Today in Literary History – January 31, 1872 – pioneering American Western novelist Zane Grey is born

Zane Grey, the novelist who invented the American Western genre, was born in Zanesville, Ohio on January 31, 1872. Grey had a colourful life as a semi-professional baseball player, a dentist, an award-winning deep sea fisherman and bestselling author.

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He was by far the most commercially successful American writer in the 1910s to 1930s. Many of his 90 books are still in print today and avidly read.

Grey grew up in the town of Zanesville, which was named after his maternal great-grandfather, Ebenezer Zane, who fought in the American Revolution. Grey had a keen interest in American history, especially frontier and Revolutionary War subjects. He was also a talented baseball player who hoped for a career in the major leagues.

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His father was a dentist who fell on hard times and Grey helped out as a teenager extracting teeth for him until the authorities got wind of it.

After playing on some minor league teams Grey took a baseball scholarship at the University of Pennsylvania where he graduated in 1896 with a degree in dentistry.

Grey was torn between his dreams of becoming a professional ballplayer and his dreams of becoming a famous writer. He settled on dentistry as an economic choice but never had much interest in it.

In 1905 he married Lina Roth, whom he called Dolly, who became the major figure in his life. Dolly inherited a substantial amount of money that allowed Grey to quit dentistry and write full time. Dolly became his editor, agent and business manager throughout his career.

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She also gave him plenty of leeway for his love of exotic travel and his multiple sexual affairs. In fact, Dolly and Grey discussed his affairs freely and she became close friends with many of his mistresses.

Grey suffered from severe bouts of depression and violent mood swings. These often debilitated him for long periods when he couldn’t write at all, followed by manic periods of fevered writing.

He described his depression as “A hyena lying in ambush—that is my black spell! I conquered one mood only to fall prey to the next … I wandered about like a lost soul or a man who was conscious of imminent death.”

Grey’s second, and most famous novel, Riders of the Purple Sage, was enormously popular when it was published in 1912. Like many of Grey’s novels and short stories it was filmed (five times in all) and set the pattern for the Western Movie genre.

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Between his fiction and his movie adaptations Grey became very wealthy (he and Dolly split all of his income 50/50) and was able to travel the world indulging his passion for deep sea fishing, setting many records for the weight of the prize fish he caught.

Grey died in 1939 at the age of 67.

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