Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend

Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend

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by Susan Orlean
     
 

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He believed the dog was immortal.

So begins Susan Orlean’s sweeping, powerfully moving account of Rin Tin Tin’s journey from orphaned puppy to movie star and international icon. Orlean, a staff writer at The New Yorker who has been hailed as “a national treasure” by The Washington Post, spent

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Overview

He believed the dog was immortal.

So begins Susan Orlean’s sweeping, powerfully moving account of Rin Tin Tin’s journey from orphaned puppy to movie star and international icon. Orlean, a staff writer at The New Yorker who has been hailed as “a national treasure” by The Washington Post, spent nearly ten years researching and reporting her most captivating book to date: the story of a dog who was born in 1918 and never died.

It begins on a battlefield in France during World War I, when a young American soldier, Lee Duncan, discovered a newborn German shepherd in the ruins of a bombed-out dog kennel. To Duncan, who came of age in an orphanage, the dog’s survival was a miracle. He saw something in Rin Tin Tin that he felt compelled to share with the world. Duncan brought Rinty home to California, where the dog’s athleticism and acting ability drew the attention of Warner Bros. Over the next ten years, Rinty starred in twenty-three blockbuster silent films that saved the studio from bankruptcy and made him the most famous dog in the world. At the height of his popularity, Rin Tin Tin was Hollywood’s number one box office star.

During the decades that followed, Rinty and his descendants rose and fell with the times, making a tumultuous journey from silent films to talkies, from black-and-white to color, from radio programs to one of the most popular television shows of the baby boom era, The Adventures of Rin-Tin-Tin. The canine hero’s legacy was cemented by Duncan and a small group of others—including Bert Leonard, the producer of the TV series, and Daphne Hereford, the owner of the current Rin Tin Tin—who have dedicated their lives to making sure the dog’s legend will never die.

At its core, Rin Tin Tin is a poignant exploration of the enduring bond between humans and animals. It is also a richly textured history of twentieth-century entertainment and entrepreneurship. It spans ninety years and explores everything from the shift in status of dogs from working farmhands to beloved family members, from the birth of obedience training to the evolution of dog breeding, from the rise of Hollywood to the past and present of dogs in war. Filled with humor and heart and moments that will move you to tears, Susan Orlean’s first original book since The Orchid Thief is an irresistible blend of history, human interest, and masterful storytelling—a dazzling celebration of a great American dog by one of our most gifted writers.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
With this stirring biographical history, Orlean follows up her bestselling The Orchid Thief with another tale of passion and dedication overcoming adversity and even common sense—this one centering on Rin Tin Tin, the German shepherd who founded a film and TV dynasty. After spending a lonely childhood in an orphanage, the young soldier Lee Duncan discovers on the battlefield of WWI France the puppy that will make a name for him as one of Hollywood's top dog trainers, and become his life's guiding purpose. The book follows Rin Tin Tin's trajectory from early Hollywood's "Poverty Row," where Duncan sought the dog's first film deal, to international celebrity in silent films, radio shows, and TV programs. Though Rin Tin Tin's contracts began to lapse in later years, Duncan never ceased grooming canine successors and shopping around scripts, and producer Bert Leonard lived on friends' couches as he poured money into colorizing old episodes of The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin. Orlean directs a sympathetic gaze toward these men so haunted by their memories of the dog that swept them into stardom. Even readers coming to Rin Tin Tin for the first time will find it difficult to refrain from joining Duncan in his hope that Rin Tin Tin's legacy will "go on forever." (Oct.)
From the Publisher
“I adored this book. It weaves history, war, show business, humanity, wit, and grace into an incredible story about America, the human-animal bond, and the countless ways we would be lost without dogs by our sides, on our screens, and in our books. This is the story Susan Orlean was born to tell—it’s filled with amazing characters, reporting, and writing.” —Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

“Move over Seabiscuit, Rin Tin Tin will be the most-talked-about animal hero of the year and beyond. . . A spectacularly compelling portrait . . . Engrossing, dynamic, and affecting."Booklist (starred review)

