Pearl Zane Gray was born January 31, 1872 in Zanesville, Ohio. He was the fourth of five children born to Lewis M. Gray, a dentist, and his wife, Alice "Allie" Josephine Zane, whose Quaker ancestor Robert Zane came to America in 1673 from England. His family changed the spelling of their last name to Grey, and later he dropped his first name. Growing up in Zanesville, a city founded by a maternal ancestor Ebenezer Zane, a Revolutionary War patriot, he developed interests in fishing, baseball, and writing, all which would later contribute to his acclaim. His first three novels memorialized the heroism of his Revolutionary relatives.
As a child, Grey frequently engaged in violent brawls, and his father answered those actions with severe beatings. Though irascible and antisocial like his father, Pearl Grey was counterbalanced by a loving mother and a father substitute named Muddy Miser, an old man who approved of Grey's love of fishing and writing and who spouted philosophically on the advantages of an unconventional life, advice Grey later followed. Despite warnings by Grey’s father to steer clear of Muddy, “If you don’t learn to like work and study, that’s where you’ll wind up, like Old Muddy Miser”, Grey spent five formative years in the company of the old man.
Although he was a dreamer and not much of a student, Grey was an avid reader who stoked his imagination with adventure stories (Robinson Crusoe and Leatherstocking Tales) and dime novels (featuring Buffalo Bill and "Deadwood Dick"), and 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 which likely inspired his earliest novels. Zane wrote his first story Jim of the Cave when he was fifteen and his father, upon discovering it, tore it to shreds and beat him.
Both Pearl and his brother Romer were active, athletic boys who were enthusiastic baseball players and fishermen. Grey’s fundamentalist upbringing imprinted a lifelong distaste for alcohol and tobacco, but not for the temptations of the opposite sex. He was introduced to girls in high school and enjoyed his first crushes and parties with furtive kissing games.
A severe financial setback in 1889 caused by a poor investment forced Grey's father, out of embarrassment, to move his family out of Zanesville and to start anew in Columbus, Ohio. His father struggled to re-establish his dental practice and to help out, Grey, who had learned basic dental extraction, made rural house calls as an unlicensed teenage dentist until the state board intervened, while his brother Romer helped out 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 to many colleges. His brother Romer also attracted attention and went on to have a pro 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 no-run 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; however, 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 and he was re-positioned to the outfield. The short, wiry baseball player remained a campus hero for the rest of his Penn years on the strength of his timely hitting. He was an indifferent scholar, however, barely achieving a minimum average; when not in class spent his time on baseball, pool, and creative writing, especially poetry. His shy nature and his tea totaling set him apart from his mates 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 involving a 'belle of Delphos', foreshadowing future womanizing behavior. His father paid the $133.40 cost and Grey resumed playing summer baseball in Delphos, and managed to conceal the episode when he returned to Penn. Grey went on to play minor league baseball with a team in Newark, New Jersey 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, and in one 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, a competitive area but one that would get him close to publishers. He began to write again in the evening to offset the tedium of his dental practice. He struggled financially and emotionally, and was likely indifferent to his work. 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, which was one of the best amateur teams in the country.
While practicing dentistry in New York, he often camped in Lackawaxen, Pennsylvania with his brother R. C. (now a reluctant dentist himself) and fished in the upper Delaware River. When canoeing in 1900, Grey met seventeen year-old Lina Roth, better known as "Dolly," whom he would marry five years later. Dolly came from a family of physicians and was studying to be a schoolteacher. They had a passionate and intense courtship, but quarreled frequently and he suffered bouts of depression, anger, and mood swings, which continued to plague 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 with Dolly, Grey was still in contact with 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". He added, "I shall never lose the spirit of my interest in women".
When they married in 1905, Dolly gave up her teaching career and they moved to a farmhouse in Lackawaxen, with Grey's mother and sister joining them. Grey finally ceased his dental practice to devote full-time to his nascent literary pursuits, with Dolly’s inheritance providing a financial cushion initially. While his wife managed his career and raised their three children, Grey often spent months away from her, fishing, writing, and spending time with his many mistresses over the next two decades. While Dolly knew of his errant behavior and was occasionally jealous, especially early on, she seemed to view it as his handicap rather than a choice, and she did not blame him for it. 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, with her share covering the family expenses as well. Their considerable correspondence shows evidence of his lasting love for her despite his indiscretions and personal emotional turmoil.
The Greys moved to California in 1918 spurred by the memory of a visit during their honeymoon to the West. Then in 1920 they located to Altadena, California, where Grey bought a prominent mansion on East Mariposa Street, known locally as "Millionaire's Row," built by Chicago business machine manufacturer Arthur Woodward. The company Woodward founded is now known as Intermatic Corporation. 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 Woodward's wife, Edith Norton Woodward. Edith Woodward is a survivor of the Iroquois Theater Fire of 1903. Grey summed up his feelings for Altadena with a quote still used to this day in that city: "In Altadena, I have found those qualities that make life worth living."
