Rama - 1

RAMA X/Anadolu Agency

I read a long story from Reuters today about Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun—not a household word in the United States but the king in Thailand. He became the monarch in 2016 upon the death of his father, and he is going to be formally crowned on Saturday. He is also, and more conveniently, known as Rama X.

According to Reuters, the king runs a tight ship. He has taken direct control of the family fortune, which is almost too great to be calculated. A career soldier himself, he has the support of the military in his authoritarian posture—usually not a good sign.

Rama X, Reuters reported, has established an enormous volunteer corps in Thailand, more than five million civilians who don uniforms and scurry around cleaning up public places, helping police direct traffic, and generally making themselves useful. They start each project by lining up to salute a portrait of the king.

Rama IV Mongkut


Reading about this king called Rama reminded me of a Rama of a different sort who ruled that country when it was known as Siam—Rama IV, also known as Mongkut, who was in power from 1851 to 1868.

The western world, me included, probably would be oblivious to Rama IV if it weren’t for accounts in literature, film, and theater, of the experiences of the English tutor Anna Leonowens. As it is, however, these romanticized versions of the teacher’s interaction with the king have made him a well-known figure.

But the image of Rama IV embedded in western consciousness, notably by Yul Brynner’s portrayals on film and on the stage, only vaguely resembles the real man. It is true that Rama wanted to protect Siam from colonization by a European power and that he wanted to introduce modern ideas to the Siamese people. And it is true that to some extent he achieved these goals, although the reality was not as simple or successful as Oscar Hammerstein would have it.

In keeping with Siamese expectations for young men, Rama became a Buddhist monk when he was twenty years old, and he led a reform movement in monasticism. He studied Latin, English, and astronomy, and he became a close friend of Bishop Jean-Baptiste Pallegoix, the popular and influential apostolic vicar in Bangkok—the envoy of the pope.



Rama’s philosophical inquiry attracted the attention of the Trappist monk Thomas Merton—a student of Buddhism—who recorded in his journal the king’s observation that “There is nothing in this world which can be clung to blamelessly, or which a man clinging thereto could be without blame”—an idea that Pope Francis might endorse.

In his effort to establish Siam’s place among the community of nations, King Rama corresponded with world figures including Abraham Lincoln. Although it has often been written that Rama offered to send Lincoln elephants to use against the Confederacy during the Civil War, it appears that the king actually wrote to James Buchanan, Lincoln’s predecessor, offering the animals as beasts of burden. By the time the letter reached the United States, Lincoln was president, and he responded, explaining that the climate might not be suitable for elephants and that Americans were relying on steam engines to do heavy hauling.

Pius IX.jpg


In 1861, Rama wrote an expansive letter to Pope Pius IX, addressing him as the “Holy Father of the Catholic Christian World.” The letter was dictated by the king, taken down in Siamese by a scribe, translated by the king into a rather stilted English, and carried to Rome by Pallegoix. This letter is now in the Vatican Museum.

The king wrote that although Siamese monarchs for centuries had practiced Buddhism, they had also allowed people to practice other faiths unmolested and had welcomed refugees from places such as China and what is now southern Vietnam where Christians in particular were persecuted. Rama mentioned that Pius IX, in a letter hand delivered by Pallegoix, in 1852, had specifically asked that Catholic missionaries and other Christians in Siam be protected.

What is most compelling about this letter is the king’s frequent references to religious tolerance. After all, he wrote, the path to internal happiness and eternal life “is in fact difficult to be exactly known.’’ In this letter, the king asks “the Superagency of the Universe”—in other words, the one God—to confer “temporal and spiritual happiness” and eternal life on the pope. Some commentators have pointed out that the notion of one God is not a part of Buddhist thought, and that the king probably used this expression out of deference to the pope’s beliefs.

Rama’s interaction with the pope and his comments in this letter suggest that he would embrace an idea expressed by Pope Francis in his apostolic letter “Amoris Laetitia”:

“Keep an open mind. Don’t get bogged down in your own limited ideas and opinions, but be prepared to change or expand them. The combination of two different ways of thinking can lead to a synthesis that enriches both. … We need to free ourselves from feeling that we all have to be alike.”




A touch of class

July 17, 2012

This is the kind of person Celeste Holm was.

