This Sunday, January 31, is the 144th birthday of author Zane Grey, born in Zanesville, Ohio, in 1872. Originally born Pearl Zane Grey to Lewis and Alice Josephine Zane Gray (who changed the spelling of their surname after Zane’s birth), he would later drop the “Pearl” and become one of the best-known authors to capture the spirit of the American West. His maternal great-grandfather was Ebenezer Zane, who founded the city of Zanesville and was the namesake of Zane’s Trace, connecting Grey deeply to our state’s history and to his own hometown.
As a young man, Grey was an excellent sportsman, especially in baseball and fishing. He earned a baseball scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania after a scout saw him playing with the Columbus Capitols, following a move by the family to Columbus around 1889. At the university, Grey studied dentistry, which he’d been exposed to through his father’s dental practice. After a brief time in the minor leagues during his college years, and setting up a practice in New York City following his graduation, Grey made the fateful decision leave dentistry behind and become a writer.
Grey began publishing in 1902, but was not immediately successful. His first novel, Betty Zane, drew inspiration from the stories he had heard about the Ohio frontier as a child. Though he struggled to find a publisher at first, he refused to give up, self-publishing the work. With practice and proofreading help from his wife, Lina (“Dolly”) Grey, whom he married in 1905, he continued to improve his skills and confidence through the years.
His first real success came in 1910 when Harper’s Magazine published The Heritage of the Desert. Two years later, Harper’s published Riders of the Purple Sage, which would become his best-remembered work. Grey continued to write as he, his wife, and later their three children moved throughout the country, eventually earning a spot as a household literary name and as one of the first millionaire authors in the nation. According to this New York Times review of a Grey biography in 2006, Grey’s work was “exceeded in sales ‘only by the Bible and the Boy Scout Handbook.'”
By the time of his death in 1939, he had written almost ninety books, primarily Westerns, as well as many short stories, a biography of George Washington as a young man, and several stories for children. Some of Grey’s other popular Western novels included Spirit of the Border, Desert Gold, The Last Trail, The Call of the Canyon, and The Thundering Herd. More than 130 million Zane Grey novels are in print worldwide, and over 100 of his books and stories have been adapted for film — popularizing and later reinvigorating the Hollywood Western.
Want to learn more about Zane Grey? Consider visiting the National Road & Zane Grey Museum in Zanesville in celebration of his birthday, or look for one of his many novels to experience his literary talent for yourself!
Thanks to Lily Birkhimer, Digital Projects Coordinator at the Ohio History Connection, for this week’s post!