With the help of Dolly’s proofreading and stylistic corrections, and numerous writing guides, Grey's style gradually became more fluid and descriptive. 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. He was elated by the results though he made only ten dollars for the article, and he offered reprints to his patients in his waiting room. In writing, Grey had 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, and after studying its style and structure in detail, he decided to write a full-length story himself. Grey's first novel, Betty Zane (1903), was a torment to write and when it was rejected by Harper & Brothers, he lapsed into despair. The novel dramatized the heroism of his ancestor who had saved Fort Henry, and it was self-published, perhaps with funds provided by R. C.'s wealthy girlfriend Reba Smith or by Dolly herself. From the beginning, vivid description was the strongest aspect of his writing, and he noted in his writer’s diary, “a cunning writer will avail himself of images likely to be stored in the minds of his readers.”
Grey’s honeymoon took him to the West for the first time, but though awed by the scenic splendor, he felt unsatisfied by the lack of experiences suitable for use in his novels. After attending a lecture in New York in 1907 by C. T. "Buffalo" Jones, famed western hunter and guide, Grey arranged for a mountain lion hunting trip to the North rim of the Grand Canyon. He brought along a ‘portable’ camera with the intention of documenting his trips in order to prove the veracity of his adventures. He also began the habit of taking copious notes, not only of scenery and activities but of authentic dialogue as well. This and a second trip proved arduous and dangerous to the tenderfoot, but Grey learned much from his rough compatriot adventurers, and he gained the confidence and authenticity to write convincingly about the 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 converted his experiences into a new book, The Last of the Plainsmen, recording the true-life adventures of Buffalo Jones. But once again, Harper’s editor Ripley Hitchcock rejected it, the fourth time in a row, and this time with a stunning face-to-face declaration, “I do not see anything in this to convince me you can write either narrative or fiction.” Grey was beside himself and 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, providing some satisfaction, and then Grey wrote a series of magazine articles and juvenile novels.
With the birth of his first child on the way, Grey felt a sense of urgency to produce his next novel and his first Western, The Heritage of the Desert (1910), which he completed in four months, and which became a quick bestseller. With true grit, he faced Hitchcock again and this time Harper published his work, an historical romance where Mormon characters are of central importance. The work propelled his career writing popular novels about manifest destiny, the conquest of the Old West, and the behavior of men in elemental conditions. Two years later he 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. It was rejected again by Hitchcock but Grey then took his manuscript to the vice president of Harper who accepted it. After that, Harper eagerly received all his manuscripts without reservation, as Zane Grey had become a household name. Other publishers caught on to the commercial potential of the Western novel and went hunting for “another Zane Grey”, with Max Brand and Ernest Haycox among the most notable. Now having great commercial value, Grey was paired with some of the best illustrators of his time, including N. C. Wyeth, Frank Schoonover, Douglas Duer, Herbert W. Dunton, W. H. D. Koerner, and Charles Russell (second only in renown to Frederic Remington who had just died).
With success suddenly his, 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, becoming one of the publication's first celebrity writers. In the pages of the magazine he began to popularize big-game fishing. Several times he left his family behind and 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 summon a great sea novel from his imagination, in the manner of his literary hero Joseph Conrad. The sea, however, did soothe his moods, reduce his depressions, and gain 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, his habit was to spend part of the year traveling and living an adventurous life and the rest of the year using his adventures as the basis for the stories in his writings. Unlike some writers who could write every day, Grey would have dry spells and then sudden bursts where he could wrote as much as 100,000 words in a month. Nearly everywhere he traveled, he encountered his books and fans, and was warmly greeted. Some of that time was spent on the Rogue River in Oregon, where he maintained a cabin he had built on an old mining claim he bought. Other excursions took him to Washington state and Wyoming. He also had a cabin on the Mogollon Rim, whose wild forest in Central Arizona, high above the desert floor in to the south, nurtured and inspired him. He spent a few weeks a year at the cabin from 1923 to 1930, and it burned down during the Dude Fire of 1990 but has been restored. During the 1930’s, he continued to write, although the Depression hurt the publishing industry. His sales fell off and he found it much harder to sell the serializations, but he had avoided the stock market crash (not owning any stocks) and continued to secure royalty income. Nearly half of his film adaptations were made in the 1930’s. 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, and New Zealand and Australia, especially after seeing that his beloved Arizona was beginning to be overrun by tourists and speculators. Near the end of his life he 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 cast brooding range show no perceptible change.”
