- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 19, 2005


By Thomas H. Pauly

University of Illinois, $34.95, 385 pages, illus.

He was named Pearl Zane Grey at birth, but dropped the Pearl as a young man after, no doubt, a great deal of ribbing to become just Zane Grey, and under that name he became world famous. When he died in 1939, his publisher, Harpers, estimated that 17,000,000 copies of Grey’s novels — for the most part westerns set in the past or in his own time — had been sold since “The Heritage of the Desert” appeared in 1910, a number exceeded in that time period, according to the publisher, only by sales of The Bible and The Boy Scout Handbook.

That figure didn’t include Grey’s many nonfiction travel tales and fishing stories, published in popular magazines such as Field & Stream and collected in books. Nor was his fame confined to his writing. Newspapers worldwide carried frontpage photographs and stories on his sporting exploits and other adventures, and he set a number of world fishing records for tiger shark, striped marlin and other saltwater fish. Even when he wasn’t setting records, what he was up to — exploring deserts, camping in the wild, hunting mountain lions — was regarded by his vast audience as exciting and that audience loved to read about what he did.

In “Zane Grey: His Life, His Adventures, His Women,” Thomas H. Pauly, a University of Delaware English professor, offers the first large-scale biography of Grey since Frank Gruber’s “Zane Grey: A Biography” appeared in 1970. Mr. Pauly makes use of letters and journals unavailable to Gruber and other Grey scholars. He also delves deeply into aspects of Grey’s life that have been largely ignored or dealt with only in passing, Grey’s perpetual womanizing and his deep, lengthy depressions.

Grey was held in low esteem if not contempt by the literati of the 1920s and ‘30s. The newspaper columnist Heywood Broun famously said “The substance of any two Grey books could be written on the back of a postage stamp.” That was unfair, and beside the point. It didn’t matter at all to the millions of “average” readers who bought his books because they loved Grey’s very strong storytelling abilities and the millions of others who couldn’t wait to see the many films made from those stories.

Mr. Pauly shows how Grey rode to success (and helped to create) a popular culture that had come to love westerns. In much of his fiction as well as his nonfiction, men and women — usually from the Eastern states like New York and big cities — overcome boredom and illness induced by too much civilization and urban living by moving out West and pitting themselves against the elements, testing themselves to the breaking point. Theodore Roosevelt had famously done just that, turning himself from a bookish, frail lad into a robust man on his trips West. Millions of Americans came to dream that they, too, could do this. Grey encouraged these dreams. At the peak of his fame, according to Mr. Pauly, Grey’s “fantasies became those of the nation.”

Grey was born in 1872 in Zanesville, Ohio. His mother’s ancesters — the Zanes — had settled the region. Mr. Pauly believes Grey’s relationship with his dentist father was distant and that he was permanently scarred by his father’s business failures and the family’s slide into poverty.The young Zane was closer to a local man with the marvelous name Muddy Miser, who taught him fishing and love for the out of doors. Grey attended the University of Pennsylvania on a baseball scholarship, earning a degree in dentistry.

But he soon learned that dentistry wasn’t for him. A practice he set up New York City bored him. A way out came in 1902, when Recreation magazine published an article by Grey, “A Day on the Delaware.” He decided to devote himself to writing. The first several years were rough, but in 1906 Grey went on a honeymoon to the Grand Canyon with his wife, Dolly Roth, and fell in love with the West. Many more trips westward followed.

So did his novels and stories set in the West, like “Riders of the Purple Sage” in 1912 and “Wanderer of the Wasteland” in 1923, two of his most admired novels; there were many others. Mr. Pauly describes in detail Grey’s relationship with Jesse Lasky and Adolph Zukor, the founders of Paramount, the motion picture studio. It was Lasky who proposed that a new Grey novel and a movie version of that novel be released about the same time, increasing sales of the book and interest in the movie. Mr. Pauly writes that Lasky and Zukor “marketed Grey’s work like chilled soft drinks for a thirsty audience.”

Grey became wealthy, the object of enormous esteem among fans who saw him as an exceptional sportsman, a robust example of virtuous manhood. He was those things, but as Mr. Pauly shows, there were also demons Grey’s public knew nothing about. Periods of depression consumed him, for example, rendering him incapable of work. His wealth allowed him to wander worldwide. But it meant that he was away from his wife and three children for most of the time. Mr. Pauly mentions an interview with Grey’s son Loren in which Loren told him that he recalled only one occasion when his father spent a whole day with him.

And there were Grey’s women. Scholars have been reluctant to describe those relationships as sexual, claiming they were no more than friendly or platonic. But Mr. Pauly points out that Grey was arrested at age 16 in a brothel and that there exists “an enormous, totally unknown cache of photographs taken by Grey of nude women” throughout his life. In many of the pictures, Grey is there, too, naked and engaged in sex. Grey’s long-suffering wife, Dolly, knew of the affairs. How could she not? Many were with relatives of hers or women she knew. At first hurt by them, she later came to regard them as part of her husband’s makeup that would never change.

Mr. Pauly’s book is rich with information about Grey, but that’s part of the problem. The author doesn’t digest the material and turn it into a coherent whole.

Fewer facts and anecdotes about the fishing trips and the movie industry, for instance, would have been kinder for readers. By treating every facet of Grey’s life equally, Mr. Pauly deals less with the writing (and the movies) than he might. Surely it’s the books and films that hold most people’s interest today. But he does quote Dolly Grey’s accurate summing up of her husband’s personality, a summing up no biographer will ever improve upon: “The man [Grey] has always lived in a land of make-believe, and has clothed all his own affairs in the shining garment of romance… .” It was Grey’s great talent to make his make-believe the much sought-after reading material of millions.

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