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 story of Rin Tin Tin’s journey from orphaned puppy to movie star and international icon. From the moment in 1918 when Corporal Lee Duncan discovers Rin Tin Tin on a World War I battlefield, he recognizes something in the pup that he needs to share

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He believed the dog was immortal.

So begins Susan Orlean’s sweeping, powerfully moving story of Rin Tin Tin’s journey from orphaned puppy to movie star and international icon. From the moment in 1918 when Corporal Lee Duncan discovers Rin Tin Tin on a World War I battlefield, he recognizes something in the pup that he needs to share with the world. Rin Tin Tin’s improbable introduction to Hollywood leads to the dog’s first blockbuster film and over time, the many radio programs, movies, and television shows that follow. The canine hero’s legacy is cemented by Duncan and a small group of others who devote their lives to keeping him and his descendants alive.

At its heart, Rin Tin Tin is a poignant exploration of the enduring bond between humans and animals. But it is also a richly textured history of twentieth-century entertainment and entrepreneurship and the changing role of dogs in the American family and society. Almost ten years in the making, Susan Orlean’s first original book since The Orchid Thief is a tour de force of history, human interest, and masterful storytelling—the ultimate must-read for anyone who loves great dogs or great yarns.

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Editorial Reviews

It has been thirteen years since Susan Orlean's last book, but the author of the number one bestseller The Orchid Thief couldn't have chosen a better subject to break her silence. Rin Tin Tin was less a pet than a national institution and an international icon. Indeed, the film star German Shepherd and his nine namesake descendants embody an odd convergence of reality and myth. Sometimes, in fact, the reality almost seems like myth: The original Rin Tin Tin (1918-1932) was born on a World War I battlefield and got his first big Hollywood break playing not a dog, but a wolf. Once he hit his stride, people flocked to theatres to see his leaps and pursuit of villains. In fact, the success of his movies is credited with saving Warner Brothers from bankruptcy. As in her Discovery pick The Orchid Thief, Orlean renders her story with peerless aplomb.

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Simon & Schuster
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6.20(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.20(d)

Read an Excerpt

Rin Tin Tin

    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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  • 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.

