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What Susan Orlean knew about Rin Tin Tin in 2005 wouldn’t fill a sticky note. What she learned when she embarked on a story about Hollywood animal stars and their trainers for The New Yorker magazine is now filling a book. Rin Tin Tin: His True Story sprang naturally from that assignment, says the New York–based writer, discussing how she happened onto her forthcoming “biography” of the canine actor. “It was kind of accidental—one of the better ways to get onto any project.”
As with her best-seller, The Orchid Thief, Orlean has a knack for bumping into good ideas. She is known for overturning the quiet little story that might have simmered away unnoticed—the obsessive subculture of orchid-collectors, how Americans spend their Saturday nights, the life of a female matador. She has also co-authored a cookbook for dogs. So what captured her interest in such a tried-and-true subject as a pop culture star with a fan club?
Orlean attributes it to the discovery, one surprise at a time, that her assumptions about Rin Tin Tin—whom she knew only from a ’50s kids’ show—were wrong. “I thought Rin Tin Tin was just a TV figure, and had no idea he was a real dog with a real life and a real history. Every bit of reporting I did continued to surprise me on that score.”
The heroic German Shepherd, who starred in 26 movies before his death in 1932, has become more enigmatic with the years. “There are many refuted histories of Rin Tin Tin, many versions of who and what he was,” she says. What didn’t vary, from the original dog to each of his successors, was “a fixation on the character as something almost magical.” Orlean recognized in his human entourage the same “monomania” she’d encountered in the plant enthusiasts she met while working on The Orchid Thief. She became intrigued by Rin Tin Tin’s magnetism, which inspired not only his handlers, but generations of admiring fans. Was it the animal himself, or something he represented, which was also embodied in his string of successors—perhaps the enduring loyalty of an intelligent canine?
So began her three-year quest to untangle his legacy.
Her subject’s almost one-hundred-year history kept Orlean busy traveling—but the travel was “through time more than through places,” she says. Hours spent sifting through archival material made this “a very different project for me,” says the author, who is known for her intensive, in-the-moment reporting. “I did a fair amount of historical research on Orchid Thief, but never in this concentration. The main source has been all the history, the records, all the notes—more than a person.”
Lucky for Orlean, Lee Duncan, the American serviceman who brought the original Rin Tin Tin home after World War I, kept lots of notes, including carbon copies of many of his letters. “I feel in my own way I’ve gotten to know him,” Orlean says. “All the flotsam and jetsam of his life.”
Duncan found Rin Tin Tin as a pup in 1918, in a bombed-out kennel in France. He named him after a puppet called Rin Tin Tin that French children gave to American soldiers for good luck. When the war ended, the pup returned home with him to Los Angeles, where Duncan later taught him tricks that included scaling a wall nearly 12 feet high. As the story goes, his owner believed he was destined for fame.
When Duncan’s protégé successfully filled in for an unwilling wolf in the 1922 movie The Man from Hell’s River, Hollywood producers took notice. The dark-hued Shepherd would be cast as a wolf or wolf-hybrid many times after that. With his starring role in the 1923 silent film Where the North Begins, “Rinty” earned a new nickname, “the mortgage lifter,” as he rescued Warner Brothers from bankruptcy.
From 1930 to 1955, his character was heard in three different radio series, beginning with The Wonder Dog, in which he performed his own sound effects. With his death, his son, Rin Tin Tin, Jr., took over, also appearing in several short films in the 1930s. In 1947, Rin Tin Tin III starred in The Return of Rin Tin Tin, while Duncan’s Rin Tin Tin IV appeared in The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, an ABC television series that ran from 1954 to 1959.
His financial success inspired imitators from other studios. “There were dozens and dozens of German Shepherds making movies in the ’20s and ’30s,” Orlean says. This copycat trend reflected “the way people consumed culture from many fewer outlets back then.” Rin Tin Tin: His True Story will cover all of the dogs—every German Shepherd actor surrounding his legacy. “He was a “huge profit machine,” she notes.
The profits didn’t end with his death in 1932 at the age of 14. Nor did the colorful stories. Of the many colliding versions of his life’s events, Orlean finds the one about his death most striking. (One of the most-cited tales has the celebrity dog cradled in the arms of actress Jean Harlow.) “There are what seems like a million stories of how and where the original Rin Tin Tin died. They get quite dramatic and extreme, and the truth is probably much more ordinary.”
As one of the first canine actors, Rin Tin Tin was considered remarkable. By today’s standards, his skills might seem less so due to developments in training techniques that have led to more believable performances. However, in her book, Silent Stars, Jeanine Basinger devotes a chapter to Rin Tin Tin that suggests otherwise: “The astonishing thing about watching Rin Tin Tin is that you begin to agree that this dog could act,” she writes.
But animal acting was hardly what it is today, with agencies in place and even a “Dog Actors Guild” with a database, searchable by breed, where those with aspiring canine actors post resumes. Another development is the American Humane Association’s  involvement in monitoring the welfare of animals during the production of films and television programs. The AHA assumed this role in 1940 with the creation of its Film and Television Unit; acceptable movies and television programs now receive the “No animals were harmed” credit at the end.
The original Rin Tin Tin, though “hardly a model of breeding,” Orlean observes, was saved from genetic oblivion after the death of Lee Duncan in 1960. Earlier, endorsement, breeder Jannettia Brodsgaard had purchased several direct descendants from Duncan in an effort to maintain the line. After her death in 1988, her granddaughter continued the lineage at “El Rancho Rin Tin Tin” in Latexo, Texas.
Rin Tin Tin’s descendants are also trained as service dogs to assist special needs children. Ironically, the breed is being dropped by one major guide dog training school in favor of Retrievers, and has also been targeted in some places for breed bans for being “overly aggressive.” The Shepherd has “more connotations than many other breeds,” notes Orlean. These are, of course, undeserved stereotypes. But Orlean considers it all part of what makes Rin Tin Tin fascinating. “Collies are straightforward. They don’t have as many complexities as the German Shepherd.” And, she adds, “Labs don’t have that kind of history.”
As a child, she was obsessed with German Shepherds—“there was hardly a kid alive who didn’t want one.” But today, she says, “My taste in dogs has changed.” While we are talking by cell phone, her breed of choice bounds out of the bushes and frightens her. “It could’ve been a bear!” But in fact, it’s just a dog—Cooper, her handsome red-and-white Welsh Springer Spaniel.
Has Orlean managed to find the “true” story of Rin Tin Tin?
“I think the true story is that there is no true story, ever,” she says. “There is a story that I think is closest to what really happened, but I think much of what I’ve learned from working on this book, and much of what it’s about, is the frail and faulty nature of memory, and that truth isn’t an absolute.”
What endures is the ideal—and the longing.
“Rin Tin Tin was the ultimate in terms of embodying steadfastness, wisdom and devotion. That’s a pure emotion that people wouldn’t be able to embody, so he represents something even better than human.”