by Paul R. Spitzzeri
For several years in the late 1990s, my wife and I made annual trips to Santa Catalina Island and one of our favorite places to stay was the Zane Grey Pueblo Hotel, situated on one of the highest points in the city of Avalon and with spectacular views of the city and bay. The rooms were small and spartan, though we did spring once for a larger suite, though it was nice that there were no televisions in any room. The pool was unheated, so it could be very cold but the payoff were those views, which could be obtained from several patios on the property.
I knew about Grey because of the Homestead and its focus on the 1920s as a primary decade of interpretation for our overall time period of 1830-1930 and because one of his sons attended the Pasadena Military Academy with the sons of Walter and Laura Temple, then-owners of the Workman Homestead. Later, when the Temple boys were on summer vacation, they made a trip out to Catalina and visited the Greys at their new hilltop house and a surviving letter from eldest child, Thomas, to his father discussed their stay there.
Tonight’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection is a real photo postcard of the recently completed structure, taken by Crescent Photo (presumably an island studio) and dated 11 July 1926. It shows the sprawling Pueblo-style building from the southwest and the bareness of the hillside is one way to know that the construction had only lately been finished.
Incidentally, those wooden stairs leading down to Chimes Tower Road, which then went around the hill and passed the front entrance to the estate, didn’t exist when we stayed there, but there were another set of steps leading up to the house in just about the same spot. On the other side of the house is the crescent-shaped Avalon Bay and just out of the frame at the upper right is the hillside on the east side of Avalon that housed the only building higher in elevation than the Grey residence, that being the mansion of island owner William Wrigley, Jr.
Zane Grey (1872-1939) is not a familiar name to most people today, but, in his prime, basically the 1920s, he was one of the world’s best-known and wealthiest authors of popular fiction, specifically Westerns. Born Pearl Zane Gray (a terrible pun) in Zanesville, Ohio, a town named for his grandfather and due east of Columbus, he was a keen student of history, fishing and baseball and devoured adventure stories as a youth.
He attended the University of Pennsylvania on a baseball scholarship and graduated in 1896 with a degree in dentistry, though he was more interested in sports than academics. Still, he became a dentist in New York City, where he moved because he was interested in writing and wanted access to publishing houses.
Despite an earlier paternity suit and his generally roving eye, Grey married Lina “Dolly” Roth in 1905 and the couple had two sons and a daughter, though their marriage was marked by frequent long absences by Grey. Fortunately for him, an inheritance received by Dolly allowed the budding writer to abandon dentistry and concentrate full-time on his literary pursuits. Moreover, Dolly was an able editor and a savvy business manager for her husband.
Grey first published in 1902, while he was still working as a dentist, but, greatly influenced by Owen Wister, a seminal Western novelist known best for his The Virginian, which appeared in 1902. Grey’s first novel, finished the next year and based on Zane family lore, was rejected.
In 1907, however, he went on a hunting trip in the Grand Canyon region and the arduous experienced proved to be inspiring for his career. Two years later, he wrote a second novel, which was also rejected, though it was later published. But, in 1910, The Heritage of the Desert was published and became a best-seller. Grey’s career was launched.
His most famous work, Riders of the Purple Sage was issued in 1912 and his steady output was mainly focused on the Western genre he influenced so greatly, though he did write books on hunting, fishing and baseball and authored several children’s books, as well. With more Americans having more leisure time as work days and weeks had shorter hours and popular literature reached larger segments of the middle and working classes, Grey sold millions of copies of his books and his royalties made him one of the first fiction writer millionaires.
Many of Grey’s books were adapted to motion pictures, beginning with a version produced by William Fox of Riders of the Purple Sage in 1916. Grey’s rising fame as a Western writer paralleled the dramatic growth of the genre in the film industry and he formed his own production company to control the adaptation of his novels into movies, though the firm was sold to Jesse Lasky of Paramount Pictures, which hired the writer as a consultant. Remarkably, some fifty of his books were made into about 100 motion pictures, though it was said Grey became disenchanted with copyright issues and what he perceived as overt commercialization of his work.
It was the Hollywood connection, in fact, that led Grey and his family to move west in 1918, where he purchased a 1907 house in Altadena designed by the well-known duo of Myron Hunt and Elmer Grey (no relation to the writer). The house was on a large estate that, in the 1930 census, was self-declared to have a value of $150,000 and remained in the family until 1970. Today, the home’s guest suite is available for rent on Airbnb.
The Catalina second home was built for a reported $50,000 (one reference states the average house price in the nation in 1925 was $6,000) and its location there was for one paramount purpose: access to deep-sea fishing which was, to put it mildly, a passion of Grey’s. In fact, he was once quoted as saying he wrote books so that he could fish.
There were news reports of the prowess of Grey with record catches on his many fishing trips, whether near Catalina or in far-away places like the South Pacific. He formed a “Porpoise Club” in New Jersey in the early 1910s and his love of fishing was such that his son Romer claimed he fished up to 300 days a year. He was a frequent visitor to the Florida Keys, Australia and New Zealand, Tahiti, and Nova Scotia, as well as at Catalina, where he was president of the private Tuna Club of Avalon.
Zane Grey died of a heart attack in October 1939 and, while his output slowed and sales were not as brisk in the Great Depression as they’d been in the Roaring Twenties, he continued to be avidly read and film versions of his novels continued to appear. It was said that he was the favorite author of World War II general and president Dwight D. Eisenhower. Today, however, Grey is not nearly as well known and old-style Westerns have long fallen out of favor.
As to the Zane Grey Pueblo Hotel, it closed in the mid 2000s and was up for sale for a few years until it was purchased several years ago. It is said to be under renovation, so it may yet reopen as a hotel and attract guests for its rustic charm and unparalleled views, if not for the awareness of its once-famous owner.