Excerpt: 'The Lady and the Panda'

Chafing at the crabbed environment at home, where liquor and religion were shunned in equal measure, she found refuge in books, which took her to the far corners of the world. But even the family's temporary move to nearby Erie could not relieve the claustrophobia that she had begun to experience in Titusville. It was a pensive Ruth McCombs who looked out from the city's 1918 high school yearbook. Her entry, unlike the chirpy and chummy ones of her fellow students, read, "Ruth is rather hard to get acquainted with, but after you know her you find that she has many good qualities and is a friend worth having." If few people in northwest Pennsylvania really understood her, that was fine by Ruth. Like her older siblings, Jim and Helen, she planned to cut loose at the first possible opportunity.

After a semester at the University of Colorado and an experiment teaching English in Cuba, Ruth, with twenty-five dollars as her war chest, headed north to New York City.

Raven-haired and slim, Ruth Elizabeth McCombs was twenty-three years old when she first remade herself. Powdered and dressed up, she took on Manhattan, finding a job in fashion, where she could design and sew dresses for a population that bought up all the Paris knockoffs Seventh Avenue could produce. She took to her new life like a natural -- utterly at ease at the center of a party, rarely seen without a smoke in one hand and a highball in the other. She became as quintessential a flapper as Clara Bow, one of the brassy, fun-loving girls in shimmering cocktail dresses who were, in the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald, "impudent" and "hard-berled," who flouted convention and danced with abandon. Ruth said there were only two things in the world she hated: going to bed at night and getting up in the morning.

She might have been in great demand, but it wasn't because she was pretty (she always said her face was not her fortune, and that it took an expensive photographer to bring out her best). She was so striking, though, that when she walked into a room, men noticed, and Bill Harkness was no exception.

It didn't matter that she came from working folks in a small town, and he from big-city upper crusters. It meant nothing that she "had to work like the devil for a bare living," and that he maintained his comfort without a thought to employment. He was intrigued.

Together, they knew how to enjoy themselves, to kick up their heels at naughty, high-toned soirées and low-down speakeasies alike. During the postwar era of sexual freedom, the two bohemians became a full-fledged couple. They were as good as married, without the traditional, stodgy sanctity of a wedding. Neither was a prude, and both loved physical pleasure. Ruth even joked about scandalous notions like being spanked on "a bare derriere."

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