Interviewed by Dawn Raffel
Susan Orlean's new book Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend is part dog story, part cultural history, and part moving (human) biography. Rinty's owner, Lee Duncan, was a lonely American soldier who found his truest companion in a burnt-out kennel on a battlefield during WW1, then persisted in bringing the dog home and making him a star—an extraordinary feat for a man who had no Hollywood connections and who who worked in the basement of a sporting goods store. Although Rinty and Duncan are both long gone, the dog's descendats are still being bred. I had a few questions for Orlean, who spent a decade on her Rinty obsession:
Rin Tin Tin was a war pup who became a movie star in the 20s; his descendant became a television star in the 50s; and Rinty remains an abiding cultural icon. As his official website says—“There will always be a Rin Tin Tin.” Most writers would kill to be able to create a character as enduring. What was it about this real-life dog turned fictional character that struck such a deep cord, not only in the U.S. but also worldwide?
He had charisma, coupled with a vulnerability that is entirely credible in a dog and not so credible in a human. And because he wasn’t human, we aren’t tempted to react to him with all our own opinions and judgments. He was a hero who might also lick your hand and sleep at the foot of your bed: a combination that made people fall in love with him.
I’m intrigued by your observation in the book that our view of animals changed as we became a less rural society: Rinty in the 50s was very different from Rinty in the 20s. Can you talk about that?
We were still a largely rural culture in the 1920s. Animals were a part of our lives in a very different way then, serving a purpose. Dogs lived outside. They were still somewhat mysterious creatures that coexisted with us. The Rin Tin Tin of the 20s had a sort of distance; he acted independently, as a fully-realized character. He wasn’t a pet. By the 1950s, Americans had migrated to cities and suburbs, and the culture of pet ownership exploded. The Rin Tin Tin of the 1950s reflected that; he was a companion of a little boy, a wise friend, but definitely now in the role of a dog and not a quasi-human.
Is there an ongoing evolution of the portrayal of animals in literature and other media? Most pet dogs now have “people” names and are pampered in ways that pet owners in the 50s would have considered absurd. Any thoughts about what Rinty might be up to if he was given a new series in 2012?
Would he perhaps be bionic? Have a Twitter account? It’s impossible to imagine.
Lee Duncan—who found the original Rin Tin Tin on a battlefield, brought him to the U.S., trained him, championed him, and centered his life around the dog—was essentially a loner, a man who’d been abandoned by his father and who communicated best with animals. Do you think there was some aspect of Duncan’s personality that could find its expression only through Rin Tin Tin?
Yes, that’s absolutely the case, and he admitted as much. He felt complete only when he was connected with the dog. He always receded into the background and let Rin Tin Tin be the featured player. It was, in a sense, a ventriloquist act, although I don’t think Lee imagined himself to be as brave and heroic and talented as Rin Tin Tin.
Would he have been able to do it with a different dog? Or was this dog necessary as something like a muse?
Rin Tin Tin—the original one—was an exceptional dog, unusually athletic, smart, and expressive. Lee knew he was special. But the way they came together was part of that— finding each other in the middle of the war, when Lee was young and lost and Rin Tin Tin was a newborn. I think each of those facts—Rinty’s particular qualities, the circumstances of their connection, and Lee’s need for a dog muse— was necessary without any one of them being sufficient.
You have a dog, right? Has spending ten years researching the world’s most famous canine caused you to look at your own dog any differently?
I can’t help but look at my dog and wonder how she’d look on a big screen. I do think she has star power.
Susan Orlean is the bestselling author of eight books, most recently Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend. Other titles include My Kind of Place: Travel Stories from a Woman Who's Been Everywhere; The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup; Saturday Night; and Lazy Little Loafers. In 1999, she published The Orchid Thief, a best-selling narrative about orchid poachers in Florida. The Orchid Thief was made into the Oscar-wining movie, "Adaptation," written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Spike Jonze.
Orlean has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1992. She lives in upstate New York with one dog, three cats, eight chickens, four turkeys, four guinea fowl, twelve Black Angus cattle, and her husband and son.