Gay F. Salisbury

Gay Salisbury, co-author of The Cruelest Miles, The Heroic Story of Dogs and Men in a Race Against an Epidemic , divides her time between New York and Alaska.

Culture: DogPatch
Asta: The Thin Man's Dog

In a film career that spanned nearly 60 years and more than 130 films, Myrna Loy played many parts, but her greatest fame came from her role as Nora Charles in the series of six Thin Man movies made between 1934 and 1947. She starred opposite William Powell as Nick Charles, the martini-swilling, wisecracking detective loosely based on a character by Dashiell Hammett, and a little dog named Skippy, whom millions of movie fans came to know as Asta.  

One not-so-secret ingredient in the success of the light-hearted series, besides the obvious chemistry of the two human stars, was their willingness to share the screen with Asta, a Wirehaired Fox Terrier who perfectly complemented the tipsy detective and his spunky high-society wife. Though a high-society dog himself, Asta was masterful at finding dead bodies or sniffing out guns in drainpipes, but prone to hide under a bed or table with his paws over his eyes when things got rough. These unlikely crime fighters made up an unforgettable trio. “Not one day in my life passes,” Loy wrote many years later in her autobiography, “without someone asking about Bill (William Powell) or Asta.”  

Before Lassie’s debut on the silver screen in 1943, Asta was the top dog at MGM. Owned by Hollywood’s legendary animal trainer, Henry East, he was born into the business. Like many in Hollywood, Skippy adopted a stage name, in his case from the first Thin Man movie, which was made in 1934. Born in Van Nuys, Calif., Skippy made his first appearance in a Three Stooges picture as a pup of six months.

In The Thin Man, Asta makes his grand entrance at the same time Myrna Loy makes her own, not-so-grand entrance. As the little rascal desperately pulls his leading lady—who’s struggling with a giant pile of Christmas boxes—she falls flat on her face in front of the camera. When asked to take the dog outside, Nick assures the waiter, “It’s all right. It’s my dog. And uh, my wife.” To which Nora replies, “Well, you might have mentioned me first on the billing.”  

By the end of the film, Asta had earned his spot on the marquee. The audience loved the inscrutable but loveable terrier, and his popularity spawned a national craze for his breed. When the first Thin Man sequel was announced in 1936, the New York Times noted that the dog detective was no bit player. “Asta, the dog that fought with William Powell and Myrna Loy for top honors in The Thin Man,” the Times noted, “will compete again with the two in Metro’s After The Thin Man.” True to the Times’ prediction, when the second film appeared, Asta not only received major billing, but the film opened on his wagging tail, and introduced a subplot concerning Asta’s strained relationship with “Mrs. Asta,” whom Asta believed was having a romance with the dog next door.  

Skippy was trained by the best in the business: brothers Frank and Rudd Weatherwax and their assistant Frank Inn, whose Studio Dog Training School went on to train many of the biggest dogs in Hollywood, including Toto, Daisy from the “Blondie” series, Old Yeller, Benji and many generations of Lassies. Skippy lived on a special vegetable mash, was sure to get 12 hours of beauty sleep a night, and retreated to his own dressing room when not working so as not to be distracted by the attention of fellow cast members and crew. He always did his own stunts, and was particularly adept at hide-and-seek.  

Myrna Loy said she never really became friends with Skippy (he actually nipped her once on the set) but he was a wonderful dog. One of the secrets of his motivation was a little rubber mouse named Oslo. “He did everything for a little squeaky mouse,” Loy said. “I’d squeak the mouse and put it in my pocket, and then Asta would do whatever he was supposed to do.” One squeak sent him into “ transports of delight.”

Skippy’s film career lasted through 10 years; nine pictures; and screen time with greats such as Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn and Irene Dunne. The last Thin Man movie, Song of the Thin Man, made in 1947, starred his son, “Asta II,” whom Powell was said to have called “Half Asta.” But no one could replace the original, a four-footed amateur detective who helped Nick and Nora put the bite on crime.


Dog's Life: Travel
A Place in the Sun
It’s a dog’s world at Sun Valley, Idaho

Locals often refer to the resort community of Sun Valley, Idaho, as “God’s country,” but as a visit to this heavenly town will surely tell you, it’s also a dog’s world. On any given day, dogs run alongside their families on the cross-country ski trails, dine with them outside on the doggy deck at Galena Lodge, or lie in the sun at Tully’s Coffee, which, like most businesses in town, provides water bowls for its canine clientele.

Residents of Sun Valley not only enjoy the outdoors themselves, they love sharing it with their dogs. Of the more than 120 km of groomed trails in the North Valley Trail system, nearly half are dog-friendly. Even more astounding, of the 4,000 trail passes that were issued last winter, nearly 1,000 were for family dogs.

Tucked away in central Idaho’s Wood River Valley, Sun Valley is America’s first great winter resort, founded in 1936 by the Union Pacific Railroad Company. It quickly became Hollywood’s playground, and Gary Cooper, Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe could be seen schussing down Bald Mountain or relaxing at the Sun Valley Lodge, where, in 1939, Ernest Hemingway wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls. Dogs were a ubiquitous part of this glittering mix.

Celebrity guests were met at the Ketchum train station by dog teams and mushed around town and to the lodge. Sun Valley also had its share of mascots, whose photos are still displayed in the lodge’s lobby. One of them, a Labrador named Frostie, became internationally known for his skiing skills. The dog’s prowess was aided by the equipment designed for him by a local ski instructor: a scooter-like contraption on skis, with little toe straps for his back paws and handlebars on which he could rest his front paws. When Frostie reached the bottom of the run, he’d quickly jump off his skis, take the rope in his mouth and run back up the hill, ready for another ride.

