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Dog star

Lee Duncan, 67, who as an Air force sergeant during World War I found the first Rin-Tin-Tin as a pup in a bombed-out airdrome near Fluiry, France, holds up a pair of the famed dogs descendants, Rin-Tin-Tin 5 and 6, outside his home at Riverside, California. The original Rin-Tin-Tin died in 1932 after appearing in some 20 motion pictures. (AP Photo)


Lee Duncan with two descendants of the original Rin Tin Tin, the dog he found as a puppy in a bombed-out airbase in France and which would go on to conquer Hollywood

He believed the dog was immortal. “There will always be a Rin Tin Tin,” Lee Duncan said, time and time again, to reporters, to visitors, to fan magazines, to neighbours, to family, to friends. At first this must have sounded absurd—just wishful thinking about the creature that had eased his loneliness and made him famous around the world. And yet, just as Lee believed, there has always been a Rin Tin Tin. The second Rin Tin Tin was not the talent his father was, but still, he was Rin Tin Tin, carrying on what the first dog had begun. After Rin Tin Tin Jr. there was Rin Tin Tin III, and then another Rin Tin Tin after him, and then another, and then another: there has always been another. And Rin Tin Tin has always been more than a dog. He was an idea and an ideal – a hero who was also a friend, a fighter who was also a caretaker, a mute genius, a companionable loner. He was one dog and many dogs, a real animal and an invented character, a pet as well as an international celebrity. He was born in 1918 and he never died.

A Dog of the Regiment

In September 1918, General John Pershing launched the Saint-Mihiel offensive, one of the first major American assaults in the First World War. It was an attempt to push the Germans east out of the Meuse Valley. The Germans were dug in, and the Allied advance was agonising.

The air was thick with driving rain and the ground was churned into hip-deep mud. Lee Duncan was assigned to the armoury department, but so many pilots were being killed or injured that even soldiers in his lowly position were told they might be placed on flying status when the biggest push of the offensive began.

Lee’s account of this dark time is soldierly and understated. In his memoir he lists which pilot flew which mission and who did and didn’t come back. The more detailed accounting is reserved for the types of planes and equipment used. If this wasn’t precisely what he envisioned when he enlisted in southern California the previous year, there is no mention of that fact. What Lee did recall, though – vividly, obsessively – was the morning of 15th September, when he was sent to inspect the ruins of a German encampment in Fluiry, north-west of Toul, to determine if it would make a suitable flying field. Fluiry was a tiny farm town with a punishing history. It had been destroyed twice previously in wars, had been rebuilt, and now was ruined again. In World War I it had already changed hands several times. When Lee was sent to do the inspection, the Germans had just retreated, leaving the broken town behind.

When Rin Tin Tin joined Warner Bros in 1928 the studio was worth $16m; two years later, mostly down to the dog’s success, it was worth $200m. He made 32 films and was honoured with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Lee implies in his memoir that he went to Fluiry alone, although it is surprising that a soldier would be sent near the front lines unaccompanied. He might have been with a few other soldiers, or he might have travelled there with George Bryant, the captain of another squadron, whom Lee had come to know. It is hard – impossible, really – to know. By his description, he strolled around the field in Fluiry, taking stock of the place and looking for the battlefield mementos the troops most prized – small engine parts, called Bosch Magnetos, from the Germans’ tough Fokker planes. He noticed a long, low concrete building at the edge of the field. Because he was familiar with dogs, he knew immediately that the building was a kennel, probably built by the Germans for their canine troops.

“For the rest of his life, Lee marvelled at his good fortune in finding the puppies, turning the story over and over again and again like a shiny stone, watching it catch the light”

He stooped down and looked inside the building. When his eyes adjusted to the dark, he saw a hellish image of slaughter: 20 or more dogs, killed by artillery shells. He stepped into the kennel and made his way among the bodies. They were clearly army dogs; one had a messenger-pigeon cage strapped to its back, and two of the pigeons were still alive. Lee released the pigeons. In the stillness, he heard whimpering. He followed the sound to the back of the kennel. There, in the farthest corner of this shattered, deathly place, was a frantic German shepherd female with a litter of five puppies.

