Pearl Zane Grey was born January 31, 1872, in Zanesville, Ohio.
He was the fourth of five children born to Alice "Allie" Josephine Zane, whose English Quaker immigrant ancestor Robert Zane came 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.
Grey 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, despite (or because of) his father's punishing him with severe beatings. Though irascible and antisocial like his father, Grey was supported by a loving mother and found a father substitute. Muddy Miser was 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, the boy spent much time during five formative years in the company of the old man.
Grey was an avid reader of adventure stories (Robinson Crusoe and Leatherstocking Tales) and 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. Zane wrote his first story, Jim of the Cave, when he was fifteen. 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 the older man 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. His brother Romer earned money by driving a delivery wagon. Grey also worked as a part-time usher in a movie theater and played summer baseball for the Columbus Capitols, with aspirations of becoming a major leaguer. Eventually, Grey was spotted by a baseball scout and received offers from many colleges. Romer also attracted scouts' attention and went on to have a professional baseball career.
Grey chose the University of Pennsylvania on a baseball scholarship, where he studied dentistry and joined Sigma Nu fraternity; he graduated in 1896. 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. The Ivy League was highly competitive and an excellent training ground for future pro baseball players. 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. The short, wiry baseball player remained a campus hero on the strength of his timely 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. His shy nature and his teetotaling set him apart from other students, and he socialized little. Grey struggled with the idea of becoming a writer or baseball player for his career, but unhappily concluded that dentistry was the practical choice.
During a summer break, while playing 'summer nines' in Delphos, Ohio, Grey was charged with, and quietly settled, a paternity suit. His father paid the $133.40 cost and Grey resumed playing summer baseball. He concealed the episode when he returned to Penn.
Grey 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. His brother Romer Carl "Reddy" Grey (known as "R.C." to his family) did better and played professionally in the minor leagues. He played a single major league game in 1903 for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
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. He struggled financially and emotionally. Grey was a natural writer but his early efforts were stiff and grammatically weak. Whenever possible, he played baseball with the Orange Athletic Club in New Jersey, a team of former collegiate players that was one of the best amateur teams in the country.
Grey often went camping with his brother R.C. in Lackawaxen, Pennsylvania, where they fished in the upper Delaware River. When canoeing in 1900, Grey met seventeen-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 five years later in 1905. Grey suffered bouts of depression, anger, and mood swings, which affected him most of his life. As he described it, “A hyena lying in ambush—that is my black spell! I conquered one mood only to fall prey to the next... I wandered about like a lost soul or a man who was conscious of imminent death."
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.) Grey finally ceased his dental practice to devote full-time to his nascent literary pursuits. Dolly’s inheritance provided an initial financial cushion.
While Dolly managed Grey's career and raised their three children, including son Romer Zane Grey, 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 seemed to view it as his handicap rather than a choice. Throughout their life together, he highly valued her management of his career and their family, and her solid emotional support. 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 fifty-fifty with her; from her "share", she covered all family expenses. Their considerable correspondence shows evidence of his lasting love for her despite his infidelities and personal emotional turmoil.
The Greys moved to California in 1918. In 1920 they settled in Altadena, California, where Grey bought a prominent mansion on East Mariposa Street, known locally as "Millionaire's Row". Designed by architects Myron Hunt and Elmer Grey (no relation to the author), the 1907 Mediterranean-style house is acclaimed as the first fireproof home in Altadena, built entirely of reinforced concrete as prescribed by the first owner's wife. Grey summed up his feelings for the city: "In Altadena, I have found those qualities that make life worth living."
In Altadena Grey also spent time with his mistress Brenda Montenegro. The two met while hiking Eaton Canyon. Of her he wrote -
I saw her flowing raven mane against the rocks of the canyon. I have seen the red skin of the Navajo, and the olive of the Spaniards, but her...her skin looked as if her Creator had in that instant molded her just for me. I thought it was an apparition. She seemed to be the embodiment of the West I portray in my books, open and wild.
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. Elated by selling the article, Grey offered reprints to patients in his waiting room. In writing, Grey found temporary escape from the harshness of his life and his demons. "Realism is death to me. I cannot stand life as it is." By this time, he had given up baseball.
