Fishing Lines: How a cowboy got hooked

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The Independent Online
A REEL named after one of the world's most famous authors is expected to make between pounds 1,500 and pounds 2,500 at Sotheby's * later this month. While Zane Grey is most famous for his cowboy books, he was also a tremendous fisherman. And thereby hangs a very strange tale.

At one stage in the 1920s, Grey's books were selling better than anything else in print except the Bible and McGuffey's Readers. By 1924, he was paying dollars 54,000 in income tax. His astronomical earnings enabled him to live the American Dream. He lassoed mountain lions in the Grand Canyon, mapped wild rivers in Mexico and hiked through Death Valley 'to see what it must have been like for those who hadn't made it'.

He popularised fishing for bonefish, reckoned by many to be the world's greatest sporting fish, in the Florida Keys and pioneered fly-fishing for steelhead trout in the north-west of America. He bought a three-masted schooner and explored the South Pacific, catching world-record fish and buying parcels of land as souvenirs. He had a hand in launching Paramount Studios. But he died a sad old man who had to pay people to go fishing with him.

With a life like that, you wouldn't think that Grey needed to fabricate anything about himself. But perhaps because he was given the dreadful first name Pearl, in honour of the mourning colour Queen Victoria chose to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Albert's death, he lived an unhappy life.

Desperately eager to be the friend of presidents, Grey tried to prove that his life was just as glamorous, often untruthfully. In 1919, he claimed to have seen the last wild passenger pigeons in Arizona, even though the birds had never been found there and they were probably extinct a decade before.

Grey could have been a dentist like his father, who also preached. But he despised the calling, even though he graduated and set up a practice in New York. His girlfriend Lina encouraged him to write and he sold a couple of outdoor stories. But dollars 20 did not go far, even in 1902, and he became very depressed when no publisher would touch Betty Zane, the story of his great-great-grand-aunt, who carried gunpowder in her apron through a hail of bullets to save her brother's command during the American Revolution.

But suddenly it all went right. The Heritage of the Desert, for example, earned him more than dollars 500,000. On his wife's advice, he leased each title to movie producers for a maximum of seven years. The result was that nearly 100 films were made from 44 of his novels, a record for any author.

He became an active member of the Catalina Island Tuna Club, off the Californian coast, and in 1920 caught the season's largest broadbill swordfish, weighing 418lb. It should have been a time of triumph for him, but it was to prove an acute embarrassment because of a tiny woman fisherman. Next week I'll tell you why, and how he came to write some of the world's greatest fishing books.

* Sotheby's, Billingshurst, West Sussex, at 2.30pm on 28 July.

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