The more books Grey sold, the more the established critics, such as Heywood Broun and Burton Rascoe, would attack him. They claimed his depictions of the West were too fanciful, too violent, and not faithful to the moral realities of the frontier, and that his characters were unrealistic and much larger-than-life. In a stinging comment, Broun stated that “the substance of any two Zane Grey books could be written upon the back of a postage stamp.” T. K. Whipple praised a typical Grey novel as a modern version of the ancient Beowolf 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 goes on to criticize Grey’s writing, “His style, for example, has the stiffness which comes from an imperfect mastery of the medium. It lacks fluency and facility.” In truth, as far as veracity was concerned, Grey relied on first-hand experience, careful note-taking, and considerable research. Unfortunately, despite his great popular success and fortune, the hypersensitive Grey read the reviews and took personally the negative comments, triggering feelings of anger and self-doubt that would paralyze his writing in the aftermath.
Following a review in 1923 which called Grey’s “moral ideas…decidedly askew”, he reacted sharply and countered with a twenty-page treatise “My Answer to the Critics”, defending his forthright intentions to produce great literature in the setting of the Old West and stating that “Western people know I am absolutely true to the setting of my romances. He also suggests that critics should ask his readers what they think of his books, even mentioning actor and fan John Barrymore as an example. Sensibly, Grey heeded Dolly’s advice and did not publish the treatise, thereby avoiding a more inflaming public debate.
Grey did start a heated debate with his novel The Vanishing American (1925), first serialized in The Ladies’ Home Journal in 1922, whose Navajo hero is patterned after Jim Thorpe. Grey’s attempt to portray the struggle of the Navajo to preserve their identity and culture against the corrupting influences of the white government and of the missionaries 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.” In order to have the book published, he relented and made some structural changes. With this book, Grey completed the most productive period of his writing career, laying out nearly all his major themes, character types, and settings.
As with so many writers, Grey’s best work was produced early in his career and he repeated himself later with formulaic writing rather than breaking new ground and striving for a more mature vision or technique. His fans were perfectly happy with the results, however, and each new book was eagerly anticipated, even after his death.
His Wanderer of the Wasteland is his 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 became one of the first millionaire authors. With veracity and emotional intensity, he connected with his millions of readers worldwide, during peace time and war, and inspired many Western writers who followed him. Zane Grey was a major force in shaping the myths of the Old West and he helped transition the written Western into other media. He was the author of over 90 books, some published posthumously and/or based on serials originally published in magazines. His total book sales exceed 40 million.
He not only wrote Westerns, but he also authored two hunting books, six children’s books, two 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 1917–1926, 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 manuscripts and continued to publish a new title each year until 1963. During the 1940’s and afterwards, paperback sales of Grey’s books exploded.
“had the knack of tying his characters into the land, and the land into the story. There were other Eastern 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 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 perfectly that of the motion picture industry, which eagerly adapted Western stories to the screen practically from its inception, with Bronco Billy Anderson becoming the first major western star. At that time, later legendary director John Ford was 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 nearer to the film industry and to enable Grey to enjoy fishing in the Pacific.
After his first two films were adapted to the screen, Grey formed his own motion picture company. This allowed him to control production values and faithfulness to his books, but after seven films he sold his company to Jesse Lasky who was a partner of the founder of Paramount Pictures. Paramount would make a number of movies based on Grey's writings and hired him as advisor. Many of his films were shot on the location described in his books.
Though initially enthralled with movies, Grey became disenchanted by the commercial exploitation and pirating of his works and the steady dilution of his stories and characters. All together, nearly fifty of his novels were converted into over one hundred Western movies, the most by any Western author. The film of his book Western Union (1941) was made shortly after his death, directed by Fritz Lang and costarring Randolph Scott and Robert Young, helping to begin a resurgence of movie Westerns in the 1940’s and 1950’s, including the great works of John Ford, which successfully showcased the settings of Grey’s novels in Arizona and Utah.
It is also speculated that two of his creations, 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), were later used as an inspiration for two radio series by George Trendle (WXYZ, Detroit) which later made the transition to television: The Lone Ranger and Challenge of the Yukon (Sgt. Preston of the Yukon on TV). The Zane Grey Show ran on the Mutual Broadcasting System for five months in the late 1940s and the “Zane Grey Western Theatre” had a five year run of 145 episodes.
Many famous actors got their start in Zane Grey films including 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 both learned their craft on Grey films.
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".
Grey had built a getaway home in Avalon, Catalina Island, which now serves as the Zane Grey Pueblo Hotel, www.zanegreypueblohotel.com. Avid fisherman as he was he served as president of the Catalina's exclusive fishing club, the Tuna Club.
Zane Grey died of heart failure on October 23, 1939 at his home in Altadena, California. He was interred at the Union Cemetery in Lackawaxen, Pennsylvania, where the National Park Service maintains the Zane Grey Museum as part of the Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreational River. His home in Altadena is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. In his hometown there is a museum called National Road Zane Grey Museum. Zane Grey Terrace, a small residential street in the hillsides of Altadena, is named in his honor.