Rin Tin Tin
The Life and the Legend
October 2011 Indie Next List
— Megan Bruce, Watermark Books, Wichita, KS
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Fall '12 Reading Group List
— Megan Bruce, Watermark Books, Wichita, KS
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He believed the dog was immortal.
So begins Susan Orlean’s sweeping, powerfully moving account of Rin Tin Tin’s journey from abandoned puppy to international movie-star dog who appeared in twenty-seven films throughout the 1920s. Spanning almost one hundred years of history, from the dog’s improbable discovery on a battlefield in 1918 by an American soldier to his tumultuous rise through Hollywood and beyond, Rin Tin Tin is a love story and "a masterpiece" (Chicago Tribune) that is also a quintessentially American story of reinvention, a captivating exploration of our spiritual bond with animals, and a stirring meditation on mortality and immortality.
Praise For Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend…
— Wall Street Journal
— Chicago Tribune
— Vanity Fair
“Epic . . . Heartfelt . . . An enormously satisfying story about a dog and the man who believed in him.”
— Carol Memmott
“Fascinating . . . Sweeping . . . Expertly told . . . [Orlean] may persuade even the most hardened skeptic that Rin Tin Tin belongs on Mount Rushmore with George Washington and Teddy Roosevelt, or at least somewhere nearby with John Wayne and Seabiscuit.”
— Jennifer Schuessler
“A story of magnificent obsession. Nearly a decade in the making, combining worldwide research with personal connection, it offers the kind of satisfactions you only get when an impeccable writer gets hold of one heck of a story.”
— Kenneth Turan
“Stunning . . . Truly exceptional . . . A book so moving it melted the heart of at least this one dogged Lassie lover . . . . Calling Rin Tin Tin the story of a dog is like calling Moby-Dick the story of a whale.”
— Meredith Maran
“Susan Orlean has written a book about how an orphaned dog became part of millions of households, and hearts, in a way that may reveal the changing bonds between humans and animals, too. . . . One of the many pleasures of this book is the historical breadth of the story.”
— Scott Simon
“An improbably fascinating tale of one of the first canine celebrities, the times that catapulted him to fame, and the legacy that endures.”
— People magazine's "Great Fall Reads"
“Brilliant . . . If there were any book she was born to write, it's this one. The product of years of dogged research, it's her magnum opus, a work filled with fascinating stories . . . [and] stunning prose that is both compassionate and perceptive.”
— Michael Schaub
“Engrossing . . . Delightful . . . Orlean finds much more to the story than a man and his dog . . . . Its heart lies in her exploration of how a dog could come to embody the ideal of heroic devotion and, eventually, exist as an icon outside the boundaries of time.”
— Douglass K. Daniel
“Orlean relates the histories of the original Rin Tin Tin and his various successors with her customary eye for captivating detail.”
— Entertainment Weekly
“Heartening . . . It’s a story that may surprise you. . . . Rin Tin Tin embodied the spirit of America.”
— Rita Braver
“Rapturous . . . This dog’s eye history of Hollywood in the 1920s is exuberant and told with as much energy as love. . . . It is to be numbered among the best Hollywood biographies.”
— David Thomson
“Fascinating . . . Orlean’s deadpan sense of humor and ear for the odd and beguiling fact make it hard to put down the book. But there’s also something haunting about it, a sense of the brevity of life and fame. . . . Orlean’s writing is built to last. As individual as a fingerprint, or a face, it turns what could have been a footnote to history into a touching account of the way one life resonates with others.”
— Margaret Quamme
“Rin Tin Tin is a tale of devotion . . . [and] an eloquent, powerful inquiry into ‘how we create heroes and what we want from them,’ and about what endures in our culture. . . . Orlean’s book runs much deeper than Baby Boomer nostalgia. . . . Orlean manages to surprise us repeatedly.”
— Heller McAlpin
“It is a book that is best read in solitude, or at least in the company of someone who won't be annoyed when you speak up every few moments to share some fascinating fact that Orlean has uncovered, which she does on nearly every page.”
— Robert Philpot
“Rin Tin Tin was more than a dog. He embodied the core paradoxes of the American ideal: He was a loner who was also a faithful companion, a brave fighter who was also vulnerable. I was astonished to learn from this delightful book that he has existed for eleven generations over a century. By chronicling his amazing ups and downs, Susan Orlean has produced a hugely entertaining and unforgettable reading experience.”
— Walter Isaacson
“Not only does Susan Orlean give us a fascinating and big-hearted account of all the many incarnations of Rin Tin Tin, she shows us the ever-changing role of American dogs in times of war and peace. This book is for anyone who has ever had a dog or loved a dog or watched a dog on television or thought their dog could be a movie star. In short—everyone.”
— Ann Patchett, author of State of Wonder and Bel Canto
“I adored this book. It weaves history, war, show business, humanity, wit, and grace into an incredible story about America, the human-animal bond, and the countless ways we would be lost without dogs by our sides, on our screens, and in our books. This is the story Susan Orlean was born to tell—it’s filled with amazing characters, reporting, and writing.”
— Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
“Move over Seabiscuit, Rin Tin Tin will be the most-talked-about animal hero of the year and beyond. . . A spectacularly compelling portrait . . . Engrossing, dynamic, and affecting."
— Booklist (starred review)
“[Orlean] combines all her skills and passions in this astonishing story . . . A terrific dog’s tale that will make readers sit up and beg for more.”
— Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Stirring . . . A tale of passion and dedication overcoming adversity. . . . Even readers coming to Rin Tin Tin for the first time will find it difficult to refrain from joining Duncan in his hope that Rin Tin Tin’s legacy will ‘go on forever.’”
— Publishers Weekly
Simon & Schuster, 9781439190142, 352pp.
Publication Date: October 9, 2012
About the Author
Conversation Starters from ReadingGroupChoices.com
Were you familiar with Rin Tin Tin before reading this book? What memories do you have of the famous dog? What was it like to delve back into the history of Rin Tin Tin? If this was your first introduction to him, what impressions did the book give you?
Orlean attributes Lee’s fierce love of dogs to his traumatic childhood, in which both his mother and father abandoned him for a time. As Orlean writes: “The experience shaped him; for the rest of his life, he was always deeply alone…The only companion in his loneliness he would ever find would be his dog, and his attachment to animals grew to be deeper than his attachment to any person.” (p. 15) Do you agree with this assessment? What other forces, if any, contributed to Lee’s love of dogs?
Lee and the first Rin Tin Tin shared an incredibly close bond. Do you think Lee’s devotion to Rinty was more of an endearing character trait, or a symptom of deeper personal issues? Consider the many people who felt wronged or resentful toward Lee—his daughter Carolyn, his wife Charlotte, and his wife Eva, in your answer.
Lee steadfastly believed that Rinty was destined for greatness and, as Orlean writes, “he was lucky to be his human guide and companion.” (p. 34) Do you think Lee underestimated, or misunderstood, his importance in creating the Rin Tin Tin juggernaut?
On the strangely frequent coincidences that kept Rin Tin Tin’s narrative alive, Orlean writes, “Everything connected to Rin Tin Tin was full of happenstance and charm, lightning strikes of fortune and hairpin turns of luck; from a standstill, life around Rin Tin Tin always seemed to accelerate out of the depths of disappointment to a new place filled with possibility.” (p. 262) Reflect on a few such serendipitous moments. Do you think life tends to look coincidental in hindsight—or was Rin Tin Tin’s story really blessed?
Although he never made concrete plans to ensure the continuation of Rinty’s legacy, Lee insisted that “There will always be a Rin Tin Tin.” (p. 3) Was Lee being prophetic or delusional—or both?
The original Rin Tin Tin was considered essentially human in popular culture. A review of one of his films, for example, describes his eyes as conveying something “tragic, fierce, sad and…a nobility and degree of loyalty not credible in a person.” (p. 71) Why was Rinty so completely and earnestly anthropomorphized by millions of fans? Where do you stand on the scale from “a dog is a dog” to “Rin Tin Tin was essentially human”?
Orlean notes that “when Rin Tin Tin first became famous, most dogs in the world would not sit down when asked.” (p. 123) With that in mind, how much of the awe and reverence surrounding Rin Tin Tin the first would you attribute to the novelty of trained dogs? How much stands the test of time?
At the height of his earning power, Rin Tin Tin was paid eight times as much as his human co-stars. Do you think this was fair? Why or why not?
Orlean writes that Rin Tin Tin, alive on the screen, “was everything Americans wanted to think they were—brave, enterprising, bold, and most of all, individual.” (pp. 87, 89) How much of Rin Tin Tin’s emotional depth do you think came from viewers projecting their own feelings on him?
Orlean writes, “As his fame grew, Rin Tin Tin became, in a way, less particular—less specifically this one single dog—and more conceptual, the archetypal dog hero.” (p. 97) In what ways did Rin Tin Tin shift from a literal representation to a symbolic figure? What specific moments, if any, highlight this shift?
How did the evolution of the film and television industries dictate the various reincarnations of Rin Tin Tin? Why was Rin Tin Tin—the dog and the archetype—so wildly successful, both in films and later in television?
By the late 1950s, Rin Tin Tin’s aura of invincibility was beginning to wear off. Orlean explains, “Now, instead of being a miracle, he was a model. He was the dog you could aspire to have, and maybe even manage to have, at home.” (p. 217) What explains this shift? Is it necessarily a bad one?
The criteria used to determine Rin Tin Tin’s descendants evolved as the Rin Tin Tin ideal expanded through time and across mediums. As Orlean concludes, “The unbroken strand is not one of genetics but one of belief.” (p. 137) Why did this evolution from genetics to belief occur? Do you think this reliance on human decisions, rather than canine pedigrees, undermines the magical reverence of Rin Tin Tin the first?
Orlean writes that at one point she felt like “everybody I met or heard about in connection to Rin Tin Tin was a little crazy.” (p. 282) Do you agree? Why or why not? Consider the various actions that Lee, Burt, and Daphne took in the name of defending Rin Tin Tin’s legacy.
Bert takes over as the protagonist of the book after Lee dies. How do you feel about the way the narrative continues after Lee’s death?
What do you think Lee and Bert would have thought of this book?
Orlean wonders, of the many different iterations of Rin Tin Tin, “Could that wide, wide range of manifestations really belong to anyone?” (p. 297) What do you think? If yes, who owns which parts of the legacy—legally, sentimentally, practically? Do you think Orlean herself now owns a part of the legacy, too?
Orlean writes that she sometimes “began to wonder if the legacy of RTT was finally contracting.” (p. 311) What do you think? How does her book factor in this observation?
Orlean delves into many historical events and movements in the book—dogs in the military, obedience training, movie and television history—to name a few. Which facts surprised you the most?
Do you believe that there will always be a Rin Tin Tin? Why or why not?