It took him an hour – a “hard struggle”, in his words – to wrangle the agitated female into his vehicle. Once he had her secured, he scooped up the puppies and drove back to the base. For a moment, anyway, it probably felt as if the war had faded away. He filled an empty oil barrel with straw and set it on its side as a doghouse. “And then,” he noted in his diary, “the little family started light housekeeping.” He knew he couldn’t manage all the dogs, so after he shared the news of his discovery, he gave the mother dog to George Bryant and three of the puppies to various other soldiers. He kept the two prettiest, a male and a female, for himself.

From the moment he found these puppies, Lee considered himself a lucky man. He believed he was lucky despite the absence of his father, the rock-ribbed loneliness of his childhood, the tough years in an orphanage, the adored pets lost to him. For the rest of his life, he marvelled at his good fortune in finding the puppies, turning the story over and over again and again like a shiny stone, watching it catch the light.

He thought about that luck when it came to naming the puppies. At that time, the most popular good-luck charm was a pair of dolls, a boy and a girl, made of yarn or silk, about as long as a finger, crude as stick figures, with a dab for a nose, a dash for a mouth, shapeless little arms and legs, and sad eyes “like periods made by the point of a pencil over which the writer had paused sorrowfully”, according to one soldier. The dolls were named Rin Tin Tin and Nanette, in honour of a pair of young lovers who had survived a bombing in a Parisian railway station at the start of the war. They were lucky, and would bring luck; as an ad for the dolls proclaimed, “Avec nous rien à craindre” – with us, you have nothing to fear. Nanette was a common girl’s name, but the boy’s name, Rin Tin Tin, was unusual; no one could even settle on how to spell or punctuate it. Sometimes it was Rintintin, sometimes Rin Tin Tin, and sometimes even Ran-Tan-Tan. And no one could explain where it originated. It didn’t seem to be a diminutive, because no proper name came close to sounding like Rin Tin Tin. It was less like a name than a tongue-clicking sound, a rhythm, perhaps even the chorus of a children’s song: Rin Tin Tin, Rin Tin Tin, Rin Tin Tin…

Many French girls made the Rin Tin Tin and Nanette dolls by hand and gave them away, and at least one French charity sold them to raise money for an orphanage. American soldiers became eager customers. Everyone in Lee’s squadron carried a rabbit’s foot, or painted a lucky insignia on their plane, or had a girl’s name scrawled on the interior of the cockpit. When Rin Tin Tin and Nanette dolls became a fad, soldiers began to wear them on chains around their necks or dangle them from their gun barrels or helmets. Lee had bought his Rin Tin Tin and Nanette charms from a little girl in Toul, and he wore them for the rest of his life. The lucky puppies, he decided, would be given these lucky names, Rin Tin Tin and Nanette.

Rin Tin Tin IV with a portrait of his great-grandfather in 1954 –Greta Garbo, WK Kellogg and Jean Harlow each owned one of the original’s 48 descendants

Rough waters

The pace of the war was relentless. In addition, a flu epidemic was burning through the troops like a fuse. Lee was relieved to have the puppies to distract him. “Each day, I found them more interesting,” he wrote. “They were keeping my mind off the hectic days we were going through.” Lee’s squadron was reassigned to a field in Colombey-les-Belles, several hours north of Toul. Captain Bryant and the puppies’ mother, Betty, were staying in Toul. The puppies were still nursing, so Lee had to decide whether to leave them with Betty or take them to Colombey-les-Belles. He decided he couldn’t bear to be without them, but he could think of only one solution to keep them fed. Until the puppies were weaned, he flew back to Toul every day by wheedling his way onto one of the squadron’s planes, an offence that could have warranted a court-martial.

Lee was hopelessly devoted to the puppies and wanted to learn everything he could about this new breed of dog. It turned out that one of the prisoners of war at the camp at Colombey-les-Belles was a German sergeant who was fluent in English and also happened to be the son of the man who had trained the dogs that had been kennelled at Fluiry – at least that is what Lee would have us believe, although the coincidence seems improbable. They talked for hours about German shepherds, prisoner and captor, absorbed in their obsession, while the war rolled on.