“[Orlean] combines all her skills and passions in this astonishing story . . . A terrific dog’s tale that will make readers sit up and beg for more.” Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Stirring . . . A tale of passion and dedication overcoming adversity. . . . Even readers coming to Rin Tin Tin for the first time will find it difficult to refrain from joining Duncan in his hope that Rin Tin Tin’s legacy will ‘go on forever.’” Publishers Weekly

Library Journal
In this exceptional book, Orlean (staff writer, The New Yorker; The Orchid Thief) portrays the magical bond, which led to lasting international fame, between a special puppy found on a World War I battlefield and Lee Duncan, the man who rescued him. She spent ten years researching and writing their story, a richly textured narrative filled with personal accounts, astute cultural and social backdrops, behind-the-scenes details on film and television, and an informed look at the historical roles of dogs in war, on-screen, and in the home. Orlean describes Rin Tin Tin's career from the early days in film through the popular 1950s television series. His heroic persona transformed into immortal legend, as subsequent dogs sustained both his name and the noble qualities he symbolized. Duncan and others who were a part of Rinty's story are honestly yet compassionately portrayed. Orlean also shares her own tales of epic research. VERDICT This is a thoroughly researched and masterfully written work that will please a wide audience, especially those who remember this noble canine hero. It is also an important addition to the literature of cultural, entertainment, and animal history. [See Prepub Alert, 4/25/11.]—Carol J. Binkowski, Bloomfield, NJ
Kirkus Reviews

New Yorker staff writer Orlean (My Kind of Place: Travel Stories from a Woman Who's Been Everywhere, 2004, etc.) follows the long and curious trail of the celebrity dog born on a World War I battlefield.

The author, who has written a cookbook for dogs (Throw Me a Bone, 2007) and about obsessiveness (The Orchid Thief, 1999), combines all her skills and passions in this astonishing story of Lee Duncan (1893–1960), a young American soldier and dog-lover who found the German shepherd puppy that became Rin Tin Tin (Rinty) in France, got the dog home and spent the rest of his life training and promoting Rinty, breeding other German shepherds and living with the belief of Rinty's immortality. (Rinty XI now lives in Oklahoma.) Orlean—who belongs to the generation that remembers the cry "Yo ho, Rinty!" from the popularThe Adventures of Rin-Tin-Tin, which premiered in 1954 and ran for 164 episodes—recalls that her grandfather kept on his desk a little Rinty figure. But the author is not interested only in the dog. She also provides the biography of Duncan, as well as Bert Leonard, writer and producer, and she includes interviews with Duncan's daughter, the current keeper of the latest Rinty and scores of others. The author tells the story of silent films (where Rinty began his career), the transition to talkies and to color, the rise of television, the popularity of dog ownership in America (especially of German shepherds and collies—because of Lassie) and the evolving tastes of American youth. Foryears, Orlean chased Rinty—even to his grave in Paris—and by the end, began to question her sanity.

Although occasionally excessive in its claims for the ultimate significance of it all, a terrific dog's tale that will make readers sit up and beg for more.

