of finding peace in Eastern spirituality turn out to be shallow: That peace shatters as soon as the excitement of the place wears thin.
Nonetheless, Croke goes to great lengths to paint Harkness as a Western iconoclast who found her spiritual home in China, among the Chinese people, who she believed (with little regard for the political currents that would soon tear China apart), had found inner peace. But what emerges instead is a more complicated portrait of an imperious thrill-seeker with as much pathos as principle.
On her second expedition to China, Harkness seemed woefully negligent in her preparations, and made no arrangements to transport a panda back from the wilderness. It appears that Harkness was miffed that Quentin Young, who had married since their first expedition and affair, did not join her, and set off merely to prove that she could do it without him.
That takes spirit, but sometimes in life sense, as well as spirit, is called for, and it doesn't come as a surprise that one of the pandas died along the way, something that Harkness took great care to downplay with the adoring press.
But Croke seems determined to take Harkness at her most self-flattering. That Harkness had flaws does not, of course, make her an unworthy subject for a biography - on the contrary, it perhaps makes her all the more interesting - but this book's overly credulous tone makes "The Lady and the Panda" feel more like exalted eulogy than history.
• Adelle Waldman writes for The Wall Street Journal Online in New York City.