The Art of Elephants

IT ALL began with a 1982 line-item in the county budget, one that caused local legislators to make a fuss thereby intriguing Syracuse Post Standard reporter James Ehmann. Why, he couldn't help wondering -- along with the cost-cutters who were querying the expense -- did Siri, the 13-year-old Asian elephant and star attraction of the Syracuse Zoo, need a salaried babysitter sent along with her to Buffalo for the entire period her own quarters were being renovated?

Seeking to find what he figured had to be "the good reason," he came up with such a fascinating story that three years later it's a book -- To Whom It May Concern: An Inquiry Into the Art of Elephants (Norton), to be published this fall. "It turns out," explains Ehmann, whose co-author is Siri's former keeper, David Gucwa, "that elephants do become attached to specific people. That's well documented." Still, what he also discovered was another, more surprising factor -- a habit of Siri's about which "zoo officials didn't want the public to know," for fear of causing too much gawking attention to be paid to her.

Siri, it seems, like most of her fellow pachyderms, has a hankering for self-expression and, with a pebble held in her trunk, scratches images on the floor.

In short, she draws.

James Mairs, the veteran Norton editor who worked with Ehmann and Gucwa, agrees that such a notion -- a six-ton Rembrandt -- can't help but be viewed as "amusing." Yet he stresses that it's also "a subject treated in such a way to make it palatable . . . a gentle but powerful plea for humans to consider the possibility that other species have needs that are 'nonfunctional,' what one could indeed call 'esthetic.'"

Fifty examples of Siri's pictures will be included inuf53>To Whom It May Concern. Says Ehmann, "There's one that looks like a frog to me, and another that everyone sees a human being in, but I think you'd have to say it's all Rorschach."

In the book, too, are the various correspondences he began with such scientists as Stephen Jay Gould and John Lilly and also with artists like Willem de Kooning, who wrote him "That's one damned talented elephant." In fact, Ehmann points out, the de Koonings liked the "drawings" even before they stopped to read the covering letter which explained how they were made by a trunk and not found in one! Penguin at 50

HERE ARE a few statistics with which to kick up your heels and help commemorate Penguin's 50th birthday, the celebration of which is now going on in America, England, Canada, Australia and New Zealand --

In 1984 Penguin worldwide sold 50 million books. According to spokesman Maureen Donnelly, that means one was bought every 1.5 seconds of the year.

Georges Simenon, the prolific Belgian crime writer, has had the most books bearing the Penguin imprint: 97.

Penguin Book Wove is a paper milled especially for the company; the amount of it used each year is equivalent in weight to 900 London buses.

Norman Douglas' 1935 novel South Wind is the Penguin title longest in print. Their all-time best seller, however, is George Orwell's Animal Farm. (Owing to copyrights, this edition, though, isn't available in the American market.) Barnaby's Back and Del Rey's Got Him

IF YOU'RE not aged enough to remember when the comic strip Barnaby was appearing in New York newspapers back in the '40s and '50s, then Judy-Lynn Del Rey thinks she has a new-old treat in store for you. Always fast with a phrase, she calls the whimsical characters created by Crockett Johnson "enduring and endearing." These include, most particularly, Barnaby, the earnest little boy whose parents refuse to believe in their son's irascible and inept fairy godfather, the pink-winged, cigar-smoking J.J. O'Malley; Gus the Ghost; and O'Malley's bete noir, McSnoyd, the invisible leprechaun.

In support of her cause, Del Rey's lined up such contemporary blockbuster cartoonists as Jim Davis and Charles M. Schulz. Says the man who gave us Charlie Brown and Snoopy simply, "Barnaby was one of the great comic strips of all time."

Yet, in a further attempt to enlist early Barnaby supporters (the first book, Wanted: A Fairy Godfather, won't be available until late October), Del Rey has been passing out plastic Barnaby International Fan Club cards to anyone she encounters who seems sympathetic to the Crockett Johnson crusade. Ann LaFarge, a Ballantine editor whose office is down the hall and around the corner from Del Rey's, took one, and, as it turns out, was later glad she did.

Caught without proper ID recently when she was trying to write a check at a small neighborhood boutique, she desperately fished through her bag and came up with her green Barnaby card. The fine print reads "J. J. O'Malley for Senator" and "National Fairy Godfather Day" but in New York, one realizes, eccentricities come a lot stranger than that. So, in lieu of a driver's license or American Express, this unorthodox document was accepted and LaFarge walked out with her purchase. "It probably wouldn't have happened at Bloomingdale's," she laughs.

But the last laugh, as usual, is Judy-Lynn's.