Jennifer Schuessler
…by the end of this expertly told tale, [Orlean] may persuade even the most hardened skeptic that Rin Tin Tin belongs on Mount Rushmore with George Washington and Teddy Roosevelt, or at least somewhere nearby with John Wayne and Seabiscuit.
—The New York Times Book Review
Wall Street Journal
“Deeply moving . . . Unforgettable.”
Chicago Tribune
“A masterpiece.”
Vanity Fair
“Magnificent.”
USA Today
Epic . . . Heartfelt . . . An enormously satisfying story about a dog and the man who believed in him.
Carol Memmott
The New York Times Book Review
Fascinating . . . Sweeping . . . Expertly told . . . [Orlean] may persuade even the most hardened skeptic that Rin Tin Tin belongs on Mount Rushmore with George Washington and Teddy Roosevelt, or at least somewhere nearby with John Wayne and Seabiscuit.
Jennifer Schuessler
Los Angeles Times
A story of magnificent obsession. Nearly a decade in the making, combining worldwide research with personal connection, it offers the kind of satisfactions you only get when an impeccable writer gets hold of one heck of a story.
Kenneth Turan
The Boston Globe
Stunning . . . Truly exceptional . . . A book so moving it melted the heart of at least this one dogged Lassie lover . . . . Calling Rin Tin Tin the story of a dog is like calling Moby-Dick the story of a whale.
Meredith Maran
NPR's Weekend Edition
Susan Orlean has written a book about how an orphaned dog became part of millions of households, and hearts, in a way that may reveal the changing bonds between humans and animals, too. . . . One of the many pleasures of this book is the historical breadth of the story.
Scott Simon
NPR
Brilliant . . . If there were any book she was born to write, it's this one. The product of years of dogged research, it's her magnum opus, a work filled with fascinating stories . . . [and] stunning prose that is both compassionate and perceptive.
Michael Schaub
People Magazine
An improbably fascinating tale of one of the first canine celebrities, the times that catapulted him to fame, and the legacy that endures.
USA Today - Carol Memmott
“Epic . . . Heartfelt . . . An enormously satisfying story about a dog and the man who believed in him.”
The New York Times Book Review - Jennifer Schuessler
“Fascinating . . . Sweeping . . . Expertly told . . . [Orlean] may persuade even the most hardened skeptic that Rin Tin Tin belongs on Mount Rushmore with George Washington and Teddy Roosevelt, or at least somewhere nearby with John Wayne and Seabiscuit.”
Los Angeles Times - Kenneth Turan
“A story of magnificent obsession. Nearly a decade in the making, combining worldwide research with personal connection, it offers the kind of satisfactions you only get when an impeccable writer gets hold of one heck of a story.”
The Boston Globe - Meredith Maran
“Stunning . . . Truly exceptional . . . A book so moving it melted the heart of at least this one dogged Lassie lover . . . . Calling Rin Tin Tin the story of a dog is like calling Moby-Dick the story of a whale.”
NPR’s Weekend Edition - Scott Simon
“Susan Orlean has written a book about how an orphaned dog became part of millions of households, and hearts, in a way that may reveal the changing bonds between humans and animals, too. . . . One of the many pleasures of this book is the historical breadth of the story.”
NPR - Michael Schaub
“Brilliant . . . If there were any book she was born to write, it's this one. The product of years of dogged research, it's her magnum opus, a work filled with fascinating stories . . . [and] stunning prose that is both compassionate and perceptive.”
People magazine's "Great Fall Reads"
“An improbably fascinating tale of one of the first canine celebrities, the times that catapulted him to fame, and the legacy that endures.”
The Associated Press - Douglass K. Daniel
“Engrossing . . . Delightful . . . Orlean finds much more to the story than a man and his dog . . . . Its heart lies in her exploration of how a dog could come to embody the ideal of heroic devotion and, eventually, exist as an icon outside the boundaries of time.”
Entertainment Weekly
“Orlean relates the histories of the original Rin Tin Tin and his various successors with her customary eye for captivating detail.”
CBS Sunday Morning - Rita Braver
“Heartening . . . It’s a story that may surprise you. . . . Rin Tin Tin embodied the spirit of America.”
The New Republic - David Thomson
“Rapturous . . . This dog’s eye history of Hollywood in the 1920s is exuberant and told with as much energy as love. . . . It is to be numbered among the best Hollywood biographies.”
The Columbus Dispatch - Margaret Quamme
“Fascinating . . . Orlean’s deadpan sense of humor and ear for the odd and beguiling fact make it hard to put down the book. But there’s also something haunting about it, a sense of the brevity of life and fame. . . . Orlean’s writing is built to last. As individual as a fingerprint, or a face, it turns what could have been a footnote to history into a touching account of the way one life resonates with others.”
The Christian Science Monitor - Heller McAlpin
Rin Tin Tin is a tale of devotion . . . [and] an eloquent, powerful inquiry into ‘how we create heroes and what we want from them,’ and about what endures in our culture. . . . Orlean’s book runs much deeper than Baby Boomer nostalgia. . . . Orlean manages to surprise us repeatedly.”
Fort Worth Star-Telegram - Robert Philpot
“It is a book that is best read in solitude, or at least in the company of someone who won't be annoyed when you speak up every few moments to share some fascinating fact that Orlean has uncovered, which she does on nearly every page.”
author of Steve Jobs - Walter Isaacson
“Rin Tin Tin was more than a dog. He embodied the core paradoxes of the American ideal: He was a loner who was also a faithful companion, a brave fighter who was also vulnerable. I was astonished to learn from this delightful book that he has existed for eleven generations over a century. By chronicling his amazing ups and downs, Susan Orlean has produced a hugely entertaining and unforgettable reading experience.”
Ann Patchett
“Not only does Susan Orlean give us a fascinating and big-hearted account of all the many incarnations of Rin Tin Tin, she shows us the ever-changing role of American dogs in times of war and peace. This book is for anyone who has ever had a dog or loved a dog or watched a dog on television or thought their dog could be a movie star. In short—everyone.”
Rebecca Skloot
“I adored this book. It weaves history, war, show business, humanity, wit, and grace into an incredible story about America, the human-animal bond, and the countless ways we would be lost without dogs by our sides, on our screens, and in our books. This is the story Susan Orlean was born to tell—it’s filled with amazing characters, reporting, and writing.”
Booklist
“Move over Seabiscuit, Rin Tin Tin will be the most-talked-about animal hero of the year and beyond. . . A spectacularly compelling portrait . . . Engrossing, dynamic, and affecting."

