- Historic Sites
How I Became A Royal White Elephant, Third Class
A distinguished American poet recalls one of his more unusual jobs
February/March 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 2
When I was twenty-five, I spent a year tutoring the son of the king of Siam and his friend, the son of the Siamese prime minister. Fifty-five years later I am still filled with wonder when I think about it. 1 had just finished two years at Cambridge University in England and was full of myself. I had returned home a month before the 1929 Crash, which changed the lives of everybody and changed mine right away. Here I was, filled with energy and enthusiasm for life and feeling good about my career at Cambridge. My first book of poetry, A Bravery of Earth, was soon to be published, and yet I was witnessing the economic downfall of my country. Soon, like others, I was pounding the pavements looking for work, in New York City.
Quite by accident, when I was walking on Forty-fourth Street just west of Fifth Avenue, I saw a sign in the window of a brick building: FOREIGN AND AMERICAN TEACHER’S AGENCY. Within I found a charming elderly lady. I told her I was looking for some kind of teaching job and I gave her my credentials: I had been graduated from Dartmouth College in 1926; I had spent a year going around the world on tramp freighters; and I had a B.A. from Cambridge University that would soon turn into the M.A. that comes automatically in England after time passes.
She noticed I had an English accent. A Middle Westerner from Minnesota, I had only been in England two years, but I had apparently taken on the up-and-down cadences of the British, and she rather liked that. I also had a moustache and carried a cane, and on some occasions I even wore spats.
After sizing me up, she said, “How would you like to tutor the son of the king of Siam?” This was the most extraordinary thing I had ever heard. She said she thought I was just the type they were looking for, especially with my English accent.
His Majesty King Prajadhipok was coming to this country for an eye operation. He wanted a young man to teach his son while the royal party was in America, preferably someone with a British education. After I talked with her for fifteen minutes she said she would tell the prime minister about me.
About a week later she called and said the prime minister of Siam (which, of course, is now Thailand) wanted to see me at the Ritz. I was excited when I entered that elegant hostelry and met a small man who introduced himself as Prince Kridikara (pronounced “Kridikong”). He introduced me to two boys—his son and the crown prince.
It would be hard to imagine a greater contrast than there was between those boys. Crown Prince Chirasakti Suprabhat, whose American name was Jerry, was fourteen. He looked like a rock, very muscular, with strong arms and chest. He was a somewhat passive young man with a round, open face, calm, rather like a Buddha. Since his father was the king, one day Jerry would be too.
Prince Bongsamara Kridikara, twelve, was called Steeg. He had sharp features and was wiry, small-boned, full of energy, a very active little fellow. I liked both boys at once, and they seemed to like me. Prince Kridikara hired me on the spot to be their tutor for the coming year. I was to be paid two hundred dollars a month—which was a princely sum in those days, even for teaching princes—and given a brand new car to drive the boys around.
King Prajadhipok and Queen Rambhai Barni had come to America on a Japanese liner with about thirty princes, six hundred pieces of baggage, and the queen’s father and mother. (In Siam a prince was a highborn member of the autocracy, not usually someone in line for the throne.) In Vancouver they were met by a twenty-car railroad train, which brought them across the continent.
Queen Rambhai Barni was very beautiful and quiet, a gentle, kindly little woman. She and the king looked like miniatures. I liked all the Siamese but especially the queen’s parents, Prince Svasti and Madame Svasti (I never knew why she wasn’t called princess). They were marvelous people, taller than the others and very sophisticated and elegant.
His Majesty had rented the Whitelaw Reid place in Purchase, New York, a beautiful mansion of thirty or forty rooms with an eighteen-hole golf course. Soon I slipped into the routine of living on an estate, a strange place for a Minnesota boy to find himself. I was given complete charge of Jerry and Steeg. I taught them lessons in the morning, and in the afternoon we played soccer and baseball. They liked everything American, and we became great friends.
The first time I saw His Majesty, the boys and I had just finished having lunch with a group of princes. There was a rap on the door, and here was the king of Siam, come to greet his minions. Without giving it a thought, I jumped up from the table and shook his hand.
Later Prime Minister Kridikara gave me a severe dressing down. “How could you possibly do such a thing? That was a completely insensitive act; you had no right to touch the royal body.” Many people came to Purchase to greet the king, including Gov. Franklin Roosevelt and the dapper mayor of New York, Jimmy Walker, but I was the only one to have shaken hands with the royal body.