In the 1970s I wrote about her somewhere that her favorite stage role was Anna in “The King and I,” a role she took over in 1951 at the request of Richard Rodgers after the original Anna, Gertrude Lawrence, died during the run of the show. Celeste saw that and called me. “I wonder if you’d do me a favor,” she said. “Would you send that article to Richard Rodgers. I want him to know how I feel about that role.” I asked her why she didn’t send it to him herself, and she said that she didn’t think it would be “appropriate” for her to send someone an article about herself. “Well,” I said, “don’t you think Richard Rodgers is going to think it’s peculiar that someone he never heard of sends him a newspaper clipping from out of nowhere.” “Oh,” she said with a laugh that she once told me was only slightly removed from wisdom, “you’re a writer. You’ll think of something to tell him.”

So I complied — Celeste was just regal enough that a person didn’t seriously consider not complying — and Richard Rodgers was delighted, as he told me by return mail.

The fact that she managed that transaction so carefully was part of the elegance that enveloped her — a kind of sophistication that I associated with women like Arlene Francis and Kitty Carlisle Hart. But Celeste was anything but distant. A lot has been published since her death this week about her many civic and charitable works. And while that involved titled roles with public and private organizations, it always involved Celeste’s heart.

I saw that first hand on one occasion when I foolishly volunteered to produce a sort of cultural concert of music and drama to benefit an organization that provided services to mentally handicapped citizens. I recruited a bunch of professional performers, but I had no idea what I was doing. The program was what vaudeville used to call an olio — a bunch of unrelated parts, but in this case it was supposed to look like a coherent whole. To achieve that, I had written a script that tied the sundry parts together, and I asked Celeste if she would be the narrator. She, being Celeste, agreed, and I took the script up to her apartment on Central Park and together we tweaked it to fit her particular style of speaking.

As the day of the performance approached, however, I was convinced that the disparate pieces of the concert were going to unravel into an incoherent melange — with about 900 paying customers in the audience. As I anticipated a complete run-through of the various acts on the afternoon before the performance, I called Celeste. She and her husband, actor Wesley Addy, not only came to the run-through but took command of it, checking sound and lighting, talking up the performers so as to assure a smooth transition from act to narration to act to narration.

That night, when the lights went up and Celeste stepped up to a lectern, she looked down at the seats directly in front of her and saw a group of mentally handicapped people whom we had invited to the event. Celeste hadn’t anticipated these guests. Her eyes filled with tears. Instead of beginning the narration, she walked to the edge of the stage: “Thank you!” she told those folks. “Thank you so much for coming!”

A gift horse of sorts

May 24, 2012

When I discussed the book I wrote about in a post here this week, I got an unexpected response from several people who thought I couldn’t distinguish a camel from an elephant.

The book was “The Last Camel Charge” by Forrest B. Johnson, which reports on an experiment in which the U.S. Army imported several dozen camels from North Africa in the 1850s to see if they would perform better than horses and mules in the difficult conditions in the American Southwest. In about a half dozen cases in which I started to discuss this book, my companion asked me if I didn’t mean elephants. In all of these cases, they were mixing up the episode Johnson wrote about with the incident in which the King of Siam offered to send elephants to the United States for use as beasts of burden.

Most people who know about that offer heard about it in the musical play or the movie “The King and I,” in which, not surprisingly, it was badly distorted. In the movie and the  musical, the King of Siam—Rama IV Mongkut—dictates, in English, a barely literate letter to Abraham Lincoln, offering to send the elephants. In reality, the king — who was fairly fluent in English — wrote such a letter, in his own hand, to Lincoln’s immediate predecessor, James Buchanan.



The king’s idea was that the elephants could be set free in the American wilderness and allowed to breed so that, as the herd grew, the animals could be captured and trained to carry cargo. Transportation being what it was in those days, that letter didn’t reach the White House until Buchanan had left office. So it was Lincoln who responded.

Lincoln, who signed the letter “your good friend,” wrote in part,

“I appreciate most highly Your Majesty’s tender of good offices in forwarding to this Government a stock from which a supply of elephants might be raised on our own soil. This Government would not hesitate to avail itself of so generous an offer if the object were one which could be made practically useful in the present condition of the United States.

“Our political jurisdiction, however, does not reach a latitude so low as to favor the multiplication of the elephant, and steam on land, as well as on water, has been our best and most efficient agent of transportation in internal commerce.”



From what I can tell, the portrayal of Mongkut in the stage show and the film was inaccurate in broader ways. While Yul Brynner, who created the role in both cases, represented the king as ignorant and in some ways boorish, Mongkut  — a Buddhist monk and eventually an abbott — seems to have been well informed. He studied English, Latin, and astronomy and was an admirer of Jesus of Nazareth if not of Christian theological dogma.