Susan Orlean’s Dog Days



Dog is man’s favorite celebrity. In Susan Orlean’s Rin Tin Tin: The Life, The Legend (Simon & Schuster), the life of one of the first canine celebrities is investigated. From soldier Lee Duncan’s discovery of puppy Rin Tin Tin on a scarred World War I battlefield, to Rinty’s rise to film fame, the book chronicles a classic hero.

Fueled by leading-man loneliness, Rin Tin Tin and his trainer Duncan became famous models of courage and peace. From shell-shocked battlefield heroes, the pair morphed into mega-Hollywood stars of the Gilded Age, channeling the desperation of a depressed America. Though Lee and Rin Tin Tin eventually trotted off the show business stage, the image of a dog as rescuer still remains.  Mixed with their story is Orlean’s own personal quest—the kind for which the author, who also wrote The Orchid Thief and was a character in the subsequent film Adaptation, is famous—from movie-studio vaults in California to cemeteries in France, to uncover what mysterious quality Rin Tin Tin had that made him an unforgettable star. We talked with Orlean about four-footed legends, the fate of famous dogs, how some are born actors, and how animals help us when we’re feeling down.

ROYAL YOUNG: I’m sitting with a basset hound for this interview.

SUSAN ORLEAN: Oh, that’s so funny, I just saw a basset hound on the way to taking my son to school and he thought it was a cross between a dachshund and a Dalmatian.

YOUNG: [laughs] Why are we obsessed with animals, and how do they reflect us back to ourselves?

ORLEAN: We’re fascinated by animals because it’s almost like having Martians living among us. We can see some familiarity in them, but they’re entirely different creatures. They don’t talk, but they communicate through mysterious means. They have much better hearing and sense of smell. They live among us, and because we can connect with them in a very emotional way, it’s a very interesting relationship. It’s both totally mysterious and yet we feel like we can understand them and that they understand us.

YOUNG: The connection becomes so intimate.

ORLEAN: Yes, really genuinely.

YOUNG: What is that intense connection?

ORLEAN: Our relationship with an animal, whether they really understand us, whether they really respond to our moods, it is entirely authentic, the way it feels. And I think coexisting with another life form is a very rich experience. It’s why people keep plants and animals. I think on a day-to-day basis, what attracts us in coexisting with another living, evolving thing. is that you have a relationship that’s different than with a piece of furniture. We experience the cycle of life through these other beings.

YOUNG: Are some dogs born destined for fame and greater things?

ORLEAN: Absolutely. It’s a given. Among all life forms, there are creatures with charisma and creatures without. It’s one of those ineffable qualities we can’t quite define, but we all seem to respond similarly to. Rin Tin Tin had a lot of charisma and then beyond that, there was just Lee Duncan’s belief in him and determination to bring him to the world. But I think the real proof of him having destiny was the fact that there were 70 other German Shepherds making movies at the time and we barely remember any of them. We wouldn’t be remembering Rin Tin Tin if there wasn’t something about him that set him apart.

YOUNG: What do you think that was?

ORLEAN: It was a combination of his very expressive face that captivated on screen and his relationship with Lee that really made him a great performer.

YOUNG: And both Lee and Rin Tin Tin were orphans of sorts.

ORLEAN: Right, technically, Rin Tin Tin was snatched from certain death, so he was a foundling. And Lee, though he was retrieved from an orphanage, always identified himself as an orphan.

YOUNG: How did that sense of displacement and loneliness add to their legend?

ORLEAN: It was essential. It made their story that much more heroic. Overcoming not just adversity, but loneliness. They lived through loneliness.

YOUNG: That perseverance, that loneliness, I feel like has become a staple of what we look for in our heroes.

ORLEAN: Absolutely, I think part of a hero construct is overcoming loss, or being abandoned, or having to make your own way in the world.

YOUNG: What do we want from our heroes, and is it easier to get when our heroes are animals?

ORLEAN: Yes. The fact that dogs are not people means you don’t have as much response to the particulars. “Oh, I don’t like the way he looks, or he reminds me too much of this person, or that person.” Animals can seem more pure. Without complication, I mean, animals are selfless. What animals do for us, they do out of instinct.

YOUNG: Have you ever felt saved or consoled by an animal in a time of crisis or loneliness?

ORLEAN: I’ve definitely taken a lot of consolation from animals in my life. There have been times when I’ve been really sad, and they gave solace and comfort and companionability more than a person. I didn’t want to talk, and I didn’t think dogs could solve my problems. But they were so uncritical and un-judgmental. Sometimes when you’re really blue, you don’t want to talk, but you want that sense of companionship. I certainly enjoy that with my beasts.