Today is the birthday (1872) of Pearl Zane Grey, US author (and dentist), best known for his popular adventure novels and stories associated with the Western genre in literature and the arts. Riders of the Purple Sage (1912) was his best-selling book. In addition to the commercial success of his printed works, they had second lives and continuing influence when adapted as films and television productions. His novels and short stories have been adapted into 112 films, two television episodes, and a television series, Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theater.
Grey was born in Zanesville, Ohio. His birth name may have originated from newspaper descriptions of Queen Victoria’s mourning clothes as “pearl grey.” He was the fourth of five children born to Alice “Allie” Josephine Zane, whose English Quaker immigrant ancestor Robert Zane migrated to the North American colonies in 1673, and her husband, Lewis M. Gray, a dentist. His family changed the spelling of their last name to “Grey” after his birth. Later Grey dropped Pearl and used Zane as his first name. He grew up in Zanesville, a city founded by his maternal great-grandfather Ebenezer Zane, an American Revolutionary War patriot, and from an early age, he was intrigued by history. Grey developed interests in fishing, baseball, and writing, all of which contributed to his writing success. His first three novels recounted the heroism of ancestors who fought in the American Revolutionary War.
As a child, Grey frequently engaged in violent brawls even though they resulted in frequent beatings from his father. Grey found a father figure in Muddy Miser, an old man who approved of Grey’s love of fishing and writing, and who talked about the advantages of an unconventional life. Despite warnings by Grey’s father to steer clear of Miser, Grey spent considerable time during five formative years in the company of the old man.
Grey was an avid reader of adventure stories such as Robinson Crusoe and the Leatherstocking Tales, as well as dime novels featuring Buffalo Bill and Deadwood Dick. He was enthralled by and crudely copied the great illustrators Howard Pyle and Frederic Remington. He was particularly impressed with Our Western Border, a history of the Ohio frontier that likely inspired his earliest novels. He wrote his first story, “Jim of the Cave,” when he was 15. His father tore it to shreds and beat him. Both Zane and his brother Romer were active, athletic boys who were enthusiastic baseball players and fishermen.
Due to shame from a severe financial setback in 1889 caused by a poor investment, Lewis Grey moved his family from Zanesville and started again in Columbus, Ohio. While his father struggled to re-establish his dental practice, Zane Grey made rural house calls and performed basic extractions, which his father had taught him. The younger Grey practiced until the state board intervened. He also played summer baseball for the Columbus Capitols, with aspirations of becoming a major league player. Eventually, he was spotted by a baseball scout and received offers from many colleges.
Grey chose the University of Pennsylvania on a baseball scholarship, where he studied dentistry. When he arrived at Penn, he had to prove himself worthy of a scholarship before receiving it. He rose to the occasion by coming in to pitch against the Riverton club, pitching five scoreless innings and producing a double in the tenth which contributed to the win. Grey was a solid hitter and an excellent pitcher who relied on a sharply dropping curve ball. When the distance from the pitcher’s mound to the plate was lengthened by ten feet in 1894 (primarily to reduce the dominance of Cy Young’s pitching), the effectiveness of Grey’s pitching suffered. He was re-positioned to the outfield but remained a campus hero on the strength of his hitting.
He was an indifferent scholar, barely achieving a minimum average. Outside class he spent his time on baseball, swimming, and creative writing, especially poetry. Grey struggled with the idea of becoming a writer or baseball player for his career but concluded that dentistry was the practical choice. He went on to play minor league baseball with several teams, including the Newark, New Jersey Colts in 1898 and also with the Orange Athletic Club for several years.
After graduating, Grey established his practice in New York City under the name of Dr. Zane Grey in 1896. It was a competitive area but he wanted to be close to publishers. He began to write in the evening to offset the tedium of his dental practice. Whenever possible, he played baseball with the Orange Athletic Club in New Jersey.
Grey often went camping with his brother in Lackawaxen, Pennsylvania, where they fished in the upper Delaware River. When canoeing in 1900, Grey met 17-year-old Lina Roth, better known as “Dolly”. Dolly came from a family of physicians and was studying to be a schoolteacher. After a passionate and intense courtship marked by frequent quarrels, Grey and Dolly married 5 years later in 1905. Grey suffered bouts of depression, anger, and mood swings, which affected him most of his life. During his courtship of Dolly, Grey still saw previous girlfriends and warned her frankly,
But I love to be free. I cannot change my spots. The ordinary man is satisfied with a moderate income, a home, wife, children, and all that…. But I am a million miles from being that kind of man and no amount of trying will ever do any good… I shall never lose the spirit of my interest in women.
After they married in 1905, Dolly gave up her teaching career. They moved to a farmhouse at the confluence of the Lackawaxen and Delaware rivers, in Lackawaxen, Pennsylvania, where Grey’s mother and sister joined them. (This house, now preserved and operated as the Zane Grey Museum, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.) I used to visit quite often because Lackawaxen is on the old Delaware and Hudson canal as was the house where I lived, and both my village and Lackawaxen were sites of suspension aqueducts built by John Roebling before he designed the Brooklyn Bridge.
