Throwback Thursday: Zane Grey

posted on April 20, 2017

1887, Zanesville, Ohio ...
Fifteen-year-old Zane Grey waited until he knew his parents, brothers and sisters were asleep before getting out of bed and making his way to the fireplace in the main room. His backside still hurt from the beating his father had delivered earlier in the evening, but he wanted to see if anything was left of his story, “Jim of the Cave."

Young Zane often had his nose stuck in a book. He loved reading and re-reading adventure novels and stories such as Robinson Crusoe, The Leatherstocking Tales and the “Deadwood Dick" series, as well as books about history. So it was only natural he'd try his hand at penning a tale of derring-do.

But on seeing the story, his father had flown into a rage, torn the precious pages to shreds and hurled them into the fire. Then he'd beaten Zane within an inch of his life for spending time on such “worthless pursuits."

With a sigh, the boy bent down and picked up the single, ragged scrap of paper that was all that remained of his first literary effort. Crumpling the scrap into a tiny ball, he tossed it into what remained of the fire.

As he returned to his bed, he vowed that nothing and nobody would stop him from writing. He had an idea for a new story, and he'd start it tomorrow. Only this time he wouldn't be showing it to his father.


American writer Zane Grey (1872-1939) wrote novels and short stories about the Old West. One of the first millionaire authors, his work includes close to 60 Western novels, several books on fishing and history, a host of short stories (adventure, baseball, juvenile fiction) and articles.

The Early Years
Pearl Zane Grey was born in Zanesville, Ohio, on January 31, 1872. Called Pearl as a youngster, many of the fistfights for which he was known during his school years were apparently triggered by taunts about his name. Small wonder then that he later chose to drop the name Pearl and go by the name of Zane.

Grey was one of five children. His father, a somewhat sour-tempered dentist, offered little in the way of fatherly praise and was inclined to punish Grey with severe beatings. Grey, however, was blessed with the love and support of his mother and neighbor Muddy Miser, an elderly man who took Zane under his wing and encouraged the boy's fondness for reading, writing and fishing.

In 1889 the family moved to Columbus, Ohio, because of financial troubles, but the difficulties didn't end with the move. Zane's father enlisted him to assist with his dental practice, teaching the teenager how to do simple extractions and sending him out on house calls. Eventually, the state dental board got wind of Zane's activities and put an end to them.

Education and Career Beginnings
In addition to his writing talents, Grey was a gifted athlete. Following the move to Columbus, he played summer baseball for the Columbus Capitols. His skill captured the interest of baseball scouts, and several colleges tried to recruit him.

Thus it was that Grey attended the University of Pennsylvania on a baseball scholarship, where he was known for outstanding pitching and hitting. Although he would have liked to concentrate on baseball or writing as a career goal, Grey felt dentistry would give him a more financially secure future. So he studied dentistry with a distinct lack of enthusiasm and spent what should have been his study time playing baseball and writing. Summers centered on playing baseball with minor league teams.

Although Grey's grades were mediocre, he managed to graduate with a degree in dentistry. In 1898 he set up his practice in New York City.

Grey was every bit as uninterested in dentistry as a career as he had been in studying the subject while in school. So he wrote in the evenings to offset what he considered boring days in the office. Soon, he was coming up with any number of excuses to be away from work, which resulted in a dental practice that was open only part-time and wasn't particularly successful.

Two years later, on one of Grey's absences from the office-a camping and canoeing trip to Pennsylvania with his brother R.C.-he met Lina Roth, or Dolly as she was called. Zane and Dolly dated for five years and married in 1905.

By this point, Zane had sold some magazine articles and self-published a novel of pioneer life based on the journal of one of his ancestors. He was only too ready to abandon what remained of his dental practice and devote himself full-time to writing. So Dolly quit her teaching job and they moved to a farmhouse in Pennsylvania.

The Road to Fame
That same year, assisted by Dolly's management skills, Grey published The Spirit of the Border, which went on to become a best seller. In fact, Dolly would prove to be the perfect life partner for Grey. She proofed and edited his manuscripts and managed his career, tackling all the contract negotiations with publishers, agents and movie studios. This arrangement left Grey free to write and travel. Dolly raised their three children and offered her husband the love and encouragement he needed. Grey, in turn, saw to it that Dolly received half of everything he made.

From 1905 to 1910 Grey continued to hone his writing skills, but he suffered more rejections than successes. However, in 1910 he penned his first Western novel, The Heritage of the Desert. It became a bestseller and Grey's writing career took a distinct turn for the better.

Two years later, Riders of the Purple Sage became Grey's all-time bestseller and one of the most successful Westerns ever. The Western novel became the new darling of the commercial publishing world, and Zane Grey became a household name.

Grey's financial success allowed the family to relocate to California in 1918, and in 1920, they moved into a mansion on “Millionaire's Row" in Altadena, Calif. His success also allowed Grey to freely pursue one of his greatest joys in life-fishing. And, as it turned out, the resulting fishing articles were a popular addition to his writing activities. From 1918 to 1932, his fishing pieces appeared regularly in Outdoor Life magazine.

While Grey loved to fish the waters of his home state of California, he regarded the whole world as his fishing grounds. Over the course of his life, he fished for dolphin off the coast of New Jersey; sailfish in Florida; blue-fin tuna in Nova Scotia; a variety of big game fish in Australia, New Zealand and Tahiti; and anywhere else the spirit moved him.

The Writing Life
Grey had more than a little wanderlust in his soul and spent a sizable part of each year traveling and gathering materials for his writing. Then he'd settle down and write furiously. When the words ran dry, he'd be off on another trip-to the cabin he kept in Oregon or the one he owned in Arizona, to Washington State, Wyoming or perhaps on a fishing trip with his brother. His writing schedule was not the steady, daily pace preferred by so many writers, but it seemed to work for Grey.

The Great Depression in the 1930s hit the publishing industry hard, and writers saw their work selling less often than before. Grey was no exception. Fortunately, he continued to earn royalties from his serialized novels. In addition, during this period many of his novels were adapted to film, which provided yet another source of income.

On October 23, 1939, Zane Grey died of heart failure at his home in Altadena, Calif. He is buried at Union Cemetery in Lackawaxen, Pa.


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