- 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.
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.
After becoming a Royal White Elephant, I made another gaffe, almost as bad as touching the royal body. I did not know that you never turn your back on a king. You are supposed to walk backward, no matter how far the door is. I walked away naturally, turning my back on His Majesty. Once again I was severely reprimanded by the prime minister.
I hated to say good-bye to my boys. It was difficult to keep track of them so far away. When World War II broke out, Jerry, the king’s son, this lovely, calm fellow who was only eighteen, joined the Royal Air Force in Great Britain. He had married at sixteen a girl of twelve, and they had two children before he went off to war. Jerry died in a Spitfire.
Steeg’s father betrayed King PrajadhiDok and left Siam, taking his son with him. Despite his high rank as prime minister, he gave up his birthright and defected to the Japanese, who took good care of him. He died of natural causes about twenty years later. I have never been able to find out what happened to Steeg. He might still be alive.
Just before the war, King Prajadhipok was sitting on his absolute throne when he was told an Englishman had come from London to see him. The king asked what he wanted; the answer was, “He’d like to sell you an insurance policy on your throne.” The king thought that was a joke and said, “Insurance is not necessary, I am an absolute monarch. But I’d like to be nice to this fellow. I’ll take out a policy of $100,000 a year.” His Majesty thought no more about it, but when the world changed and he lost his throne, he was exiled to Great Britain. King Prajadhipok lived the rest of his life on the money he got from that insurance policy.
Chance is hard to fathom. It was just chance that gave me the opportunity to live with Siamese royalty. It was just chance that the last years of the king’s life were made comfortable by his happening to take out that policy.