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781439190135
Publisher:
Simon & Schuster
Publication date:
09/27/2011
Pages:
336
Product dimensions:
6.20(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.20(d)

Meet the Author

Susan Orlean has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1992. She is the author of seven books, including Rin Tin Tin, Saturday Night, and The Orchid Thief, which was made into the Academy Award–winning film Adaptation. She lives with her family and her animals in upstate New York and may be reached at SusanOrlean.com and Twitter.com/SusanOrlean.

Read an Excerpt

Rin Tin Tin

  •  
    FOREVER
    He believed the dog was immortal. “There will always be a Rin Tin Tin,” Lee Duncan said, time and time again, to reporters, to visitors, to fan magazines, to neighbors, to family, to friends. At first this must have sounded absurd—just wishful thinking about the creature that had eased his loneliness and made him famous around the world. And yet, just as Lee believed, there has always been a Rin Tin Tin. The second Rin Tin Tin was not the talent his father was, but still, he was Rin Tin Tin, carrying on what the first dog had begun. After Rin Tin Tin Jr. there was Rin Tin Tin III, and then another Rin Tin Tin after him, and then another, and then another: there has always been another. And Rin Tin Tin has always been more than a dog. He was an idea and an ideal—a hero who was also a friend, a fighter who was also a caretaker, a mute genius, a companionable loner. He was one dog and many dogs, a real animal and an invented character, a pet as well as an international celebrity. He was born in 1918 and he never died.

    There were low moments and setbacks when Lee did doubt himself and Rin Tin Tin. The winter of 1952 was one such point. Lee was broke. He had washed out of Hollywood and was living in the blank, baked valley east of Los Angeles, surviving on his wife’s job at an orange-packing plant while Rin Tin Tin survived on free kibble Lee received through an old sponsorship arrangement with Ken-L-Ration, the dog food company. The days were long. Most afternoons Lee retreated to a little annex off his barn that he called the Memory Room, where he shuffled through old newspaper clips and yellowing photographs of Rin Tin Tin’s glory days, pulling the soft quilt of memory—of what really was and what he recalled and what he wished had been—over the bony edges of his life.

