A 324-page biography of a dog? And by a respected New Yorker staff writer? Seriously?

I was skeptical that a full-length, serious biography of a dog — even a dog as famous as Rin Tin Tin — was worth the effort, or would hold my attention. But lo and behold, Susan Orlean’s “Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend” proved to be both a worthy subject, and an engrossing read.

I suspect to most people, the name Rin Tin Tin doesn’t exactly resonate. For those of you for whom Rin Tin Tin means Not One Thing, ‘Rinty’ as he was known, was an early movie superstar who successfully made the leap to small screen stardom. Since his song-and-dance skills were rather limited, Rin Tin Tin never was a vaudeville star, but two out of three is pretty good. Especially for a dog.

Rin Tin Tin the puppy was discovered in France in 1918, amidst the ruins of a bombed-out dog kennel, by an American soldier named Lee Duncan. Duncan, who grew up in an orphanage, was attracted to the miraculous survival of the dog, and took him home to America. From the time Duncan found him, Rin Tin Tin became the consuming passion of his life. Duncan was a loner who found his soul mate in his dog (even at the later expense of his wife and daughter). He saw something special in Rinty, and so did the public. Once Rin Tin Tin hit the silent screen, he quickly became the biggest grossing star in the movies, saving Warner Bros. from bankruptcy. (As Orleans reveals, Rinty nearly won the first Academy Award for best actor. When the votes were tallied, Rin Tin Tin came out on top, but the Academy, fearful of being mocked, tweaked the rules to give the award to a human actor.)

But like many a silent film star, Rin Tin Tin fell victim to the talkies. Rinty movies fell out of favour for many years, making fewer and less successful appearances in the talking era. But Rinty (or maybe it was Rin Tin Tin Jr., or Rin Tin Tin III, or a number of others who “acted” under the Rinty moniker) was never completely out of the public eye. Television brought him back in a huge way; The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin becoming an early television phenomenon, and one of the first TV shows to cash in on merchandising. The TV era is when Rinty’s other human defender, a brash but enormously likeable TV producer named Bert Leonard (Route 66, Naked City) enters the picture, and never leaves. Just like Duncan, Leonard developed an all-abiding passion for Rinty which was not just monetarily based. Leonard believed in Rin Tin Tin and what he stood for — loyalty, honesty, quiet heroism. Even when he was flat broke after the Rinty craze faded, Leonard (who took over as the guardian of the Rinty flame after Duncan died) turned down lucrative offers to exploit Rin Tin Tin if he felt they denigrated what the dog stood for.

There is one more main human character in the book, the only living person: Daphne Hereford, owner of the current Rin Tin Tin, apparently an actual descendant. Perhaps not surprisingly, Hereford and Leonard ended up in court over the rights to Rinty, a lengthy court battle that went right into the 21st century, about 90 years after the original Rin Tin Tin was born.

Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend is full of wonderful characters, vivid portraits of the eras, and fascinating minutia about man and dog. It’s a terrific read, beautifully written and endlessly fascinating.

A biography of a dog? Who knew?


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