Born on a battlefield in France during World War I and rescued by a U.S. soldier named Lee Duncan, a terrified German shepherd puppy would become the most famous dog in the world.
Named Rin Tin Tin, after a popular French doll of the time, the dog would be as big a star as the movies and television have ever known. (Sorry, Lassie.)
In "Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend," Susan Orlean has fashioned a masterpiece of reporting and storytelling, some of it quite personal and all of it compelling. Animal-related books have always peppered best-seller lists — "Seabiscuit" comes quickly to mind — and this one will top such lists. It deserves to, and also to work its way into millions of hearts and minds.
Orlean, a stylish staff writer for The New Yorker magazine since 1992 and the author of seven previous books, including the 2000 best-seller "The Orchid Thief," is well-connected in the literary scene, and many of her writer friends and some reviewers have already plundered the thesaurus for words of praise for her latest book: "hugely entertaining and unforgettable" (Walter Isaacson), "fascinating and big-hearted" (Ann Patchett), "spectacularly compelling" (Donna Seaman).
To those, I will merely add "dazzling."
Orlean writes, "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."
Well, he did die, of course, in 1932, but he has carried on through all manner of ups and downs and careful breeding for 11 generations and counting. "I believe that there will always be a Rin Tin Tin because there will always be stories," Orlean writes — and she has written a definitive and spectacular one.
The seed of this book was a small plastic figurine of the dog that sat on the desk of Orlean's grandfather, "maddeningly out of reach … (a) mysterious and eternal figure." This personal connection infuses the book, and Orlean is not at all loath to participate in the narrative.
She does so with admirable sensitivity, skill and energy, even visiting the Meuse Valley battlefield where the dog was born. Later, she delivers a puppy with the Rin Tin Tin pedigree to a family in Boston and imagines that it might remain with her for keeps. Ultimately she hands the dog over: "I had no right to cry about it, but I couldn't help it. For that moment (on the plane), at least, after a lifetime of imagining it, that shy, worried, tender, heroic, brave, loyal, gallant puppy had been mine."
This may seem a bit over the top, but in context it is nothing but refreshingly honest. Almost everyone who has come into contact with Rin Tin Tin has been moved to love bordering on obsession.
Duncan was an orphan, and his love of animals was tied to his lonely childhood. He believed that his puppy's survival was a miracle, and it was a combination of his training skills, the dog's talent and a considerable amount of luck that turned "Rinty" into a star. Duncan and the dog (dogs) would ride that wave and suffer its crash, until TV came calling and fame returned.
It came in the form of Bert Leonard, a child of New York's Hell's Kitchen who grew up "bold and brash, carnal, concrete," and produced "The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin" series that first aired in 1954. When that run ended five years later, Leonard made several stabs at reviving Rin Tin Tin's career and spent his fortune on a series of squabbles and lawsuits that ruined him.
We meet, more pleasantly, Daphne Hereford, the owner of the current Rin Tin Tin at her El Rancho Rin Tin Tin in Texas. We meet, disturbingly, a middle-aged man named Paul Klein who for years visited conventions and other Rin Tin Tin-related gatherings pretending to be former child actor Lee Aaker from the TV series.
The dogs' story is embellished by thoughtful excursions into larger but important related matters such as the growth and oddities of the film and television industries, the rise of American pet culture, dogs and war, and the bond between dogs and people.
There is, I am sorry and shocked to tell you, one glaring error in the book. In writing about the early reactions to Rin Tin Tin's film career, Orlean quotes the first movie critic of the Chicago Daily News, a not-yet-world-famous poet named Carl Sandburg, who gushingly wrote, "A beautiful animal, (Rin Tin Tin) has the power of expression in his every movement that makes him one of the leading pantomimists of the screen." Orlean spells his name Sandberg, but that will certainly be corrected in future editions.
Sandburg called Rin Tin Tin "thrillingly intelligent" and "phenomenal."
The same can be said for this remarkable book.
A canine career
Movies: He debuted playing a wolf in "The Man From Hell's River" in 1922, and went on to star in more than 20 films, including:
•"Where the North Begins," 1923
•"Clash of the Wolves," 1925
•"A Dog of the Regiment," 1927
•"Rinty of the Desert," 1929
•"The Million Dollar Collar," 1929
Radio: He had three radio shows:
•"The Wonder Dog," quickly changed to "Rin Tin Rin," a 15-minute program on the NBC Blue Network co-starring Don Ameche, 1930-33
•"Rin Tin Tin," on CBS radio, 1933-34
•"Rin Tin Tin," on the Mutual network, January-December 1955
"Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend"
By Susan Orlean
Simon & Schuster, 324 pages, $26.99