Through His Son Loren, Zane Grey's Spirit Still Rides the Purple Sage

More than any other author, Zane Grey defined the classic hero of the American West—the taciturn, independent figure who always triumphs. When Grey died in 1939, 35 of his Western novels had been published, with sales topping 15 million in the U.S. alone. And he left such a backlog that for the next 24 years his posthumously published books appeared at roughly a one-a-year clip. Now, if his son Loren has anything to say about it, Zane Grey books will be appearing for years to come.

Loren, 70, a retired college professor, currently heads the family enterprise, Zane Grey, Inc. This year he oversaw the publication of Lassiter and Ambush for Lassiter, the first two volumes of a newly written series (Pocket Books, $2.95 each) based on the hero of his father’s most enduring work, Riders of the Purple Sage. While those books were ghost-written, Loren was himself the author of a word-and-picture tribute to his father published in September. Zane Grey: A Photographic Odyssey (Taylor Publishing, $19.95) recaps the life of the failed dentist from Ohio (real name: Pearl Zane Gray, spelled with an “a”) who went on to rank among America’s all-time best-selling writers.

Critics habitually sniped at Zane Grey’s stilted, clichéd prose, and Loren concedes that the typical plot, in which hero shoots villain, marries girl and lives happily ever after, tends toward the simplistic. Yet, he argues, that very quality gave his father’s fiction its lasting appeal. “There is a desire to go back to the past when all the values were simple,” Loren says. “We can’t go back, of course, but the nostalgia is strong.”

Loren Grey’s earliest memories of his father, however, are anything but nostalgic. Zane Grey was an obsessive sports fisherman who roamed the oceans (he once held 11 world fishing records, including one for a 1,040-pound blue marlin). “My father wasn’t home most of the time,” says Loren of his growing-up years in Altadena, Calif. “It was only later that I got over my anger at him for ‘depriving’ me [of a father]. He didn’t. He just had to do his own thing. If anybody got in his way, he either went over them or around them, and we all felt kind of left out.”

As young men, Loren and older brother Romer did accompany their father on his fishing expeditions. “What my father wanted me to write was fishing books,” says Loren. “He didn’t want me to write novels, because he didn’t want family competition.” Loren’s older sister, Betty, 73 and living in Santa Rosa, Calif., never had literary aspirations, but Romer, the firstborn, tried to emulate Zane Grey and, always fearing failure, died an alcoholic in 1976.

The steadying force in the family, until her death in 1954, was their mother, Lina. She corrected the grammar and spelling of her husband’s manuscripts, managed the finances and encouraged her children to go to college. Loren graduated from USC with an English degree in 1939, then enlisted in the Navy. During the Pearl Harbor attack he was in a Hawaiian hospital with the mumps, but he later participated in five Pacific battles, including Midway. “But something went wrong,” he says. “I became terrified of night battles and developed severe headaches when reading a printed page. The Navy gave me a medical discharge.”

He spent years in therapy and ultimately decided to become a psychologist himself. He earned a doctorate in educational psychology from USC in 1959 and started teaching at San Fernando Valley State College (now Cal State, Northridge). He has published four volumes on his specialty, child rearing. Twice married, he has a daughter, Jerilyn, 20, by his second wife, Bonnie, and has adopted her daughters from a previous marriage, Susan, 32, and Jo, 25.

Since taking over as president of Zane Grey, Inc., succeeding Romer, Loren has sought to revive his father’s works, particularly the lesser-known books. One was The Reef Girl, a novel of Tahiti that had never been published during the elder Grey’s lifetime. “In his day the idea of Zane Grey writing about two people who shack up without marriage was unthinkable,” says Loren. “Well, I rewrote some of the poorer parts of it.” Published by Harper & Row in 1977, Loren defies readers “to tell the difference between what he wrote and what I did.”

Another title soon to be reissued is Zane Grey’s nonfiction Tales of Fresh-Water Fishing, which includes a father-son fishing trip taken when Loren was 9. “That was the only time I had him completely to myself,” says Loren. “He wrote a beautiful little story about it, and I never realized his feeling for me until I read it years later.”

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