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.”