An Elephantine Caper

Shanti LBJ - the little big Jumbo

When a few American politicians and bureaucrats, especially the kind who like practical jokes, bored with the goings on in Capitol Hill, get together, what would you think could happen? This is such a story, an incredible one and as I often think about it and smile, I wonder if the offices of Hilary Clinton or Bernie Sanders could ever be home to such mirth. The 60’s was according to Senator Jim Wright, a time when politics was fun. As he put it, in the heady days of the New Frontier and the Great Society, before the Vietnam War split the country into angry camps, political practitioners enjoyed their trade.

The date was the 27th of Dec 1963, and Texas state senator and democrat Don Kennard of Fort Worth was on his way to a pre New Year party in Athens, TX. Kennard later famed for his herculean filibuster efforts, was one of the most vibrant senators of his time, a bear of a man who enjoyed a good story and always one who possessed a hearty laugh (Paul Burka – Texas times). To set a timeline, JFK had been assassinated a month ago and LBJ had taken over.

As Kennard was leaving his home, his phone rang and the man who announced himself at the other end of the line, a gruff sounding official from the US customs service was curt “Sir, I just got a message from our San Francisco office. They are holding an elephant for you out there, addressed to you, COD. I need to find out how you want to handle it.”

Spluttering and dumbfounded in parts, Kennard, a booming Texas man could only exclaim “An Elephant? For me?”

“Yessir,” the customs man continued, “sent on a collect basis, shipped from someplace by air…yeah, from Cambodia, by airfreight. The freight charges due from you are $1,400.00.”

Kennard was alarmed, for he was never one who had money left over in his accounts. “Fourteen hundred you said?”

“Yeah, not to mention the $38 per day custodial charge during the two weeks we have to keep it in quarantine”, continued the customs man.

“Who in the dickens sent the elephant to me? Was it a man named Newbold?” Asked Kennard.
“Message don’t say” muttered the customs man.

The stunned Kennard weaseled out, stating that he would get back in a day or two, after his return from East Texas. In any case the elephant was in quarantine.

For those who are politically savvy, this might be a bit of a surprise for Kennard was never one to be caught short of words. You see, Kennard is often remembered for his 29-hour, 22-minute filibuster to gain a four-year status for the University of Texas at Arlington. Compare that with the oft mentioned 8 hour speech of Krishna Menon and you will note the magnitude of the speaking effort.

Now as many of you will surmise, the story has something to do with a Newbold. Who on earth could
it be, you’d think and assume correctly that for him to be capable of this, Newbold must be an interesting person. Well, you see, Bill Newbold, a reporter and a onetime TV news anchor for WBAP-TV, was at that time working for the US information agency in Cambodia. He was a good friend of Marshall Lynam, the man who documented this story. Senator Jim Wright was the Democratic U.S. Congressman from Texas who served 34 years in the U.S. House of Representatives and was the Speaker of the House from 1987 to 1989 was on the other hand, planning mischief. Wright had just witnessed death, riding in the motorcade in Dallas on November 22, 1963 when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Lynman worked for Wright and was his chief of staff. All large hearted Texans, Fort Worth natives, and believe me, there are more to come.

We flashback to a party held some months ago. Bill, a stocky blond Texan, as you can imagine, usually held his audience spellbound with his tales from the East and now he was in a party extolling the flora and fauna of that faraway country with Kennard and Lynam amongst others, listening.

“The little ocelots are beautiful, Newbold (quoting Wright) exclaimed. When I get back to Cambodia, I'm going to get a pair sent to the Fort Worth Zoo.

Ocelots! Kennard exploded in mock contempt. That's the trouble with Fort Worth! We think too small. Don't send mangy ocelots. Send elephants! Send something big enough to challenge our imagination!

I must remark here that Ocelots are not native to Cambodia, nor are Siberian tigers, as Lynam mentions in his version of the story. He goes on to say that Newbold had delivered a couple of Siberian tiger cubs to the Fort Worth zoo after that discussion. I believe that Newbold must have meant Asian Tigers.

