Rin Tin Tin : The Life and the Legend
by Susan Orlean

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.

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More About Rin Tin Tin by Susan Orlean
"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.

  • ISBN-13: 9781439190135
  • ISBN-10: 1439190135
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publish Date: September 2011
  • Page Count: 324

Related Categories

Books > Biography & Autobiography > Entertainment & Performing Arts - General
Books > Pets > Dogs - General

Publishers Weekly Reviews

Publishers Weekly® Reviews

  • Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
  • Review Date: 2011-07-11
  • Reviewer: Staff

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.)

BookPage Reviews

The enduring appeal of Rin Tin Tin

Author Susan Orlean says she “certainly did not set out to write a book about a dog.” And, in a way, she hasn’t.

Yes, a dog—and not just any dog—is the grain around which this pearl of a book grows. But Rin Tin Tin: The Life and Legend is about so much more—world wars, movies, television, luck, devotion, the quest for immortality—that to call it simply a book about a dog is to diminish its nature and its appeal.

“Any book is a leap,” Orlean says during a call to the home in Columbia County, New York, that she and her husband and their young son will soon leave to spend a year in Los Angeles. “You have to go with your gut feeling that your curiosity is big enough and—fingers crossed and toes crossed—that the subject is big enough. An idea has to dilate the more you learn about it. There has to be the feeling of being off-kilter, of finding out things that just were not at all what you had expected. With Rin Tin Tin it felt instantly enormous. I went from thinking, oh, the television show from the 1950s, my god what a nostalgic moment, to oh my god, there was a real Rin Tin Tin? He was born in 1918? He was a silent film star? The idea grew and grew.”

Orlean traces the rise of a canine cultural hero, from the real-life pup found on a WWI battlefield to starring roles in movies and TV.

It grew so big, in fact, that the book offers a strangely riveting perspective on 20th-century America. Who knew, for example, that shortly after Pearl Harbor thousands of people donated their dogs to Dogs for Defense? One young donor, now an 81-year-old veterinarian in Louisiana, received a surprise call from Orlean, an intrepid reporter if ever there was one.

“Actually, my husband found him,” Orlean says. “He’s amazing at finding people. I thought he was probably dead. But all of a sudden my husband just handed me this phone number.” Orlean’s husband, John Gillespie, was a literature major who strayed into finance and became an investment banker. He is her first reader, shares her love of Faulkner and is the reason for their move to the West Coast.

Orlean, a staff writer for the New Yorker and author of seven previous books, including the bestseller The Orchid Thief, spent considerable time in Los Angeles researching her latest work. The original Rin Tin Tin and his descendants track the rise of American popular entertainment, from silent movies, to talkies, to television, and Orlean finds a way to swiftly and entertainingly chart the arc of those changes.

The Los Angeles area was also home to the two human stars of the book. Lee Duncan, who spent part of his childhood in an orphanage, found the original Rin Tin Tin as a newborn pup in a bombed-out German kennel in the waning days of World War I. The find transformed Duncan and gave him a single-minded sense of purpose to make his extraordinary dog into a star. Years later, Herbert “Bert” Leonard became similarly entranced by the idea of Rin Tin Tin and developed the popular television program. In Orlean’s telling, their stories are remarkable and moving.

“I felt enormous tenderness toward both of them because they were very flawed people with a tremendous capacity for loyalty and a kind of devotion that sometimes seemed very wrongheaded,” she says. “But I think what happens in life is that there are certain people who turn their lives into a vessel for carrying something forward that the rest of us then enjoy. I think Lee had a fundamental loneliness; even when he was an old man he seemed like the same little boy who lost his dog. Bert was a character, a very different type of guy with a messed-up personal life. But his principles were really admirable. They were both amazingly principled. They felt that there was something really special about this idea and this dog and it shouldn’t be cheapened or sold to the highest bidder.”

Orlean says she, too, came under the spell of Rin Tin Tin, the silent film actor. “When I read all these reviews saying he was an amazing actor I thought, well that’s so silly. Seeing the movies was amazing, because he really is credible. There are scenes where he’s suffering and you think, oh my god how could they do this to a dog? I mean, he is really good. And his face is very intelligent. German Shepherds are not goofy. They have a pretty serious face and it’s a really different emotion they convey just looking at you.”

Not only are German Shepherds not goofy, but Orlean discovered that they were bred into existence in 1899, and that their breeder fell afoul of the Nazis, who wanted to control the pedigree of their favorite dog.

“Isn’t that weird!” Orlean exclaims. “I almost died. You think of them as so classic, the ur-dog. And you think they’ve been around forever. The idea that they were engineered and within recent history was just amazing to me.”

It’s stories within stories like this one that make Rin Tin Tin such a compelling read. And thinking about these stories, she says, “resonated in a much deeper—forgive me if this sounds pretentious—sort of spiritual way. The only things that last forever are ideas that keep being carried forward, ideas that move us in some way. The first Rin Tin Tin lived a normal dog life, but the idea of this character and the idea that you could feel inspired and moved by this character kept being carried forward.

“I do think everybody is striving either overtly or not so overtly to live forever,” Orlean says. “Whether it’s by having children, writing a book or making a lot of money and naming something after themselves. The human impulse is to fight against mortality. So I think Lee and Bert were right, that Rin Tin Tin did live forever. And now I feel in my own way that I’m carrying it forward.”

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