Susan Orlean Charts the Rise of America’s Most Beloved Dog, Rin Tin Tin

BY Mike Melia  October 12, 2011 at 12:56 PM EST

Rin Tin Tin

After nearly a decade of research, animal lover and famed author Susan Orlean has written a comprehensive biography of arguably America’s most loved dog, Rin Tin Tin.

Found by a young American soldier, Lee Duncan, in the wreckage of a World War I battle as a newborn pup with his mother and siblings, Rin Tin Tin’s life had a narrative arc just as compelling as any film the German Shepherd would eventually star in.

“He was a real dog with an extraordinary life story and a career that was almost even bigger in the 1920s as a silent film star than the incarnation I was familiar with,” Orlean said. She grew up knowing Rin Tin Tin from the 1950s television series.

“The thing we probably find hard to imagine is that in the 1920s dogs were huge stars in film on par with human actors, not as comedy performers the way they tend to be now and not as children’s performers which most animals in films these day are for kids. Back then dogs were treated as legitimate actors who were just as likely to win an Oscar as a human being,” Orlean said.

In fact, when the Academy Awards were presented for the first time in 1927, Rin Tin Tin received the most votes for Best Actor. However, the Academy felt giving the first Oscar to a dog might reflect poorly on the awards.

By the time World War II gripped the country, the original Rin Tin Tin had died, Duncan had lost all of his money in the Great Depression and was touring Rin Tin Tin III around the country before the dog was drafted, so to speak, to be the mascot of the U.S. Army.

“Rin Tin Tin’s story is a true roller coaster,” Orlean said. “By the 1950s, Rin Tin Tin the III — after a stint as Army spokesman — became the inspiration for the television show, so another whole generation of Americans met Rin Tin Tin once again.”

Duncan always hoped that Rin Tin Tin would live forever, at least in spirit. Rin Tin Tin the 12th is alive and well today, although the dog does not hold the same public appeal that his long line of ancestors had with Americans.
Susan Orlean

“Rin Tin Tin has fulfilled Lee Duncan’s dream of living forever,” Orlean said. “I realized I had stepped into that role of carrying the story forward, of advancing yet another period of time and generation of in this case readers which was to tell the story which I felt such a classic American story of luck and persistence and hope and longing that is now carried on.”

Listen to my conversation with Susan Orlean here about her latest book.