Grey read Owen Wister’s great 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). When it was rejected by Harper & Brothers, he lapsed into despair. The novel dramatized the heroism of an ancestor who had saved Fort Henry. He self-published it, perhaps with funds provided by his wife Dolly or his brother R. C.'s wealthy girlfriend Reba Smith. From the beginning, vivid description was the strongest aspect of his writing.
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 brought along a camera to document his trips and prove his adventures. He also began the habit of taking copious notes, not only of scenery and activities but of dialogue. His first two trips were arduous, but Grey learned much from his compatriot adventurers. 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. He wrote, "Surely, of all the gifts that have come to me from contact with the West, this one of sheer love of wildness, beauty, color, grandeur, has been the greatest, the most significant for my work."
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.
The book was later published by Outing magazine, which provided Grey some satisfaction. Grey next wrote a series of magazine articles and juvenile novels.
With the birth of his first child pending, Grey felt compelled to complete his next novel and his first Western, The Heritage of the Desert. He wrote it in four months in 1910. It quickly became a bestseller. Grey took his next work to Hitchcock again; this time Harper published his work, an historical romance in which Mormon characters were of central importance. Grey continued to write popular novels about Manifest Destiny, the conquest of the Old West, and the behavior of men in elemental conditions.
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. Hitchcock rejected it, but Grey took his manuscript directly to the vice president of Harper, who accepted it. As Zane Grey had become a household name, after that Harper eagerly received all his manuscripts. Other publishers caught on to the commercial potential of the Western novel. Max Brand and Ernest Haycox were among the most notable of other writers of Westerns. Grey's publishers paired his novels with some of the best illustrators of the time, including N. C. Wyeth, Frank Schoonover, Douglas Duer, Herbert W. Dunton, W. H. D. Koerner, and Charles Russell.
Grey had the time and money to engage in his first and greatest passion: fishing. From 1918 until 1932, he was a regular contributor to Outdoor Life magazine. As one of its first celebrity writers, he began to popularize big-game fishing. Several times he went deep-sea fishing in Florida to relax and to write in solitude. Although he commented that "the sea, from which all life springs, has been equally with the desert my teacher and religion," Grey was unable to write a great sea novel. He felt the sea soothed his moods, reduced his depressions, and gained him the opportunity to harvest deeper thoughts:
The lure of the sea is some strange magic that makes men love what they fear. The solitude of the desert is more intimate than that of the sea. Death on the shifting barren sands seems less insupportable to the imagination than death out on the boundless ocean, in the awful, windy emptiness. Man's bones yearn for dust.
Over the years, Grey spent part of his time traveling and the rest of the year wrote novels and articles. Unlike writers who could write every day, Grey would have dry spells and then sudden bursts of energy, in which he could write as much as 100,000 words in a month. He encountered fans in most places. He kept a cabin on the Rogue River in Oregon. Other excursions took him to Washington state and Wyoming.
From 1923 to 1930, he spent a few weeks a year at his cabin on the Mogollon Rim, in Central Arizona. After years of abandonment and decay, the cabin was restored in 1966 by Bill Goettl, a Phoenix air conditioning magnate. He opened it to the public as a free-of-charge museum. The Dude Fire destroyed the cabin in 1990. It was later reconstructed 25 miles away in the town of Payson.
During the 1930s, Grey continued to write, but the Great Depression hurt the publishing industry. His sales fell off, and he found it more difficult to sell serializations. He had avoided the Stock Market Crash and continued to earn royalty income, so did better than many financially. In the 1930s, nearly half of the film adaptations of his novels were made.
From 1925 to his death in 1939, Grey traveled more and further from his family. He became interested in exploring unspoiled lands, particularly the islands of South Pacific, New Zealand and Australia. He thought Arizona was beginning to be overrun by tourists and speculators. Near the end of his life, Grey looked into the future and wrote:
The so-called civilization of man and his works shall perish from the earth, while the shifting sands, the red looming walls, the purple sage, and the towering monuments, the vast brooding range show no perceptible change.