Kennard had a reason to mention the elephant, for the Zoo’s principal attraction and the favorite among children, a Burmese elephant named Penny had died a couple of years ago. She had been named Penny after a Star-telegram newspaper campaign where people donated a penny apiece. After 20 years of boredom at the zoo, entertaining long streams of visitors, she became somewhat violent and the zookeepers decided that she had to be put down. The stir crazy elephant was shot down with 5 shots from a high powered rifle, just like her predecessor Ruby was. The children of the area clamored for another and so an elephant was high on the local wish list. Cambodia was famed for its elephants, so why not get Newbold to cough up one? That was the idea that flashed through the crafty politician Kennard’s mind.

Wright, Curtis and Lynam made a note of this, but kept silent. Kennard kept pestering Newbold - at least a little elephant. Now a person who is picky is bound to ask, who is Curtis? Well Lawrence Curtis was the only non-politician in the bunch. He was the Fort Worth zoo director, having moved there from Dallas and a good friend of the politicians.

Some days later, when Lynam met Wright, the latter came up with the idea of playing a practical joke on Kennard. He suggested that they trick Kennard with a cash on delivery elephant from Cambodia. The two friends had a hilarious time imagining Kennard’s expression when faced with the situation. But Lynam soon found out that his boss was quite serious. Wright added that it had to be done right, and that the delivery message will have to come from a credible source such as a friendly US Customs agent.

And that was how the unnamed customs agent called Kennard. The agent reported later to Wright that Kennard did appear to be shocked and at a loss of effectual speech. The rouge group snickered and giggled, and settled down to more pressing matters such as governing the US public, the gag having been played to perfection.

But they were not to know then that this little telephone prank would start an unstoppable circus of
events. The tricksters assumed that Kennard would call Newbold in Cambodia to check and tell him that he, Kennard had not meant to order a shipment of an elephant and pay it with $1,400 of his own money, only to get shocked to hear the retort from Newbold that he had done no such thing. Kennard, they were convinced, would be ridiculed by all and sundry for being the butt of such a silly joke.

Well, as you can imagine, matters did not quite turn out as expected. Kennard came back home,
collected his senses and called the customs man again, only to be assured that the pachyderm was anxiously waiting in the bay area pending instructions from its new master. In Fort Worth, Kennard spread the word around, as newspapers said, moaning in discomfort, but instead of being ridiculed, he found himself elevated to a hero status. His daughter was overjoyed to imagine that she would have a play pal of her size, and was wondering how it would be if she took the little elephant to her school. Curtis the Zoo director was overjoyed, he assumed that the Zoo would get to keep the little fella, and assured Kennard that he would take care of all the itty bitty details and even presented Kennard a book on caring for elephants, hoping that it would convince Kennard about the elephantine proportions - feeding an elephant would turn out to, thereby convincing him to move the animal to the zoo, which as you know needed one.

Anyway Kennard reveled in the role of a foster father for the elephant ‘child - to – come’. He imagined the massive opportunities the animal presented, the possibility of lots of TV time, public events and continued newspaper coverage. You see, for a professor, the need is to get published, for a politician the desire is to be in public view for the maximum time. He first decided to go to his friendly newspaper ‘the star-telegram’ with the news. The city desk man wanted to know who had sent the elephant. Kennard mentioned that it was perhaps Bill Newbold. The reporter called Cambodia, where things were however in turmoil.

Bill Newbold had been kicked out by the King Norodom Sihanouk who believed that the Americans were trying to overthrow his rule. Newbold was transferred by the state department to Hong Kong. The city reporter did not know all this and as he could not get Bill, got a hold of his father Charles who worked for the same newspaper, some floors below. Charles explained that his son was in limbo, moving to Hong Kong but his mother agreed that it was perfectly possible that her son sent across an elephant. After all, he had sent the tiger cubs some time ago!

Chester Bowles
Newspapers splashed the story on page one, announcing how the moaning senator found himself to be the owner of a 635 pound elephant shipped COD. Two days later, the newspaper continued headline coverage, stating that they had tried to trace the elephant in the US customs, only to find that it was not traceable. Meanwhile Kennard was getting exhausted with the thought that he had to pay all this money for an elephant. He was wondering how somebody could send an elephant COD! Curtis though looking forward to the gift, stressed that the zoo had no budgets to acquire elephants. Kennard also picked up the nickname Sabu, the elephant boy.

