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Zane Gray was born 31 January 1872 in Zanesville, Ohio a city founded by a maternal ancestor Ebenezer Zane, a Revolutionary War patriot, he developed interests in fishing, baseball and writing, all which would later contribute to his acclaim.
His first three novels memorialized the heroism of his Revolutionary relatives. As a child, Grey frequently engaged in violent brawls, and his father answered those actions with severe beatings. Though irascible and antisocial like his father, Grey was counterbalanced by a loving mother and a father substitute named Muddy Miser, an old fisherman who approved of Grey's love of fishing and writing and who spouted philosophically on the advantages of an unconventional life, advice Grey later followed.
Grey attended the University of Pennsylvania on a baseball scholarship, where he studied dentistry and joined Sigma Nu fraternity; he graduated in 1896. He was an indifferent scholar.
Grey's first novel, Betty Zane (1903), dramatized the heroism of his ancestor who had saved Fort Henry.
Grey’s honeymoon took him to the West for the first time, but though awed by the scenic splendor, he felt unsatisfied by the lack of experiences suitable for use in his novels.
After attending a lecture by C. T. "Buffalo" Jones, famed western hunter and guide, Grey arranged for a mountain lion hunting trip to the North rim of the Grand Canyon. He brought along a ‘portable’ camera with the intention of documenting his trips in order to prove the veracity of his adventures. This and a second trip proved arduous and dangerous to the tenderfoot, but Grey learned much from his rough compatriot adventurers, and he gained the confidence and authenticity to write convincingly about the West, its characters, and its landscape. Treacherous river crossings, unpredictable beasts, bone chilling cold, searing heat, parching thirst, bad water, irascible tempers, and heroic cooperation all became real to him.
Upon returning home in 1909, Grey tried to convert his experiences into a series of short stories but again met with rejection from the publishers. He wrote dejectedly, "I don’t know which way to turn. I cannot decide what to write next. That which I desire to write does not seem to be what the editors want...I am full of stories and zeal and fire...yet I am inhibited by doubt, by fear that my feeling for life is false".
The birth of his first child restored his sense of urgency to produce his next novel and his first Western, The Heritage of the Desert, which he completed in four months, and which became a bestseller. It propelled a career writing popular novels about manifest destiny and the "conquest of the Wild West." Two years later he produced his best-known book, Riders of the Purple Sage (1912). He formed his own motion picture company, but in a few years sold it to Jesse Lasky who was a partner of the founder of Paramount Pictures. Paramount would make a number of movies based on Grey's writings.
It is also speculated that two of his creations, Lone Star Ranger and King of the Royal Mounted, were later used as an inspiration for two radio series by George Trendle (WXYZ, Detroit) which later made the transition to television: The Lone Ranger and Challenge of the Yukon (Sgt. Preston of the Yukon on TV). The Zane Grey Show ran on the Mutual Broadcasting System for five months in the late 1940s.
He became one of the first millionaire authors. Over the years his habit was to spend part of the year traveling and living an adventurous life and the rest of the year using his adventures as the basis for the stories in his writings. Some of that time was spent on the Rogue River in Oregon, where he maintained a cabin he had built on an old mining claim he bought. He also had a cabin on the Mogollon Rim in Arizona which burned down during the Dude Fire of 1991.
He was the author of over 90 books, some published posthumously and/or based on serials originally published in magazines. Many of them became bestsellers. One of them, “Tales of the Angler’s El Dorado, New Zealand” helped establish the Bay of Islands in New Zealand as a premier game fishing area.
From 1918 until 1932 he was a regular contributor to Outdoor Life magazine, becoming one of the publication's first celebrity writers. In the pages of the magazine he began to popularize big-game fishing.
Zane Grey died of heart failure on October 23, 1939 at his home in Altadena, California. He was interred at the Union Cemetery in Lackawaxen, Pennsylvania, where the National Park Service maintains the Zane Grey Museum as part of the Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreational River. His home in Altadena is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. In his hometown there is a museum called National Road Zane Grey Museum. Zane Grey Terrace, a small residential street in the hillsides of Altadena, is named in his honor.
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