    Twenty years earlier, the death of the first Rin Tin Tin had been so momentous that radio stations around the country interrupted programming to announce the news and then broadcast an hour-long tribute to the late, great dog. Rumors sprang up that Rin Tin Tin’s last moments, like his life, were something extraordinary—that he had died like a star, cradled in the pale, glamorous arms of actress Jean Harlow, who lived near Lee in Beverly Hills. But now everything was different. Even Ken-L-Ration was doubting him. “Your moving picture activities have not materialized as you expected,” the company’s executives scolded Lee in a letter warning that they were planning to cut off his supply of free dog food. Lee was stunned. He needed the dog food, but the rejection stung even more because he believed that his dog, Rin Tin Tin III, was destined to be a star, just as his grandfather had been. Lee wrote back to the company, pleading. He said that the dog had “his whole life before him” and new opportunities lined up. His father and grandfather had already been celebrated around the world in silent films, talkies, radio, vaudeville, comics, and books; this new Rin Tin Tin, Lee insisted, was ready to conquer television, “the coming medium,” as he described it.

    In truth, Lee had no contracts and no connections to the television business and doubts about its being anything more than a fad, but with the prospect of losing Ken-L-Ration hanging over him, he rushed to find a producer interested in making a television show starring Rin Tin Tin. It couldn’t be just anybody, though: Lee wanted someone who he felt really understood the dog and his profound attachment to him.

    The winter went by with no luck; then spring, then summer. Then one September afternoon in 1953, a stuntman who knew Lee from his Hollywood days came out to visit along with a young production manager named Herbert “Bert” Leonard. The stuntman knew Lee was looking for a producer, and he also knew Bert wanted a project to produce. Even so, it was an unlikely match. Lee was a Westerner, an eccentric cowboy who was comfortable only with his dogs and horses; Bert was a young, loud New Yorker who gambled, smoked cigars while playing tennis, and loved attention, but had no interest in dogs. And yet their connection was lightning, and Bert decided he wanted to make a television show starring Rin Tin Tin.

    At the time, Bert was managing the production of a low-budget thriller called Slaves of Babylon; during his lunch break the next day, he wrote up his idea for a show he called The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, starring the dog and an orphaned boy who are adopted by a U.S. Cavalry troop in Arizona in the late 1800s, during the Apache wars. As Bert recalled later, Lee “went crazy for it.” The story was fiction, but it captured something essential in Lee’s relationship to the dog, and in the dog’s nature—a quality of pure attachment, of bravery, of independence that was wrapped around a core of vulnerability. The show debuted three years later. It climbed in the ratings faster than any show in the history of television. Almost four decades after Lee first found Rin Tin Tin, the most famous dog in the world was born again. Lee had always been convinced that his dog was immortal. Now Bert was convinced, too. As he liked to say, “Rin Tin Tin just seems to go on forever.”

    In the first years of the twenty-first century, Daphne Hereford hitched her 1984 Cadillac El Dorado Biarritz convertible parade car to the back of a U-Haul truck and fishtailed out of her driveway in Texas, setting off on an eleven-month tour of the United States with three of her German shepherds: Gayle, Joanne, and Rin Tin Tin VIII, whose registered name was Rin Tin Tins Oooh-Ahhh but whom she generally referred to as the Old Man. Gayle was pregnant and needed attention and Joanne was good company; the Old Man, though, was the big ticket. Daphne never went anywhere without the Old Man. At home, the other dogs spent most of their time in their kennels in the backyard; only the Old Man had house privileges. She planned to have him taxidermied when he died so she could always have him around.

    The purpose of this cross-country trip was to present the Old Man at German shepherd shows and Hollywood memorabilia events around the country. It was not luxury travel. Daphne tolerated the meaner vagaries of life on the road, including, for example, the time when a friend she was staying with out west tried to kill her. She shrugs off the attempted murder along with all the other inconveniences of the journey. “I don’t give up,” she told me when I visited her in Texas not long ago. “I just don’t give up.”

