He believed the dog was immortal. “There will always be a Rin Tin Tin,” Lee Duncan said, time and time again, to reporters, to visitors, to fan magazines, to neighbors, to family, to friends. At first this must have sounded absurd—just wishful thinking about the creature that had eased his loneliness and made him famous around the world. And yet, just as Lee believed, there has always been a Rin Tin Tin. The second Rin Tin Tin was not the talent his father was, but still, he was Rin Tin Tin, carrying on what the first dog had begun. After Rin Tin Tin Jr. there was Rin Tin Tin III, and then another Rin Tin Tin after him, and then another, and then another: there has always been another. And Rin Tin Tin has always been more than a dog. He was an idea and an ideal—a hero who was also a friend, a fighter who was also a caretaker, a mute genius, a companionable loner. He was one dog and many dogs, a real animal and an invented character, a pet as well as an international celebrity. He was born in 1918 and he never died.
There were low moments and setbacks when Lee did doubt himself and Rin Tin Tin. The winter of 1952 was one such point. Lee was broke. He had washed out of Hollywood and was living in the blank, baked valley east of Los Angeles, surviving on his wife’s job at an orange-packing plant while Rin Tin Tin survived on free kibble Lee received through an old sponsorship arrangement with Ken-L-Ration, the dog food company. The days were long. Most afternoons Lee retreated to a little annex off his barn that he called the Memory Room, where he shuffled through old newspaper clips and yellowing photographs of Rin Tin Tin’s glory days, pulling the soft quilt of memory—of what really was and what he recalled and what he wished had been—over the bony edges of his life.
Twenty years earlier, the death of the first Rin Tin Tin had been so momentous that radio stations around the country interrupted programming to announce the news and then broadcast an hour-long tribute to the late, great dog. Rumors sprang up that Rin Tin Tin’s last moments, like his life, were something extraordinary—that he had died like a star, cradled in the pale, glamorous arms of actress Jean Harlow, who lived near Lee in Beverly Hills. But now everything was different. Even Ken-L-Ration was doubting him. “Your moving picture activities have not materialized as you expected,” the company’s executives scolded Lee in a letter warning that they were planning to cut off his supply of free dog food. Lee was stunned. He needed the dog food, but the rejection stung even more because he believed that his dog, Rin Tin Tin III, was destined to be a star, just as his grandfather had been. Lee wrote back to the company, pleading. He said that the dog had “his whole life before him” and new opportunities lined up. His father and grandfather had already been celebrated around the world in silent films, talkies, radio, vaudeville, comics, and books; this new Rin Tin Tin, Lee insisted, was ready to conquer television, “the coming medium,” as he described it.
In truth, Lee had no contracts and no connections to the television business and doubts about its being anything more than a fad, but with the prospect of losing Ken-L-Ration hanging over him, he rushed to find a producer interested in making a television show starring Rin Tin Tin. It couldn’t be just anybody, though: Lee wanted someone who he felt really understood the dog and his profound attachment to him.
The winter went by with no luck; then spring, then summer. Then one September afternoon in 1953, a stuntman who knew Lee from his Hollywood days came out to visit along with a young production manager named Herbert “Bert” Leonard. The stuntman knew Lee was looking for a producer, and he also knew Bert wanted a project to produce. Even so, it was an unlikely match. Lee was a Westerner, an eccentric cowboy who was comfortable only with his dogs and horses; Bert was a young, loud New Yorker who gambled, smoked cigars while playing tennis, and loved attention, but had no interest in dogs. And yet their connection was lightning, and Bert decided he wanted to make a television show starring Rin Tin Tin.
At the time, Bert was managing the production of a low-budget thriller called Slaves of Babylon; during his lunch break the next day, he wrote up his idea for a show he called The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, starring the dog and an orphaned boy who are adopted by a U.S. Cavalry troop in Arizona in the late 1800s, during the Apache wars. As Bert recalled later, Lee “went crazy for it.” The story was fiction, but it captured something essential in Lee’s relationship to the dog, and in the dog’s nature—a quality of pure attachment, of bravery, of independence that was wrapped around a core of vulnerability. The show debuted three years later. It climbed in the ratings faster than any show in the history of television. Almost four decades after Lee first found Rin Tin Tin, the most famous dog in the world was born again. Lee had always been convinced that his dog was immortal. Now Bert was convinced, too. As he liked to say, “Rin Tin Tin just seems to go on forever.”
In the first years of the twenty-first century, Daphne Hereford hitched her 1984 Cadillac El Dorado Biarritz convertible parade car to the back of a U-Haul truck and fishtailed out of her driveway in Texas, setting off on an eleven-month tour of the United States with three of her German shepherds: Gayle, Joanne, and Rin Tin Tin VIII, whose registered name was Rin Tin Tins Oooh-Ahhh but whom she generally referred to as the Old Man. Gayle was pregnant and needed attention and Joanne was good company; the Old Man, though, was the big ticket. Daphne never went anywhere without the Old Man. At home, the other dogs spent most of their time in their kennels in the backyard; only the Old Man had house privileges. She planned to have him taxidermied when he died so she could always have him around.