The more books Grey sold, the more the established critics, such as Heywood Broun and Burton Rascoe, attacked him. They claimed his depictions of the West were too fanciful, too violent, and not faithful to the moral realities of the frontier. They thought his characters unrealistic and much larger-than-life. Broun stated that "the substance of any two Zane Grey books could be written upon the back of a postage stamp."
- K. Whipple praised a typical Grey novel as a modern version of the ancient Beowulf saga,
a battle of passions with one another and with the will, a struggle of love and hate, or remorse and revenge, of blood, lust, honor, friendship, anger, grief—all of a grand scale and all incalculable and mysterious." But he also criticized Grey's writing, "His style, for example, has the stiffness which comes from an imperfect mastery of the medium. It lacks fluency and facility.
Grey based his work in his own varied first-hand experience, supported by careful note-taking, and considerable research. Despite his great popular success and fortune, Grey read the reviews and sometimes became paralyzed by negative emotions after critical ones.
In 1923, a reviewer said Grey's "moral ideas...[were] decidedly askew". Grey reacted with a 20-page treatise, "My Answer to the Critics". He defended his intentions to produce great literature in the setting of the Old West. He suggested that critics should ask his readers what they think of his books, and noted actor and fan John Barrymore as an example. Dolly warned him against publishing the treatise, and he retreated from a public confrontation.
His novel The Vanishing American (1925), first serialized in The Ladies’ Home Journal in 1922, prompted a heated debate. People recognized its Navajo hero as patterned after Jim Thorpe, a great Native American athlete. Grey portrayed the struggle of the Navajo to preserve their identity and culture against corrupting influences of the white government and of missionaries. This viewpoint enraged religious groups. Grey contended, "I have studied the Navaho Indians for twelve years. I know their wrongs. The missionaries sent out there are almost everyone mean, vicious, weak, immoral, useless men." To have the book published, Grey agreed to some structural changes. With this book, Grey completed the most productive period of his writing career, having laid out most major themes, character types, and settings.
His Wanderer of the Wasteland is a thinly disguised autobiography. One of his books, “Tales of the Angler’s El Dorado, New Zealand”, helped establish the Bay of Islands in New Zealand as a premier game fishing area. Several of his later writings were based in Australia.
Grey co-founded the "Porpoise Club" with his friend, Robert H. Davis of Munsey's Magazine, to popularize the sport of hunting of dolphins and porpoises. They made their first catch off Seabright, New Jersey on September 21, 1912, where they harpooned and reeled in a bottlenose dolphin.
Grey's son Loren claims in the introduction to Tales of Tahitian Waters that Zane Grey fished on average 300 days a year through his adult life. Grey and his brother R.C. were frequent visitors to Long Key, Florida, where they helped to establish the Long Key Fishing Club, built by Henry Morrison Flagler. Zane Grey was its president from 1917 to 1920. He pioneered the fishing of Boohoo fish (sailfish). Zane Grey Creek was named for him.
Grey indulged his interest in fishing with visits to Australia and New Zealand. He first visited New Zealand in 1926 and caught several large fish of great variety, including a mako shark, a ferocious fighter which presented a new challenge. Grey established a base at Otehei Bay, Urupukapuka Island in the Bay of Islands, which became a destination for the rich and famous. He wrote many articles in international sporting magazines highlighting the uniqueness of New Zealand fishing, which has produced heavy-tackle world records for the major billfish, striped marlin, black marlin, blue marlin and broadbill. A lodge and camp were established at Otehei Bay in 1927 called the Zane Grey Sporting Club. He held numerous world records during this time and invented the teaser, a hookless bait that is still used today to attract fish. Grey made three additional fishing trips to New Zealand. The second was January to April 1927, the third December 1928 to March 1929, and the last from December 1932 to February 1933.
Grey also helped establish deep-sea sport fishing in New South Wales, Australia, particularly in Bermagui, New South Wales, which is famous for Marlin fishing. Patron of the Bermagui Sport Fishing Association for 1936 and 1937, Grey set a number of world records, and wrote of his experiences in his book "An American Angler in Australia".