In November 1918, Lee finally had a chance to fly, but on his first mission, he was shot in the arm. He was hospitalised for months. The puppies came with him. When an orderly complained about having dogs in the hospital, Lee set up a kennel for them outside in a toolshed. By the time he was well enough to rejoin his unit in Bordeaux, the puppies had grown big and rambunctious, and some of the soldiers were not charmed by their antics. Lee, already a loner, never taking part in the squadron’s frequent drinking and carousing, moved with the puppies to an old barn near the barracks. He had always loved sleeping in the barn at his grandfather’s ranch, but the barn in Bordeaux was nothing like that clean, well-tended property; it was a mouse house, a wreck. Still, Lee was happier away from the rest of the men, alone with his charges. They were old enough to start training.

He used a squeaky rubber doll to keep their attention, and he let them play with it as a reward when they behaved. He loved both puppies, but he thought Nanette was the outstanding one of the two, a little brighter than her brother. He hated to be away from them. When he was granted a nine-day leave to visit Paris he entrusted the puppies to one of the other soldiers but found he couldn’t enjoy himself without them and returned to camp after only one day.

He planned on bringing them home, although most animals in the war never left it. Transporting animals back to the States, particularly horses and mules, was too expensive; retraining war dogs to be anything other than war dogs was thought to be impossible. The French military destroyed the majority of its dogs as the war skidded to a close. The British, German, Italian, and Russian military likely did the same. American military horses and mules were sold to the French, who butchered most of them.

Rin Tin Tin plays himself in his own life story, ‘Dog of the Regiment’, 1927

On the Border

In July 1919, after the Armistice, Lee’s squadron was transferred to Brest, France, where the men waited for their orders. It was a tense, chaotic time; there were thousands of soldiers in Brest, longing to go home, and yet no one knew when they would be leaving. At last, the word came: Lee’s squadron was sailing on the FJ Luckenbach to New York; they were given just a few hours to prepare. Lee gathered his gear and his puppies and was preparing to board the ship when an officer stopped him, saying he needed permission from the Army Remount Service to bring any animals on board. He warned Lee that ship captains had the authority to throw any animals overboard that didn’t have official clearance, and they often exercised it. Lee left the embarkation area and made his way through the crowd to the Remount Service. He needed permission immediately, but the Remount officer waved him away, saying he didn’t have time for Lee’s case when he had thousands of animals to account for and dispose of.

“Rin Tin Tin’s life turned out to be extraordinary, not just because things went his way but because so often they came close to going the other way”

More than 2,000 soldiers were leaving for home that day, each one with some complication, some need; no one had time for Lee, or for anything beyond the exigencies of the moment. In the disorder at the end of the war – the weariness, the scramble to leave, the mountains of equipment to be sorted, the unsettling diffusion of focus after five years of dire, burning purpose, the scores of urgent unfolding and competing dramas, the romances to uncouple, the friends to reconnect, the travel plans to arrange – there was Lee Duncan, war-worn, standing still in this tumult of activity, cradling his two war orphans, as he liked to call them, vying for someone to help him, being elbowed aside, realising he was very close to once again losing something he loved and cared about. It would have been easiest to find some French youngster and hand the puppies over, but he couldn’t bring himself to do so. The puppies had come to mean too much to him. “I felt there was something about their lives that reminded me of my own life,” Lee wrote. “They had crept right into a lonesome place in my life and had become a part of me.”

He finally got the puppies on the boat. His captain, Otto Sandman, intervened and helped Lee find a more sympathetic officer at the Remount Service, who issued the necessary papers. Lee was ecstatic; he told Sandman that if he ever bred the dogs, he would send him a puppy. At last, he boarded the ship. He had his gear, a few war trophies – his Bosch Magnetos, two small duelling pistols given to him by an old lady in Toul who had done his laundry during the war, a propeller, and a clock taken from a German Fokker plane – and his puppies, Rin Tin Tin and Nanette.

Rin Tin Tin’s life turned out to be extraordinary, not just because things went his way but because so often they came close to going the other way. At his birth, he had survived a bombing that had killed many other dogs; then he had been found by someone who was eager to take care of him; he could so easily have been left behind in France, but he wasn’t. Lee saw no accident in any of this. He believed that the dog was destined for greatness, and he was lucky to be his human guide and companion.

Susan Orlean is the author of five books including the international bestseller The Orchid Thief, the inspiration for the film Adaptation, directed by Spike Jonze. Her latest book, ‘Rin Tin Tin: the Life and the Legend’, is published by Atlantic Books at £16.99.

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