Not even pandas could spoil this honeymoon

Pandas at the National Zoo. Credit: Ann Batdorf, National Zoological Park,

Pandas at the National Zoo. Credit: Ann Batdorf, National Zoological Park,

This week's news of a panda cub's birth at the National Zoo in Washington D.C. reminds me of one of of the more comical aspects of Melville Jacoby's story. Shortly after Mel proposed to Annalee Whitmore he was transferred by TIME to Manila to cover the brewing war. After wrapping up her work with Madame Chiang's United China Relief, Annalee joined Mel and the two were married shortly before Thanksgiving, 1941. But the couple didn't end up in the Philippines unaccompanied, even after their nuptials.

"They slipped away for a two-day rainy honeymoon in a cottage on Tagaytay," wrote TIME in its May 11, 1942 obituary of Mel [Sorry for the paywalled link] . "But they were not alone; they had to see to the care & feeding of two baby giant pandas, gifts of Madame Chiang Kai-Shek en route to the U.S." Madame Chiang offered the pandas as gifts to the children of America in an early example of what's come to be known as panda diplomacy. After the pandas safely arrived in the U.S. in early 1942, United China Relief and the New York Zoological Society (now known as the Wildlife Conservation Society) sponsored a contest for children across the U.S. to name them. Nancy Lostutter II of Columbus Ind. won the contest with the names "Pan-dah" and "Pan-dee." In a bizarre twist, though the pandas were thought to be a male and female, zoo officials realized a few years after they arrived and didn't mate that they were both, indeed, female [again, sorry, pay-walled].

Mel and Annalee were tasked with watching over the yet-unnamed pandas until zoologist John Tee-Van could ferry them out of the Philippines and across the Pacific (ultimately, the bears made it out on the last convoy from Manila to the U.S. before the city's collapse). The pandas were enough of a headache that Mel dedicated a paragraph of a Nov. 15, 1941 letter home to venting about them.

"I've been going wild again over the Panda situation," Mel wrote to his parents. "Two of them arriving with the Zoo keeper tomorrow and I've had to do everything from hire station wagons, to finding places for them to stay, to getting special kinds of bamboo and sugar cane flown down from the provinces in a chartered plane. What a business. People phoning all the time wanting to see the animals, or borrow them, sell insurance, an air conditioning plant, grape jiuce [sic] and everything imaginable."

Two weeks later, Mel and Annalee each sent letters to Mel's parents describing their wedding and brief honeymoon. In her note, Annalee describes their beautiful lakeside escape, and how the pandas even came along for their honeymoon.

"After a subdued dinner we drove to Tagaytay for two days -- a cottage next to the pandas, overlooking a huge island-dotted lake in what used to be a volcano crater. The running water worked only at intervals, the electricity blinked on and off all one evening, and it poured, but it was still the most wonderful honeymoon anyone ever had."