From 1928 on, Grey was a frequent visitor to Tahiti. He fished the surrounding waters several months at a time and maintained a permanent fishing camp at Vairao. He claimed that these were the most difficult waters he had ever fished, but from these waters he also took some of his most important records, such as the first marlin over 1,000 pounds.
Grey had built a getaway home in Santa Catalina Island, California, which now serves as the Zane Grey Pueblo Hotel. He served as president of Catalina's exclusive fishing club, the Tuna Club of Avalon.
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.
Grey became one of the first millionaire authors. With his veracity and emotional intensity, he connected with millions of readers worldwide, during peacetime and war, and inspired many Western writers who followed him.
Zane Grey was a major force in shaping the myths of the Old West; his books and stories were adapted into other media, such as film and TV productions. He was the author of more than 90 books, some published posthumously and/or based on serials originally published in magazines. His total book sales exceed 40 million.
Grey wrote not only Westerns, but two hunting books, six children’s books, three baseball books, and eight fishing books. Many of them became bestsellers. It is estimated that he wrote over nine million words in his career. From 1917 to 1926, Grey was in the top ten best-seller list nine times, which required sales of over 100,000 copies each time. Even after his death, Harper had a stockpile of his manuscripts and continued to publish a new title each year until 1963. During the 1940s and afterward, as Grey's books were reprinted as paperbacks, his sales exploded.
Erle Stanley Gardner, prolific author of mystery novels and the Perry Mason series, said of Grey:
[He] had the knack of tying his characters into the land, and the land into the story. There were other Western writers who had fast and furious action, but Zane Grey was the one who could make the action not only convincing but inevitable, and somehow you got the impression that the bigness of the country generated a bigness of character.
Grey was President Dwight D. Eisenhower's favorite writer.
Hollywood and other media
Grey started his association with Hollywood when William Fox bought the rights to Riders of the Purple Sage for $2,500 in 1916. The ascending arc of Grey’s career matched that of the motion picture industry. It eagerly adapted Western stories to the screen practically from its inception, with Bronco Billy Anderson becoming the first major western star. Legendary director John Ford was then a young stage hand and William S. Hart, who had been a real cowhand, was defining the persona of the film cowboy. The Grey family moved to California to be closer to the film industry and to enable Grey to fish in the Pacific.
After his first two books were adapted to the screen, Grey formed his own motion picture company. This allowed him to control production values and faithfulness to his books. After seven films he sold his company to Jesse Lasky, who was a partner of the founder of Paramount Pictures. Paramount made a number of movies based on Grey's writings and hired him as advisor. Many of his films were shot at locations described in his books.
In 1936 Grey appeared as himself in a feature film shot in Australia, White Death (1936). At the same time he provided a story that was filmed as Rangle River (1936).
Grey became disenchanted by the commercial exploitation and pirating of his works. He felt his stories and characters were diluted by being adapted to film. Nearly fifty of his novels were converted into over one hundred Western movies. Shortly after Grey's death, the success of Fritz Lang's Western Union (1941), a film based on one of his books, helped bring about a resurgence in Hollywood westerns. Its costars were Randolph Scott and Robert Young. The period of the 1940s and 1950s included the great works of John Ford, who successfully used the settings of Grey’s novels in Arizona and Utah.
The success of Grey's The Lone Star Ranger (a novel later turned into a 1930 film) and King of the Royal Mounted (popular as a series of Big Little Books and comics, later turned into a 1936 film), inspired two radio series by George Trendle (WXYZ, Detroit). Later these were adapted again for television, forming the series The Lone Ranger and Challenge of the Yukon (Sgt. Preston of the Yukon on TV). More of Grey's work was featured in adapted form on the Zane Grey Show, which ran on the Mutual Broadcasting System for five months in the 1940s, and the “Zane Grey Western Theatre”, which had a five-year run of 145 episodes.
Many famous actors got their start in films based on Zane Grey books. They included Gary Cooper, Randolph Scott, William Powell, Wallace Beery, Richard Arlen, Buster Crabbe, Shirley Temple, and Fay Wray. Victor Fleming, later director of Gone with the Wind, and Henry Hathaway, who later directed True Grit, both learned their craft on Grey films.