July 25, 2005 12:00 PM

by Vicki Constantine Croke

Evocative and satisfying, The Lady and the Panda is the sort of adventure story that cries out for a film version starring Kate Hepburn. An account of the improbable career of Ruth Harkness—a Jazz-age bohemian who gained world recognition for bringing the first giant panda from China to America—Croke’s book offers drama, pathos, even a doomed romance in a remote bamboo forest. Though there are plenty of scenes in which Harkness (who worked as a designer in New York City before marrying wealthy sportsman Bill Harkness) swans about “with a whisky soda…and a Chesterfield,” Croke shows that her heroine was no dilettante. Restarting the panda-search expedition that her husband had planned before he died in 1936, she climbs mountains in hobnail boots and gets soaked in her tent in the Chaopo valley. It’s a corking tale—even if Croke’s telling can be a bit prosaic—and Harkness’s own end is pure tug-on-the-heart-strings Hollywood.


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