Visiting Sun Valley? Join the owner of Sun Valley Sled Dog Adventures, Brian Camilli, for a ride behind his great team of Alaskan Huskies. Purchase a day pass for yourself and your dog and enjoy the trails. Accompany the dogs from the Animal Shelter of the Wood River Valley, a no-kill facility, on one of their weekly public hikes. And, if you’re visiting on the first Saturday in March, look for the “Paw & Pole” event, a shelter fund-raiser in which cross-country skiers and their dogs compete in races and win special prizes for best costumes.

Though there’s lots of fun for dogs in Sun Valley, not all of the area’s canine residents spend their days trail-running or being treated to holistic healing, acupuncture or massage therapy—many of them also have jobs. During ski season, trained search and avalanche rescue dogs are on active duty with local ski patrols, and over the years, they have been instrumental in recovering victims and saving lives.

Long may Sun Valley’s dogs run!

Culture: Science & History
The Canine Hall of Fame: Titina
A small orphaned Terrier was the first dog to fly over the North Pole

The annals of polar exploration are filled with tales of canine heroes who earned their fame by blazing trails and tracking through the wilderness. But one of the most beloved polar characters on four paws in the 1920s was a fierce little black-and-white Fox Terrier named Titina, who gained her glory by sitting on her master’s lap.

Titina was the inseparable companion of one of the tragic figures of Arctic exploration, Umberto Nobile, the Italian inventor and airship pilot who flew over the top of the world in the dirigible Norge in 1926. At first revered as an Italian national hero, and then reviled, Nobile would be abandoned by almost all the world, except for his most loyal crew member, a faithful companion who stood only 10 inches high, weighed about 12 pounds and once barked down a polar bear.

Umberto Nobile said Titina found him in 1925 as he walked the streets of Rome preparing for his inaugural trans-polar flight. She was a starving little puppy, wandering lost and alone, only a few months old. The skinny orphan stood on her hind legs, and “with her fore paws beat the air beseechingly” until he patted her on the head. A boy passing by was whistling a popular tune of the time, “La Titina,” and so she became his Titina. The homeless dog had found her home, and wherever Nobile went, she would always follow. “The man lived a life of chance and of daring,” one journalist wrote, “and the dog also.”

Life with Nobile would take Titina literally to the end of the Earth, a notable achievement, especially for a dog who hated to fly. But as much as she disliked flying, she simply hated being separated from her master even more. Nobile claimed he had no intention of taking Titina on board the historic flight across the North Pole in 1926, but Titina would not have it any other way. Titina—“wild with joy” and wearing an Italian sash of green, red and white around her neck—was pressed against Nobile’s chest as thousands cheered their departure from Rome. As the airship headed north, Titina stepped into the annals of polar history.

Nobile was both the designer and chief pilot of the Norge, while the commander of the expedition was the Norwegian adventurer, Roald Amundsen. Amundsen, to put it politely, was furious that Nobile had brought Titina along because the conditions on board the airship were so incredibly crowded.

The crew of 16 men and one dog were crammed into a tiny living compartment about six feet square that hung beneath the giant bag of hydrogen. There was literally no room in the gondola for anyone to sit down (except Titina, who lay flat on a stack of clothes and supplies). Antonio Quattrini, an Italian journalist on board, said the only way he could take notes was to crouch down; however, that proved hazardous because Titina “has taken a ferocious dislike to my notebook. Whenever she sees it in my hands she wants to tear it to bits.” But Quattrini loved the little Terrier nonetheless—calling her an outrageous flirt—and wrote her official biography for the New York Times. In Quattrini’s words, Titina was “a dog marked by destiny, a dog of greatest character.”

As the world followed the Norge’s polar journey, fascination with Titina grew. One dispatch written “in answer to the queries of a great many persons, particularly women” eager to hear news of Nobile’s dog, reported: “Over the Pole she wore clothes—a red woolen jersey—and during the greatest part of the flight she slept, covered by Colonel Nobile’s sleeping bag ….”

The flight of the Norge made aviation history, and Nobile and Titina became international celebrities. She accompanied him on their world tour, greeting and posing with the likes of Mussolini, the royal family of Norway, New York Mayor Jimmy Walker, Rudolph Valentino and even the president of the United States. Nobile so loved the little dog that he refused to be photographed unless Titina was with him. He seemingly went nowhere without his pet, including the Metropolitan Opera—where Titina was forced to wait downstairs until the performance was over—and the White House—where Titina peed on the carpet during their meeting with President Calvin Coolidge. (Apparently Titina’s indiscretion loosened up “Silent Cal,” because one attendant said afterward he had never seen the President so “good-humored and chatty.”)

Given the success of the Norge flight, Mussolini made Nobile a general and commanded him to build another airship, the Italia. Instead of promoting fascism as Mussolini intended, however, the Italia would become synonymous with disaster. It crashed in a storm over the frozen wastes of the Arctic in 1928, and half of the crew was killed. Titina and General Nobile, who broke his leg in the crash, were among the survivors.

In the wake of the catastrophe, Nobile’s reputation and character were also shattered. Not only did many blame him personally for the crash, but most importantly, he was charged with abandoning his men; he had allowed himself and Titina to be rescued first, leaving the rest of the survivors behind on the drifting ice pack for weeks. Disgraced and disowned by his native country, he was forced to resign his commission.

By the time Nobile died in 1978 at age 93, he had spent 50 years trying to salvage his tarnished reputation, writing six books trying to explain the Italia disaster. His last, The Red Tent, became a Hollywood film starring Sean Connery, and featured a little Terrier as Titina, the only member of Nobile’s crew who never abandoned him.