While Dolly managed Grey’s career and raised their three children over the next two decades, Grey often spent months away from the family. He fished, wrote, and spent time with his many mistresses. While Dolly knew of his behavior, she tolerated it. In addition to her considerable editorial skills, she had good business sense and handled all his contract negotiations with publishers, agents, and movie studios. All his income was split 50-50 with her. From her half she covered all family expenses. Their considerable correspondence shows evidence of his lasting love for her despite his infidelities and personal emotional turmoil.
With the help of Dolly’s proofreading and copy editing, Grey gradually improved his writing. His first magazine article, “A Day on the Delaware,” a human-interest story about a Grey brothers’ fishing expedition, was published in the May 1902 issue of Recreation magazine. Around this time, Grey read Owen Wister’s Western novel The Virginian. After studying its style and structure in detail, he decided to write a full-length work. Grey had difficulties in writing his first novel, Betty Zane (1903). The novel dramatized the heroism of an ancestor who had saved Fort Henry. When it was rejected by Harper & Brothers, he lapsed into despair and self-published it, probably with money borrowed from family.
After attending a lecture in New York in 1907 by Charles Jesse “Buffalo” Jones, western hunter and guide who had co-founded Garden City, Kansas, Grey arranged for a mountain lion-hunting trip to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. He took along a camera to document his trips and also began the habit of taking copious notes, not only of scenery and activities, but also of dialogue. He gained the confidence to write convincingly about the American West, its characters, and its landscape. Treacherous river crossings, unpredictable beasts, bone-chilling cold, searing heat, parching thirst, bad water, irascible tempers, and heroic cooperation all became real to him.
Upon returning home in 1909, Grey wrote a new novel, The Last of the Plainsmen, describing the adventures of Buffalo Jones. Harper’s editor Ripley Hitchcock rejected it, the fourth work in a row. He told Grey, “I do not see anything in this to convince me you can write either narrative or fiction.” Grey wrote dejectedly,
I don’t know which way to turn. I cannot decide what to write next. That which I desire to write does not seem to be what the editors want… I am full of stories and zeal and fire… yet I am inhibited by doubt, by fear that my feeling for life is false.
I know the feeling. I’d estimate I have had close to 100 rejection letters from publishers. It’s depressing, but you either keep trying or give up.
With the birth of his first child pending, Grey felt compelled to complete his next novel, The Heritage of the Desert. He wrote it in four months in 1910. It quickly became a bestseller. Two years later Grey produced his best-known book, Riders of the Purple Sage (1912), his all-time best-seller, and one of the most successful Western novels of all time. After that Harper eagerly received all his manuscripts.
The Greys moved to California in 1918. In 1920 they settled in Altadena, California, where Grey bought a prominent mansion on East Mariposa Street. By this time Grey had both the time and money to engage in his great passion for fishing. From 1918 until 1932, he was a regular contributor to Outdoor Life magazine. He kept a cabin in Oregon, and also began deep-see fishing in Florida, and later in Australia and New Zealand (where his fishing lodge is still a popular tourist destination), and also regularly in Tahiti.
Zane Grey died of heart failure on October 23, 1939, at his home in Altadena, California. He was interred at the Lackawaxen and Union Cemetery, Lackawaxen, Pennsylvania.
There is a Zane Grey Cookbook which you’d think had recipes from Grey’s notes, or memories of dishes he’d cooked around the campfire. Not so. The only thing Zane Grey about the book is the title. The recipes in it are collections of ideas for dishes he might have enjoyed. On the other hand, I used to live on the Neversink River, a tributary of the Delaware where Grey fished, and a well-known fly-fishing spot. The Delaware and tributaries are legendary spots for brook trout. Brook trout is one of the best fish to grill or pan fry when caught fresh. For me, it depended on whether I had my fire pit cranked up or not, whether I grilled it over wood coals or pan fried it. It’s best over coals, but a bit of a chore if you have only one fish.
If you have a fish that was just caught, as I often did, preparation is very simple. There are no heavy scales to remove. You need a good sharp, pointed knife. Slit the belly open from just below the throat to the base of the tail. Slice through the meat only so that you do not pierce any of the guts. Insert a finger in the slit and remove the intestines, stomach, and other entrails. Then wash the cavity in running water, and pat the fish dry, inside and out, with paper towels.
Depending on the size of the fish it will cook in only a few minutes as long as the pan or grill is good and hot before you start cooking. When using my cast-iron skillet, I rubbed it with a paper towel moistened with olive oil, and then heated it to smoking and laid in the fish. About 3 minutes on one side was enough, then turn and cook it on the other side. You have to be a little careful turning the fish because it can break easily. I used a very wide spatula. For fire grilling, they make special grilling baskets that are hinged, so that the fish is secured inside, and you can flip it simply by turning the whole basket over by the handles.
You can put lemon slices and/or fresh herbs and butter in the cavity before cooking, but I never used to. Brook trout has an interesting, delicate flavor that I am happy to eat without any additional flavorings. When I cooked outdoors I would also grill some corn on the cob to go along with the fish. There are many ways to do this, but I used to shuck the corn completely, then wrap it in foil smeared with butter.