New Yorker staff writer Susan Orlean has been busy talking up her latest book, Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend (Simon & Schuster), a biography of the most popular animal actor in history, and his impact on American culture. Orlean, a former Phoenix columnist, has been described by critics as both "a kind of latter-day Tocqueville" and "a national treasure." She spoke to me by phone from her home in California, where she lives with her husband, son, dog, and two chickens.
“We just can’t appreciate how big a star he was and how seriously he was taken all over the world. Rin Tin Tin was much more popular than, say, Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt ever were.”
BESIDES WATCHING RIN TIN TIN ON TELEVISION WHEN YOU WERE GROWING UP IN THE '50S, WHAT ELSE MOTIVATED YOU TO WRITE THIS BOOK? I've always loved dogs, and I'm fascinated by the relationships humans have with dogs. I remember my grandfather had a Rin Tin Tin figurine on his desk, which he never allowed anyone to touch. That was how much the dog meant to him. So when I was a child, I wanted my own German shepherd, like many other Americans throughout the last century, mainly due to the popularity of Rin Tin Tin. So I began thinking about the impact Rin Tin Tin had on me, as well as everyone else who loved him. The more I researched his life, the more I saw just how rich and complex this story was. I realized this would be an opportunity to look at a broad sweep of history through a very emotional lens; and I was off and running, so to speak.
THE STORY OF LEE DUNCAN DISCOVERING RIN TIN TIN IN A BOMBED-OUT KENNEL WHILE FIGHTING IN FRANCE DURING WORLD WAR I — AND WHAT CAME NEXT — READS LIKE FICTION, ALTHOUGH IT ACTUALLY HAPPENED. AND THAT'S JUST THE BEGINNING. Yes, exactly. I mean, the fact that Lee was himself an orphan who came across a shivering little puppy who would become his lifetime companion, and all the serendipitous things that happened on the way to Rin Tin Tin eventually becoming an international hero, is to me almost unfathomable.
YOU SAY IN THE BOOK THAT RIN TIN TIN HAD AN ALMOST HUMAN-LIKE ASPECT TO HIS PERSONALITY. WHAT DO YOU MEAN? I think mainly it was his unique facial expressions, whether the scene he was in called for him to look angry, or sad, or just plain smart. He was a very smart-looking dog. And I think people really responded to these human-like characteristics. Plus he was very well trained. Lee Duncan deserved credit for the hours and hours that he spent in his spare time working with Rin Tin Tin so that he would respond to verbal — and later hand — cues. The other big thing is that this was a dog with incredible physical abilities. Once, at a public show, he completed a jump and cleared a bar that was 11 feet in the air. To watch him in those early films, he wouldn't so much run as glide, and he could leap and fly through the air. No other animal actor of the day had that kind of physical ability and emotional range. And there were many other dog actors who have faded from memory, like a dog actor named Strongheart.
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