- 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
King Prajadhipok had a very good opinion of himself. After all, he was the head of a court that had been going on for three thousand years. This absolute monarch, five feet one inch high, was absolutely incensed when he learned he could not have the whole of Johns Hopkins Hospital to himself. A Dr. Wilmer, who was going to operate on his eye and kept calling him sire—we all learned to call him sire—said, “Sire, there are other people who need to have their eyes treated. Other patients in that hospital have their rights, too.”
The king simply would have none of it; he could not imagine that he could not appropriate the entire hospital, at least for one day. I wished His Majesty well, but I was glad Dr. Wilmer would not buckle under to his demands. After Dr. Wilmer departed, somebody got hold of a Dr. Wheeler in New York, who said he would be glad to take the king on but he, too, was unable to commandeer a whole hospital. His Majesty’s wish for isolation, like all his wishes, was granted. Workers spent more than a month converting the second floor of the Reid mansion into a gleaming hospital.
In the days before the operation, the king practiced golf every rnorning. He was not a mighty golfer at all; he was a very tame one. Whenever the king walked anywhere, even on the golf course, he always had six men following him in a wedge, each in his rightful place as determined by ancient custom. Once when I was watching, the king took a whack at the ball and hit it backward between his feet. It stopped about four inches behind him. He instantly turned around to address the ball again, and all these men had to jump to get in position behind him, a wonderfully comical maneuver.
General Motors presented His Majesty King Prajadhipok with twelve new Cadillacs, which were something to see. We would zoom down to New York in a great line of shining cars. Rigid protocol determined where one rode: I was always at the rear of the procession with the two boys. Four motorcycle cops were out in front, followed by two open cars filled with more police. We went seventy miles an hour through red lights with sirens wailing. The boys and I loved it.
Soon I got to know many of the Siamese princes in the king’s entourage, most of whom were older than I was. They were eager to learn about New York night life and, I guess, about women, so they asked me to take them to the hottest spot in town, the Cotton Club. They insisted on no publicity.
I went down to the city a week beforehand to make arrangements. I climbed up the stairs at the nightclub and saw a big, handsome black man in a tuxedo and white vest with a gold chain across his middle. I told him I wanted to make a reservation for fifteen people, and he said fine. When I got back, I told the princes we were all set. They were sure this was one of the best places in America and they couldn’t wait to see the famous black dancers.
On the big night we all climbed into those Cadillacs feeling jolly and expectant. I remember walking up those same stairs, now dressed in a tuxedo and followed by all the young princes in tuxedoes. I announced my name to the same black man I had seen before. He looked behind me and said, “Is that your party?” I said yes, and he said, “I’m sorry Mr. Eberhart, but we do not allow colored guests at the Cotton Club.”
I was terribly upset. He could see these people were of different color, but of course he did not know they were royalty from Siam. The princes had insisted on being anonymous, so I did not dare tell him who they were.
I had to say to my Siamese friends, “I’m sorry, but we’re not welcome here.” They were puzzled and disappointed; I was crushed. We went to the sedate Oak Room at the Plaza, where we had no trouble getting in. We spent several hours drinking and talking and then roared back to Westchester. After fifty-five years I am still shocked that something like this happened in my country.
Finally the day came for the king’s eye operation. We all waited nervously during the surgery. As soon as it was over, a royal court was called. Everybody lined up in two columns, forming a long aisle, then down this aisle marched Dr. Wheeler bearing the royal cataract on his open palm. He very solemnly walked around the room, showing everyone that the royal eye had been successfully treated.
When the time came to return to Siam, His Majesty held another royal court in the drawing room. The tiny king lay on a couch with one hand on his hip and his head propped on silken pillows. For an hour he was absolutely still. He made no motion, he spoke no word, and you could almost imagine he was a corpse. He was the embodiment of thousands of years of the kingship of his country, the essence of authority.
This was the day when His Majesty was to give out gifts to the people who had helped him during his stay in America. Prince Smaksman, who seemed to be in charge of ceremonial things, called out the names and read a citation for each one. Whoever came forward bowed solemnly to His Majesty, but I never saw a quiver of the royal eyelashes.
I was the last called. Prince Smaksman gave my name and said I was the tutor of Crown Prince Chirasakti Suprabhat, the son of His Majesty, and of Prince Bongsamara Kridikara, the son of the prime minister. He intoned formal words and then presented me with the Order of the Royal White Elephant, Third Class. I could not figure out what first and second class would be, but at least I got third. I was also given the keys to the city of Bangkok, which I never used. I wonder if they would still work.