Beaten up for a sissy name, Zane Grey got rich inventing heroes

January 31, 1872 

On this day, author Pearl Zane Grey was born.  He dropped his prissy first name somewhere along on his way West and became the premier chronicler of frontier he-men.

That old saw “what doesn’t kill you, will make you stronger,” could have been the motto for Grey’s childhood.  His unusual moniker, considered effeminate at the time, led to fist fights at school and beatings from his  father at home for – well – fighting at school.     

It’s not clear when he took matters into his own hands and opted for Zane over his mother’s prestigious maiden name.  Born in the town of Zanesville, Ohio, it had been founded by his great grand-father, Ebenezer Zane, (left) prestige enough it would seem.

  In addition to ditching the Pearl, he changed the spelling of his last name from Gray to Grey, reportedly in an effort to distinguish himself from autocratic his father.  

It took Grey, with an “e,” another 30 years to find his muse.  He attended the University of Pennsylvania on a baseball scholarship (right) and spent several years in the minor leagues.  But he eventually followed in his father’s footsteps, settling down as an indifferent dentist in New York City. 

Grey’s younger brother, Romer, actually made it to the majors and off the bench once.   An outfielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates, he played in just one major league game.


Depiction of Elizabeth “Betty” Zane saving Fort Henry

The tedium of pulling teeth eventually led  Grey to  self-publish a book in 1903 about his aunt Elizabeth “Betty” Zane, twice removed.  Entitled “Betty Zane,” it tells the story of how she saved Fort Henry during the Revolution.  A sequel followed in 1906.  But it was a lecture by frontier guide Charles Jessie “Buffalo” Jones” (right) that ignited Grey’s facination with the West. The flamboyant Jones is credited with focusing international attention on the plight of the endangered American bison.  

After several grueling hunting trips to the Grand Canyon, Grey believed he was ready to write convincingly about the country’s hinterlands.

His first Western, ”The Last of the Plainsmen” in 1908 chronicled a trek across the Arizona desert with Jones.   It met with some popular success and three more Westerns and two baseball books followed in quick succession.  

It was the 1912 “Riders of the Purple Sage,” (left) according to some critics, that set the standard for Western fiction for decades.  Still considered his crowning achievement, it reached the big screen three times  and is still one of the best-selling Western  novels of all time.

The book wades into the waters of religious bigotry, with mysterious gun slinger Jim Lassiter arriving in the nick of time to save a beautiful ranch owner from becoming the third wife of an acquisitive Mormon, Elder Tull.  A 1959 made-for-TV movie starring Ed Harris transformed Elder Tull into Deacon Tull.

Apparently the book wasn’t considered politically incorrect by the book buying public.  It’ publication vaulted Grey into literary stardom.  As one of America’s first millionaire authors, in 1918, he moved from northern Pennsylvania to “Millionaire’s Row in Altadena, California, purchasing a sprawling Mediterranean Revival mansion designed by Chicago architects Myron Hunt and Elmer Grey. 

The Grey estate in Altadena

Finally having achieved professional success, his personal life remained a mess, suffering bouts of depression and intemperate mood swings.  His courtship of Lina “Dolly” Roth (left) was plagued with epic quarrels and their marriage in 1905 barely improved things, marred by Grey’s public and serial infidelities. 

The long-suffering Dolly was instrumental in Grey’s literary success.  Supporting him financially with a generous inheritance in the early days, she continued to act as his editor, proofreader and press agent.  

While Dolly raised their three children and managed his career,  Grey spent his time writing, pursuing his various mistresses and fishing.  Grey reportedly spent as many as 300 day a year casting a line in waters from Oregon’s Rogue River to Tahiti.   

To promote sport fishing of porpoise and dolphins Grey and his friend, magazine editor Robert Hobart Davis, founded the Porpoise Club.   It was enormously unpopular with animal lovers and the fledgling environmental movement. (Left, deep-sea fishing )

A lot of literary critics didn’t think much of his books either.  The more popular he became with the reading public the less favorable were comment from the reviewers who called his work unrealistic, too violent and populated with oversized characters.  

The author himself proved to be oversized, outliving his critics.  He remained influential even after he died suddenly of heart failure October 27, 1939 at 67.  “Western Union” was the final book published in his lifetime, but three dozen original novels, sequels and compilations were published posthumously. 

In addition, his 1915 book and the 1918 movie, “The Lone Star Ranger,” (left) was the basis for the Lone Ranger radio hero in 1933, inspiring literally hundreds more books, television shows, movies and comics. The “Sargeant Preston of the Yukon” comic book and radio series was also based on his various stories.

Grey and the movies seemed to be made for each other.  According to one trivia site, all of his 60-plus Westerns have been committed to film at least once and some multiple times.  Early cowboy star Tom Mix  and Olympic athlete turned actor, Larry “Buster” Crabbe, each starred in a half-dozen Zane Grey movies and his works propelled a number of aspiring actors into Hollywood stardom, including Gary Cooper, Randolph Scott, (above) Roy Rogers and the Duke himself, John Wayne.

John Wayne starred in the 1937 film, “Born to the West”

Zane Grey left a trail of museums on his way West including Ohio, Pennsylvania and Arizona.  

The National Road Zane Grey Museum, 8850 East Pike, Norwich, Ohio, includes the history what was known as “America’s Main Street.”established in 1806, it was the first road west.  The museum features information on the author and native son, his books and the movies they inspired. Open May through September, 10 to 5 Wednesday through Saturday and 1 to 5 on Sunday.  Admission is $7 for adults, $6 for seniors and $3 for students.  For more information go to, call 740-872-3143, toll-free 1-800-752-2602 or write National Road/Zane Grey Museum, 8850 East Pike, Norwich, OH 43767. 

The Zane Grey Cabin. Payson, Arizona, is located in the historic Mogolian Rim.  Grey first visited the area in 1929 and a number of his books were set in the vicinity.  His faithfully reconstructed cabin is included in the museum tour.   The cabin is open 10 to 4, Sunday and Monday,Wednesday through Saturdayand closed Tuesdays.  Admission is $5 for adults, $4 for seniors, $3 for students 12 to 18 and children under 12 free.  For more information go to,  call (928) 474-3483 or write   PO Box 2579, Payson, AZ. 85541.

Zane Grey Museum. 135 Scenic Drive, Lackawaxen, Pennsylvania is part of the scenic upper Delaware River recreational area and administered by the National Park Service.  The museum occupies the author’s former home before going to California.  On the National Register of Historic Places, exhibits include artwork, books, photos and furniture from era of Grey’s residence. For more information on hours and fees, call (570) 685-4871 or write 135 Scenic Drive, Lackawaxen, PA 18435.

© Text Only – 2020 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.