The purpose of this cross-country trip was to present the Old Man at German shepherd shows and Hollywood memorabilia events around the country. It was not luxury travel. Daphne tolerated the meaner vagaries of life on the road, including, for example, the time when a friend she was staying with out west tried to kill her. She shrugs off the attempted murder along with all the other inconveniences of the journey. “I don’t give up,” she told me when I visited her in Texas not long ago. “I just don’t give up.”
Persistence is a family trait. Her grandmother, who had fallen in love with Rin Tin Tin when she saw his early movies, was so determined to have a Rin Tin Tin dog of her own that in 1956 she tracked down Lee Duncan and sent a letter pleading for a puppy. “I have wanted a Rin Tin Tin dog all my life,” she wrote, adding, before asking the price, “I am not one of those Rich Texans you hear about. Just a plain old country girl that was raised on a ranch.” She said she hoped to begin “a living legacy of Rin Tin Tin dogs in Houston” and promised that if Lee would send a puppy to her in Houston, she would return the shipping crate to him, posthaste, parcel post. Lee, impressed by her determination, agreed to sell her a puppy “of excellent quality” sired by Rin Tin Tin IV.
When her grandmother died in 1988, Daphne took on the stewardship of that legacy. She also revived the Rin Tin Tin Fan Club and registered as many Rin Tin Tin trademarks as she could. All of her money went to the dogs, the fan club, and other dog-related projects. She lived in a little shotgun house in Latexo, Texas, and scrimped to keep her costs down. For Daphne, it was all about continuing the Rin Tin Tin line. The line led from the Old Man back through the generations, from dog to dog to dog, a knot here and there, but always continuing, back to the original dog, and, most important, back to the original notion—that something you truly love will never die.
My most vivid memory of Rin Tin Tin is not of a live dog at all, but of a plastic one: a Rin Tin Tin figure about eight inches high, stoic, bright-eyed, the bud of his tongue draped over his bottom teeth. My grandfather kept this figurine on his desk blotter, maddeningly out of reach. Somewhat dour and formal, my grandfather, an accountant, was not very interested in, or natural with, children. Strangely enough, however, he was very fond of toys; in fact, he collected them, and displayed a few special ones in his office at home. The most exceptional of these was the Rin Tin Tin figurine, that special dog, the star of the television show I loved.
At that time, in the 1950s, Rin Tin Tin was everywhere, universal, almost something in the air. I was only four years old when the show began its initial run, so my memory of that period is only a faint outline. But my brother and sister watched the show with the dedication and regularity of churchgoers, so I’m sure I plunked down beside them. When you’re as young as I was at the time, you just soak something like that up and it becomes part of you, so I feel I have always known of Rin Tin Tin, as if he was introduced to me by osmosis. He became part of my consciousness, like a nursery lullaby you can sing without realizing how you came to know it. In the buzzing white noise of my babyhood, a boy on a television was always shouting “Yo, Rinty,” a bugle was always blowing, and a big dog was always bounding across the screen to save the day.
That is why the first dog I ever wanted was a German shepherd, and why I kept wanting one well past the point at which it had been made amply clear that I was never going to get one—my mother, unfortunately, was afraid of dogs. Like so many childhood passions, it eventually receded but never died. I came across the name “Rin Tin Tin” a few years ago, while reading about animals in Hollywood. It was a name I had not heard or thought about for decades, but a shock of recognition surged through me and made me sit up straight, as if I had brushed against a hot stove.
And instantly I remembered that figurine, and remembered yearning for it. My desire for it had remained unrequited. My grandfather allowed us to hold one or two of his toys on occasion, but never Rin Tin Tin. I didn’t understand why this was the one treasure we could never touch; it wasn’t more delicate than the other toys, and it didn’t have any finicky mechanism. There was no explanation; it was simply not ours to have.
There was something spellbinding about our visits to that office—my grandfather looming above us, his hand hovering over the desk blotter to choose the toy he would allow us to hold, our eyes following his hand as it paused at this toy and that toy, each time drifting close to Rin Tin Tin but passing it by again, lifting our hopes and dropping them; then his hand grasping and passing to us some other forgettable toy and waving us out of the room. Time tumbled on, as it does, and people changed, as they do, but that dog figurine was always constant, always beckoning, always the same. When I was reminded of Rin Tin Tin after decades of forgetting all about him, the first thing I thought of, with a deep, sharp pang, was that mysterious and eternal figurine.
© 2011 Susan Orlean