Senator Wright who had been keeping tabs on the story, was getting worried that Kennard might resort to a public fund collection (which Kennard actually did) drive with little school boys and girls donating their lunch money and all that, because he knew there was no elephant. It would become a dynamite of a political disaster and the fuse had already been lit. Curtis meanwhile reported to the press (falsely) that Jim wright had assured him about the elephant clearing customs and that the furry animal was enroute Fort Worth. The populace was expectant. The politicians who planned the prank on the other hand, were seen sporting hunched shoulders and gloomy countenances. But another shocker was to come, the reporter contacted the longshoremen’s union in San Francisco who emphatically stated that they had not unloaded any elephant at the wharfs. Confusion was rampant.

Jim Wright
A grim meeting took place between Lynam and Wright. Wright explained that he had not talked to Curtis and told Lynam that he now had an urgent errand to find an elephant, pronto. The aide had heard many requests, but never one to acquire an elephant, and Lynam in the end agreed to try.

Meanwhile the associated press got wind of the story of the senator who was gifted an elephant COD and the news spread countrywide. Phone calls poured in, including from republicans who as you know have the elephant as their party symbol. Kennard insisted that his was a democratic elephant, there was no chance he would give it to the republicans. Besieged with calls about the elephant, he started to redirect callers to check with Lawrence Curtis about the latest situation. Curtis by now suspected that something was amiss and shared his suspicion with Kennard.

The despondent Kennard had no choice but to agree. To tide over the situation, they took to utilizing delay tactics. Enlisting friends in the Zoo fraternity, reports of the imaginary elephant’s movement across the US on road from the west coast started to hit the airwaves. Yeah, it was here, the truck just left, yeah it passed by two days ago and so on.

In Washington, Lynam was frantically trying to find an elephant, and worrying about the ‘expenses to come’ in getting one, if they did find one. Finally in desperation, he called the Zoo superintendent, who suggested that Lynam contact the state department. Apparently he had heard some rumors that there was a Raja in India who was trying to gift a baby elephant to the Americans.

L Curtis
With that the story moved to the South of India, a location just a couple of miles away from my ancestral home in Pallavur, to Kollengode. The nearby Anamalai (elephant hill) forests were home to many elephants and as you can imagine, where there are elephants and ivory, there is always some amount of poaching, sad to say. A mother elephant had been trapped in an elephant trap and died. The little 10 week old baby elephant it left behind was adopted by the Kollengode Raja. The girls of the Venganad palace had named her Shanti (peace) and the elephant had a gala time playing with them, as the children took to feeding it milk with a baby bottle.

The elder raja living in Madras had other ideas, he wanted to gift this little animal to the children of the United States. He contacted Chester Bowles, the Ambassador who was not too keen. Bowles incidentally had been appointed Ambassador to India a second time in 1963 and he was a passionate advocate for stronger relations between the United States and India. So he could not offend this mild mannered Maharaja and offered to spread the word back in the states and see if somebody was interested. The state department staff who were in a pickle, so to say, wanted to offload this unnecessary baggage at the earliest.

Meanwhile Newbold had reached Hong Kong found that his new-found notoriety as a procurer of animals was the talk of the embassy. He was asked what he had actually done with the elephant, which had been shipped but had not reached its consignee. Newbold was flabbergasted. He wisely decided to stay under the radar.

Now, were the politicians Wright and Lynam interested in Bowles’s offer? Yes, of course they were interested. Godsend, was what they thought. They quickly got in touch with Bowles who happened to be a friend of Wright’s and he promised to speed up the arrangements as long as Wright worked out the approvals in the US. The bureaucratic wheels were spun faster and an approval was speedily obtained.

The story of course had a nice culmination, Wright called a news conference and explained the caper
(he even had a donkey named ‘meanwhile’ – the Democratic symbol or a symbol of a jackass - giftwrapped and delivered to Kennard) and the fact that though it had started as an innocent prank, it had worked out right and that an elephant named Shanti was on its way, really, this time, to Fort Worth, thanks to the Raja of Kollengode. The people took it with a lot of humor and goodwill, and the papers were enthralled with the breadth of the caper.

Newspapers worked overtime, the Baytown sun reported - LBJ are the Initials of New Elephant Owned by Senator. After providing a brief on the prank, the paper continued - But "instant elephant," Wright found, is one thing the American economy has yet to produce. So Wright sent Kennard the animal closest to his Democratic heart—a donkey. As Wright went on an elephant hunt, he arranged to ship the donkey to Kennard for presentation to the Fort Worth Zoo. The donkey was dubbed "Meanwhile," and Wright said the promised elephant would sport the LBJ initials with his name of "Little Big Jumbo."