    Persistence is a family trait. Her grandmother, who had fallen in love with Rin Tin Tin when she saw his early movies, was so determined to have a Rin Tin Tin dog of her own that in 1956 she tracked down Lee Duncan and sent a letter pleading for a puppy. “I have wanted a Rin Tin Tin dog all my life,” she wrote, adding, before asking the price, “I am not one of those Rich Texans you hear about. Just a plain old country girl that was raised on a ranch.” She said she hoped to begin “a living legacy of Rin Tin Tin dogs in Houston” and promised that if Lee would send a puppy to her in Houston, she would return the shipping crate to him, posthaste, parcel post. Lee, impressed by her determination, agreed to sell her a puppy “of excellent quality” sired by Rin Tin Tin IV.

    When her grandmother died in 1988, Daphne took on the stewardship of that legacy. She also revived the Rin Tin Tin Fan Club and registered as many Rin Tin Tin trademarks as she could. All of her money went to the dogs, the fan club, and other dog-related projects. She lived in a little shotgun house in Latexo, Texas, and scrimped to keep her costs down. For Daphne, it was all about continuing the Rin Tin Tin line. The line led from the Old Man back through the generations, from dog to dog to dog, a knot here and there, but always continuing, back to the original dog, and, most important, back to the original notion—that something you truly love will never die.

    My most vivid memory of Rin Tin Tin is not of a live dog at all, but of a plastic one: a Rin Tin Tin figure about eight inches high, stoic, bright-eyed, the bud of his tongue draped over his bottom teeth. My grandfather kept this figurine on his desk blotter, maddeningly out of reach. Somewhat dour and formal, my grandfather, an accountant, was not very interested in, or natural with, children. Strangely enough, however, he was very fond of toys; in fact, he collected them, and displayed a few special ones in his office at home. The most exceptional of these was the Rin Tin Tin figurine, that special dog, the star of the television show I loved.

    At that time, in the 1950s, Rin Tin Tin was everywhere, universal, almost something in the air. I was only four years old when the show began its initial run, so my memory of that period is only a faint outline. But my brother and sister watched the show with the dedication and regularity of churchgoers, so I’m sure I plunked down beside them. When you’re as young as I was at the time, you just soak something like that up and it becomes part of you, so I feel I have always known of Rin Tin Tin, as if he was introduced to me by osmosis. He became part of my consciousness, like a nursery lullaby you can sing without realizing how you came to know it. In the buzzing white noise of my babyhood, a boy on a television was always shouting “Yo, Rinty,” a bugle was always blowing, and a big dog was always bounding across the screen to save the day.

    That is why the first dog I ever wanted was a German shepherd, and why I kept wanting one well past the point at which it had been made amply clear that I was never going to get one—my mother, unfortunately, was afraid of dogs. Like so many childhood passions, it eventually receded but never died. I came across the name “Rin Tin Tin” a few years ago, while reading about animals in Hollywood. It was a name I had not heard or thought about for decades, but a shock of recognition surged through me and made me sit up straight, as if I had brushed against a hot stove.

    And instantly I remembered that figurine, and remembered yearning for it. My desire for it had remained unrequited. My grandfather allowed us to hold one or two of his toys on occasion, but never Rin Tin Tin. I didn’t understand why this was the one treasure we could never touch; it wasn’t more delicate than the other toys, and it didn’t have any finicky mechanism. There was no explanation; it was simply not ours to have.

    There was something spellbinding about our visits to that office—my grandfather looming above us, his hand hovering over the desk blotter to choose the toy he would allow us to hold, our eyes following his hand as it paused at this toy and that toy, each time drifting close to Rin Tin Tin but passing it by again, lifting our hopes and dropping them; then his hand grasping and passing to us some other forgettable toy and waving us out of the room. Time tumbled on, as it does, and people changed, as they do, but that dog figurine was always constant, always beckoning, always the same. When I was reminded of Rin Tin Tin after decades of forgetting all about him, the first thing I thought of, with a deep, sharp pang, was that mysterious and eternal figurine.

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