Exploring the fascination and cultlike following surrounding one of America's favorite TV heroes.
Never mind that Susan Orlean took an obscure story of flowers and turned it into the masterful 1998 best-seller The Orchid Thief(and was then played by Meryl Streep in the movie version, Adaptation). When Orlean told people she was planning to write a biography of Rin Tin Tin, the German shepherd portrayed in movies and on TV, even her friends were puzzled. "Whaaat?" many of them said. Sara Nelson talked with Orlean about how and why she spent eight years on the trail of one of the world's most famous canines.
Q. The book is titled Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend [Simon & Schuster], but it's really about the several dogs that played him. Much like The Orchid Thief, it's also about obsession.
A: I think I'm often drawn, whether I realize it or not, to the idea of what drives people. What do we love? Orchids have been a source of passion since the beginning of time. Rin Tin Tin has been beloved and admired and dreamed about for nearly a hundred years. The dog and the orchids are both things that very disparate and sometimes unlikely people come together over.
Q. One of the fascinating things about the book is the way it goes off on tangents—about Nazi Germany, the 1950s, your own family history—but still somehow stays on the story of "Rinty." Why did you construct the book this way?
A: I think writing a book is very much a performance. I'm conscious of how readers will feel following a story when they might have started out thinking, I can't believe I'm reading a book about a TV dog. Where I hope you end up is: Oh wow, this is an amazing story and I never thought about the culture this way. Or I didn't know dogs had weddings in the late 1800s. I just hope that people will get excited about learning all these things the way I did when I was writing.
Q. What's the biggest misconception people have about Rin Tin Tin?
A: Either that there was only one dog—who miraculously lived for 80 or so years, I guess!—or the exact opposite: that there was no real dog, just a character.
Q. Were you surprised by how emotionally attached you got to the story?
A: What has always fascinated me and what's very emotional to me is the question of what lasts. People want to, if not live forever, have evidence of their existence live forever. And I think that part of what happened for me was that my dad died in the course of my writing this, and I started thinking about memory, the idea that things come and go and then they're gone and forgotten. But Rin Tin Tin, by being reinvented over and over in people's imaginations, became kind of a timeless model: He just keeps going and going; his story outlives everybody. I feel great tenderness toward the people who devoted themselves to Rin Tin Tin and his history because I think everybody wants to have had their existence noted by the universe.
Q. Okay, in the great "Stones or Beatles?" tradition, tell us: Are you a Rinty person or a Lassie person?
A: I think you can love both dogs, even if you have an allegiance to one. I have no statistics to back this up, but my guess is that Rin Tin Tin had more boy fans and Lassie more girl fans; after all, Lassie was female, supposedly, and the setting of her story was more domestic, including a mother, whereas Rin Tin Tin was definitely male, living in an all-male world. Maybe they represented opposite ends of a spectrum—Lassie was about love and nurture, Rin Tin Tin about loyalty and bravery. My dirty secret is that I did truly love Lassie—but I feel I'm being unfaithful to Rin Tin Tin by confessing that.