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Here's the short version: America's most famous dog was an immigrant, born 93 years ago in France, and discovered when he was just days old by an American GI fighting in World War I. He was named after a doll some soldiers used as a good-luck charm. A few years later, the quick-tempered German shepherd became one of the world's biggest movie stars. He died in 1932 — although probably not, as the legend has it, in the arms of the actress Jean Harlow. Almost a century after his birth, Rin Tin Tin is still a household name.
Here's the very short version, from author Susan Orlean's brilliant new book about the dog: "He was born in 1918 and he never died." That's not just because some of his descendants have had film and television careers of their own. It's also because Rin Tin Tin has come to define how Americans look at their canine companions. He's not just a character from some old movies — he's a character in the American mythology, the epitome of the noble-hearted dog.
In Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, Orlean considers how one lucky German shepherd puppy — he was one of a few dogs to survive the shelling of a kennel — became an American icon. The life of "Rinty" is inseparably entwined with that of Lee Duncan, the soldier who rescued him. A solitary man with a preternatural ability to train dogs, Duncan somehow managed to convince his Army superiors to let him bring Rin Tin Tin (and the puppy's sister) back to the U.S. For the next few decades, Duncan would dedicate his life to the film, radio and television careers of Rinty and his offspring.
Orlean, a staff writer for The New Yorker, earned considerable critical praise for her 1998 book The Orchid Thief. But if there were any book she was born to write, it's this one. The product of years of dogged research, it's her magnum opus, a work filled with fascinating stories about the four-legged star and the owner who adored him. (Example: Only a last-minute rule change prevented Rin Tin Tin from winning the first ever Academy Award for Best Actor.) But it's even more dedicated to chronicling the tribulations of American life in the early 20th century.
In stunning prose that is both compassionate and perceptive, Orlean proposes that dogs aren't merely the furry friends we keep around and toss tennis balls to — they represent the best things we are, and the best things we can be. Rin Tin Tin, Orlean writes, exemplified not just "solace and friendship," but "valor and loyalty and strength and truth." And his owner "believed that those qualities would always matter and always prevail."
Indeed, Rin Tin Tin is as much about Lee Duncan as it is about the titular dog. The man who made Rinty famous was painfully shy and sensitive — he spent part of his childhood in an orphanage — but always had a deep emotional connection to canines. After his mother gave away his beloved boyhood terrier, Orlean writes, Duncan "was physically sick with longing for the dog and spent ten days in bed."
Anyone who has ever loved and lost a dog can relate. When Rin Tin Tin died, he was mourned as a special kind of hero — one who could always be counted on to be pure, who didn't have the feet of clay that all human heroes do. That's why, Orlean suggests, he was instantly embraced by a country wracked by depressions and wars, eager to take to its heart something that "embodies a rich, mythic sort of heroism, an empathy that is broader and deeper and more pure than what an ordinary human would be capable of." Maybe America doesn't have a dog like that today, but maybe we don't need one. As Duncan used to say, "There will always be a Rin Tin Tin."