Excerpt: 'The Lady and the Panda'

In Ruth, Bill saw a novel act. She was nothing like the girls he had met at Harvard dances. With her black hair parted in the middle and pulled severely back, a penchant for the dramatic, even exotic, in her dress, and a fondness for bright red lipstick, Ruth Elizabeth McCombs stood out. She was a newly minted dress designer who possessed a rare polish and poise. Speaking with a cultured lilt, she had a deep voice and a light wit. She could fill a room with her presence, her outsized personality invariably prompting people to say that she was tall, even though she stood only five feet four. She had, according to one society watcher, "that quality which Hollywood chooses to call glamour." Over the years, her panache would carry her through lofty circles in New York City and beyond, bringing her top-notch invitations wherever she went. She appeared the ultimate city slicker but had started life as anything but.

Born on September 21, 1900, the third of four children, she came from hardworking, frugal stock in Titusville, Pennsylvania, with American roots going back to the eighteenth century. Her father, Robert, was a carpenter, lean, fit, and kind. Her mother, Mary Anne Patterson McCombs, was a bit bulky and more than a bit stern. A stay-at-home seamstress, she was as old-fashioned as the long skirts she wore. The McCombses lived comfortably, in a big brown two-story house that was more sturdy than fancy. It symbolized the McCombs way of life: solid and straightforward. The land, blessed by a nearby creek, dotted with fragrant apple trees, and able to accommodate a small kitchen garden, had been in the family for generations. Robert had been born on the very site where the big house now stood, in a log cabin, in 1872.

Though not poor, the McCombses were far from wealthy. And Titusville knew wealth -- oil money, in fact. The nation's first commercially productive oil well had been drilled there, propelling a few families into an elite circle. They wintered in warm places and sent their children to private school. Their mansions were huge and ornate. But in the small-town culture, rich mixed easily with poor, and Ruth gained an intimacy with affluence, forever finding herself both repelled by and attracted to the rarefied world of the rich.

No matter where she went in life, she would always carry with her a number of family traits. Chief among them were resolve and stoicism. The hardscrabble McCombses were people who picked themselves up and dusted themselves off. Honesty was the number-one commandment. The family strengths were timeless, but to Ruth, it could also seem that her parents were hopelessly mired in the last century.

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