Lawrence Curtis flew to India and motored down to Kollengode, to take delivery of the elephant which was sent by truck to Madras, then by a commercial airline to America. Wright and Kennard agreed to foot Curtis’s travel bill, but I do not yet know if it exceeded the $1,400 he would have otherwise spent for the COD. I did notice that there was some delay in making Shanti’s airfreight payment to American Airlines, and that some legal action was in the offing, but I believe it was eventually settled.

The Indian newspapers reported the event - Director Lawrence Curtis of the Fort Worth (Tex.) zoo, accepted the gift of an 11-month-old elephant given as a token of appreciation for what America had done for India. American families in Madras attended the ceremony at the residence of U. S. Consul General Albert Franklin. Curtis will leave Madras Wednesday night by air with the elephant, named Shanti. Curtis was also presented with a pair of tusks from Shanti’s mother and a framed picture of Shanti with Venugopal Varma, Raja of Kollengode, the town whose children decided upon making a gift of Shanti. In return a crystal elephant was presented to Venugopal Varma by Curtis.
A special Maha Ganapati homam was conducted at the palace, before Shanti was handed over to the Americans.

The American DOS newsletter put a different spin - The 11 month-old female elephant, “Shanti,” was a gift to American children from the children of the Rajah of Collengode "as an expression of thanks for all that America has been doing to help our country in our hour of need." Albert B Franklin US Consul general in Madras found a home For Shanti in the United States with the aid of Congressman James C Wright of Texas. She was shipped to the Fort Worth zoo early in April.

Shanti arrived in Fort Worth, already a celebrity, on April 4th 1964. She was accompanied by the raja’s son, 24 year old Venugopal raja who took leave from his Kothari estates job for a month, to accompany the pachyderm. Both the Raja and Shanti were accorded honorary (unfortunately Shanti is named Shani in the document) Texas citizenships. The Texans were particularly careful to ensure that the young man was treated well and not offended in any way, they even checked in advance about his diet and if alcohol could be offered.

Shanti was welcomed and declared ‘a little minister without portfolio’ by R Friedman, the mayor of F Worth. Wright had this to say “The rajah's son, who had; always wanted to visit America, accompanied the young animal as "mahout," or caretaker. With much fanfare, a presentation was made at the zoo. The "mahout" stayed on for six weeks as Kennard's house guest.

Of course Bill Newbold continued to garner credit for sending the elephant, while Lawrence Curtis got his wish, a new elephant in his menagerie and took over as its foster father. Curtis himself faced multiple issues later in his working life and moved on to the Riyadh Zoo. All the other key characters of the story lived happily ever after, mostly doing well in politics (regrettably almost all of them are no more today). Lynam went on to write a lovely story ‘The great Washington elephant hunt’, on which this article is almost entirely based upon. I owe my thanks and gratitude to him for documenting it so hilariously, for posterity. The storyline is augmented with facts obtained from Kennard’s personal file on the Shanti episode, which I am in possession of.

Sadly though, while Shanti (aka cutie pie) is still remembered by the people of Fort Worth (new elephants are still being named after her) she died after a good eight years in Texas, of kidney disease, in 1972.

Somebody may have noticed a comment that Kennard got a nickname ‘Sabu’. Why would they call him that? Who is Sabu? That will be a story for another day.

Stories I never told the speaker – Marshall S Lynam
Box 21, Folder 19 ‘Elephant Shanti’ from, Don Kennard papers
US State Department Newsletter #36 April 1964

Reports on - The Baytown Sun from Baytown, Texas, Jan 2nd 1964, Park city daily news Dec 31st 1963, The Tuscaloosa News - Dec 30, 1963, Gettysburg times, Toledo blade, Reading eagle, Times daily…..

It is presumed that, the amply mustachioed son of Venugopala Raja, named Vasudeva Varma Raja was the one who made the visit to Texas with Shanti. There is some confusion and the names are often interchanged in the files and the newspaper reports. Perhaps one of the girls who played with the elephant is Jaya Jaitly (daughter of KK Chettur, Indian Ambassador to Japan, who figured in one of my previous Jumbo stories) the well-known Indian politician.

Pics courtesy  - Kennard colelction, websources, DOD newsletter


Raji said...

Anakadha is good.

Maddy said...

thanks raji..
glad you enjoyed it...