The Wild West of Yester-Year

Zane Gray
By Rachel Kovaciny

Last summer, toward the end of our vacation, my family stopped at the Zane Grey Museum in Zanesville, Ohio. We’d passed it year after year as we trekked from Virginia to the Midwest to visit family. Each time, we said, “We should stop there sometime.” Finally, we did. And it was splendid! The Zane Grey Museum is housed together with the National Road Museum, so half of it is dedicated to Grey’s life and writing, and the other half to the National Road and the history of transportation in early America. They have an Conestoga wagon there—not a replica, but an original one. Its majestic beauty brought tears to my eyes. But I digress. I will write about Conestogas another time! 

Today, we’re focusing on Zane Grey. Did you know he worked as a dentist, went to an Ivy League college on a baseball scholarship, and played in the minor leagues? Well, now you do.

He was born Pearl Zane Grey (no one blames him for dropping that first name, I’m sure) in 1872, in Zanesville, Ohio, a town his grandfather founded. His father was a dentist, so Zane studied to be a dentist too, and even practiced dentistry in New York City for a time, though his primary motive for living there was to be near publishing houses. Rather like A. Conan Doyle, a bored physician who created Sherlock Holmes to keep himself busy, Grey turned to writing because he found dentistry tedious.

In 1905, Zane Grey married Lina “Dolly” Roth and moved to Pennsylvania (their home is also called the Zane Grey Museum). Dolly managed Zane’s writing career, edited his work, handled all negotiations for film adaptations, and so on, besides tending their three children. The couple split his earnings fifty-fifty, for Grey realized he owed much of his continuing popularity and success to his wife. In 1912, after several years of writing short stories and novels with only minor success, Grey’s western classic Riders of the Purple Sage debuted and brought him popular fame and critical acclaim. It was the most-successful western novel ever published at that time. Some lists still rank it as number one, thanks to so many reprints. It remains his best-selling novel. 

For the next 27 years, he was a top-selling author, turning out one hit western novel after another. They made many of them into feature films starring the likes of Gary Cooper, Randolph Scott, Shirley Temple, William Powell, and even a young Alan Ladd. His book Lone Star Ranger inspired George Trendle to create a new radio drama called The Lone Ranger that became an enduring western franchise in its own right. In 1918, the Greys moved to California to oversee the Zane Grey Productions motion picture company, although it was quickly bought up by another company soon renamed Paramount Pictures. Grey wrote steadily until his death in 1939. The Great Depression did not put a serious a dent in his sales. Americans needed the fast-paced, optimistic, westerns he wrote to escape their own problems. The author could certainly relate to that need.

Grey struggled with depression, mood swings, and what he called “black spells,” and would spend months away from home fishing, hunting, and writing in an effort to elude his depression. Being alone in wild, natural settings soothed him and gave him plenty of ideas for stories. He owned several hunting and fishing lodges where he often took refuge. He even achieved several big-game fishing records on many trips to the Florida coast. Zane Grey died of heart failure on October 23, 1939, leaving a legacy of nearly 90 books for us to enjoy. Not all of them are westerns! He also wrote books on fishing, baseball, and various historical subjects, including a biography of George Washington.

Grey wrote, “I have loved the West for its vastness, its contrasts, its beauty and color and life, for its wildness and violence, and for the fact that I have seen how it developed great men and women who died unknown and unsung. Romance is only another name for idealism; and I contend that life without ideals is not worth living.” His vision of western storytelling continues to influence our notions of what a good western ought to be like even today.