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    Rin Tin Tin 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 47 reviews.
    nyauthoress More than 1 year ago
    Lee Duncan, a corporal in the trenches of World War I France, rescued a military German shepherd and her pups during an artillery attack. Duncan, an orphan, "immediately bonded" with a pup he named Rin Tin Tin. He knew somehow that the dog would become immortal. Ninety years later, the legacy of Rin Tin Tin is still alive in the hearts of Americans. "He was born in 1918 and he never died." The dog that was to become a hero, an ideal, a companion and a caretaker also became a celebrity. Lee wrote a screenplay about the intimacy between a man and his dog, starring Rin Tin Tin. The dog became a favorite in Hollywood's silent movies. He rode a steeplechase horse, dove off a thirty-foot pier, and drove an aquaplane. His successors starred in movies though the years. A 1950s television show about the dog and an orphaned boy adopted by a cavalry troop during the Apache wars hit the charts. Rin Tin Tin IV starred. No matter what the format, Rinty bounded across the screen to save the day. Although rescued in World War I, Rinty became the "spokesdog" for the United States Army in World War II. Seen as a symbol of bravery, intelligence and toughness, he encouraged many families to donate their pets to the military. His legacy would have died without the dedication of Lee Duncan, Herbert "Bert" Leonard, Daphne Herford and other owners of Rin Tin Tin descendants. Much of the book details Lee Duncan's early years. His mother left him in an orphanage when he was six. He always felt alone and the only balm to his loneliness was his friend and companion, Rin Tin Tin. Never forgetting his early difficulties, an orphanage was always the first stop when Lee and Rinty did publicity tours. Susan Orlean, author of <i>New York Times</i> bestseller, <i>The Orchid Thief</i>, says that her initial impetus to write <i>Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend</i> was her love of animals. She feels that Rin Tin Tin has character and because of that his fame has lasted through decades. Orlean spent ten years writing the book and researching in France, Texas and California. She scoured Duncan's records and interviewed people who owned Rinty dogs, obviously relishing the entire process. <i>Rin Tin Tin</i> is impeccably researched and full of details of Hollywood, television and American life. Lee's war experience, the rescue of Rin Tin Tin, and the parts he played in movies are the most compelling sections of the book. It was fascinating to read about the 16 million animals deployed in World War I as scouts, messengers, carriers of medical supplies, and sentries. The insertion of the author's personal reflections detracted from the more compelling story, but is a minor flaw in an otherwise extraordinary book. The book released in hardback, eBook and audio formats. Kudos to Marilyn Dantes who captured Rin Tin Tin's essence on the book's cover. The book's text is large enough for those who watched the 1950s TV show. The texture on the book jacket is a pleasure to feel. It is slightly sticky, but it is the story within that will stick with you long after you've finished the read. Simon and Schuster graciously supplied the review copy for my unbiased opinion. Reviewed by Holly Weiss, author of Crestmont
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    There is much more to the Rin Tin Tin story than I realized. I loved the enhanced version with the videos. Great addition to the story!
    LKC47 More than 1 year ago
    Interesting tale, well told!
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    At first this book was so so so interesting but then it started to get boring. I dont know if I would recommend it. Susan Orlean is a talented author just needs to make it a little more interesting. Overall, I guess its a pretty good book!
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    Not what I expected. I wanted a fun read like "Marley and Me" while this book has really very little about the dog himself. I found myself putting it down often to read something else.
    NatGivens More than 1 year ago
    I could not help but think about the story of Hachiko when I saw this book. I have a soft spot for dogs and will not hesitate to buy a book about it. It makes it more interesting because he believes that his dog is immortal.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    This was one of the first books I bought with my Nook and I was so excited. Lifelong dog lover, groomer and trainer I have loved Rin Tin Tin since I watched his silent movies as a child on TV on Saturday mornings. Couldn't wait to read this book when I first saw it and to be able to get it on my Nook, I was over the moon. Until I started reading it. This reads as if the author dropped the pages on the way to the printer and never got the chapters back in order. Back and forth it goes, dwelling too long with her thoughts and history and never going into detail about Rin Tin Tin. It's more of a book on her life than the dog and his trainer. I was VERY disappointed. I have no idea why this book would be awarded any prize or ranked at all in sales unless, like me, many people bought it without taking it for a test drive first. My excuse is I bought it in Nook form and never held it in my hands at the store to give it a look. Such an interesting story done in a most uninteresting way. Read Seabiscuit, An American Legend if you want to see how a book like this should be written.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Somewhat uneven writing. Parts hold your interest and other parts drag.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Michael_Dixon More than 1 year ago
    A thoroughly engrossing account of a movie icon that will have any dog lover turning the pages.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    i could re-read this book again.It is so informative and loving and dogs.I love dogs and I remember Rin tin tin and lassie so well. As a little girl I wanted a shepherd or collie,but being poor it was impossible..I now love and own Basenji's..its close enough.It is a great book and would recommend it to anyone who loves animals and is interested in the way Hollwood works..REALLY REALLY A GOOD BOOK!!!!!
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Interesting history of Rin Tin Tin. I knew only of the TV show, but learned a lot about his silent movies and the life of his owner. The book was thoroughly researched in all aspects of the Wonder Dog. Makes me wish I could see the early movies. Fascinating story of the rise and fall of the German Shepherd breed.
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    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    I could not recommend this book more! It is a wonderful and engrossing story of one world famous dog that inspired a lot of people in many different ways! I loved the way Susan Orleans allowed herself brief tangents to other dogs, Hollywood, and the wars, as a way of expressing what was going on in those times that made RIN TIN TIN so immortal.
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    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    I found this book to be very enjoyable. Her descriptipn of the breed is accurate There is only one Rin Tin Tin and only one breed like the GSD. There is no substitute.
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    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    lots of fact told in a really interesting way.