Rin Tin Tin had a passion for ice cream, a wife named Nanette, and a phone number listed in the Los Angeles phone book.
The survivor of a bomb blast that killed dozens of dogs in a kennel in a small, war-torn town in France in 1918, Rin Tin Tin was rescued as a German Shepherd puppy by a lonely GI named Lee Duncan, brought back to Los Angeles after the war and then, by luck, chance or sheer talent, the dog became one of the most celebrated actors of American silent cinema, and the source, sometimes indirectly, for dozens of other dogs who would act as "Rin Tin Tin," carrying the dog's legacy across decades and media formats to inspire several generations of Americans.
New Yorker writer Susan Orlean chronicles the epic tale of the dapper dog in her engrossing new book, Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend (Simon & Schuster), which deftly weaves together Rin Tin Tin's story with moments of cultural transition. These include the invention of pet ownership in the United States as people moved from farms with working animals to cities where animals became family members; the reinvention of cinematic storytelling as the movie industry shifted from silent cinema to sound; and the topsy-turvy flip of American ideals, from the valorization of order, power and authority during the early part of the last century to the questioning and even undermining of those ideals by the mid-1950s.
Duncan emerges as less a quirky hero akin to other Orlean subjects and more a damaged soul forever seeking to assuage the experience of loss that marred his childhood, which included a stint in an orphanage and the butchering of his pet lamb. The discovery and rescue of Rin Tin Tin gives Duncan's life direction, offering a passionate connection to another being, and a way for Duncan to exhibit a rare talent, namely dog training. Duncan teaches Rin Tin Tin a host of jaw-dropping tricks, captures these on film and launches the film career that rivaled those of Hollywood's iconic celebrities. Rin Tin Tin gradually transforms from character to concept, as Orlean points out, becoming less a specific dog than an idea or emblem that epitomized honor, heroism, singular skillfulness and devotion. He also enjoyed another fully American fantasy, rising from near death and obscurity to fortune and fame.
Orlean tells the story of Duncan and Rin Tin Tin, but she also tells several other stories, some major, some minor. We learn how Poodles became popular; how California became the center of navel orange industry; that in 1937, land in Riverside cost 25 cents an acre; that Hitler liked German Shepherds, and had three (the third of which was named Blondi and slept in his bed); that a Doberman Pinscher named Rollo was the first of many dogs to die in World War II; and that the first dog to play the role of Lassie was Pal, a male dog with a penchant for chasing cars. There's much more arcane information as well, all of it orbiting the frequently tragic turns of luck and the cast of bizarre characters who attach themselves to the myth of Rin Tin Tin over nearly 100 years.
Orlean's work is often characterized by a cunning ability to find the utterly normal, or at least recognizable, in the fantastically strange, or, vice versa, finding the deliciously strange in the quotidian. In her 1998 book The Orchid Thief, for example, we meet Jean Laroche, a man obsessed with very special flowers, and we follow him on unimaginable escapades through Florida swamps, with Orlean as our bemused but enraptured guide. Laroche morphs from freak to fellow traveler as we witness our own secret desires made manifest.
Orlean is also a terrific writer with a brazen wit. Her 1995 New Yorker profile titled "Show Dog" opens, "If I were a bitch, I'd be in love with Biff Truesdale." And it continues on to fondly describe one of the reigning title-holders of an important dog show with humor and engaging storytelling.
"Show Dog" captures Orlean's delightful humor, certainly, but it also suggests her affection for animals, a trait underscored directly in her long essay (available as a very nice Kindle Single published earlier this year) titled Animalish, a confessional account of the author's almost irrational propensity for collecting animals, from her childhood pleas for a dog and/or pony to her life on a 55-acre property inhabited by several cattle, a dog, three cats, several chickens, turkeys, guinea fowl and ducks.
Both of these attributes - the curiosity for the obsessive loner who is really like the rest of us and the deep connection to animals - play a part in Rin Tin Tin, but this book replaces the playful affection and laugh-out-loud humor of earlier work with existential longing as Orlean struggles to understand singular devotion to one idea or thing. Early on she asks, "What lasts? What lingers?" adding, "Maybe all that we do in life is just a race against this idea of disappearing." Rin Tin Tin, who managed to remain prominent in American culture for decades, impresses Orlean for precisely this kind of longevity. "For me, the narrative of Rin Tin Tin is extraordinary because it has lasted," she says toward the end of the book, admitting, too, that her fascination participates in the almost melancholic desire to also transcend the terrible boundaries of time.
In the end, the book about a dog is really a book about life and death. It's a book about fathers and sons, too, and about fathers and daughters, and relatives generally. It's a book about wars, and it's about love, loyalty and loss. It's also about the things that keep us going, and the things, however strange and seemingly trivial that we designate to stand in as emblems for ineffable - and inevitable - loss. Rin Tin Tin was very much that cipher for Lee Duncan; due to some strange cultural congruity, he became a similar emblem for many, many Americans, Susan Orlean among them.
Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend is thoroughly engaging, offering an often rollicking portrait of Hollywood fame, fortune and folly. However, it's almost as if Orlean didn't want to traffic in that easily lurid arena. The book ventures much deeper, circling back repeatedly to ponder the very core of loss and what it means to be forgotten, and the subsequent yearning for, as Orlean puts it, "something that feels whole and everlasting, the mark that is indelible."