Screenshot of the NY Times

Fashion designer and New York socialite-turned-explorer, Ruth Harkness, traveled to China in 1936 in search of one of the rarest animals of the time: the panda. She succeeded in not just finding one, but bringing one back to America in her arms (getting it through travel hubs pretending it was a dog). Harkness was met back in the States with applause.

The panda cub (check out this photo) was the first live one to make it here, and before being sold to the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago, it lived with Harkness in her New York apartment for months [insert all the exclamation points]. As the NY Times reported, "At the Biltmore Hotel the explorer snuggled deep in an otter fur coat with the windows of the room raised high to preserve the native Tibetan climate of the panda."

"Hope she can make social register," Harkness had written a friend before bringing the panda, named Su Lin, back to New York. And indeed, she became an overnight sensation—it was “Panda-monium!” She also went to the Plaza, naturally:


Sadly, after a year in captivity, Su Lin died, and is now stuffed and on display at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.

You can listen to Harkness's story at BBC, or read the book, The Lady And The Panda, or watch the movie starring Maria Bello.