Fishing Lines: Many riders of Grey the grumpy sage

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The Independent Online

Mention Zane Grey and most people think: "Cowboy books". It's true that the author of Riders of the Purple Sage and The Rainbow Trail made his money from westerns - but he spent it on fishing.

Pearl Zane Grey (no wonder he adopted his middle name) was the JK Rowling of the 1920s. He had a novel in the top 10 bestsellers' list every year between 1915 and 1924, and in 1927 alone earnt $323,000. Heritage of the Desert had sold 17 million copies by 1939. Most of his books have been made into films, some two or three times.

When he died in 1939, he should have been worth tens of millions. Instead, he had squandered it all on increasingly lavish boats and exotic trips. By 1931, he owed $300,000 on yet another new boat he was planning.

Nothing wrong with that. Live big, spend big. People expect that from a superstar. Sadly, Grey was a curmudgeon. He hated people catching larger fish, and he was forced to resign from the snooty Catalina Tuna Club over a record 426lb broadbill swordfish landed by a woman. Grey, whose largest swordfish was only 418lb, claimed she was neither big enough nor strong enough to capture such a big fish. The boatman must have done most of the work, he said.

It's a darn shame he was such a vain, pompous, unlikeable man, because he wrote some of the great fishing books. Works such as Tales of Swordfish and Tuna, Tales of Tahitian Waters and Tales of Fishing Virgin Seas are, even today, among the finest works on big-game fishing.

But perhaps he had a more kindly side. After all, he used to take two, three or four female companions along on his trips, lasting weeks or more. So what if he wanted an audience for his achievements?

Ah, it was a bit more than that. A terrific new book on Grey* by Thomas Pauly reveals that, far from being a kindly old chap giving young women the chance to see the world, Grey was a lecherous cad who was rogering them all.

Pauly reveals: "There exists an enormous, totally unknown cache of photographs taken by Grey of nude women and himself performing various sexual activities, including intercourse. These are accompanied by 10 small journals, written in Grey's secret code, that contain graphic descriptions of his sexual adventures."

Pauly, who has seen the collection, says that there are several hundred negatives and prints. "Most are of nude females, and involve more than a dozen different women. The early ones date from Grey's college years, perhaps earlier, but the ones from the 1930s are more pornographic. I was allowed to examine this collection and to offer this inventory, but not to quote from the journals or publish any of the photographs."

Grey claimed the women were a crucial part of his inspiration. He was hugely generous to them, buying expensive gifts and, on one occasion, even a house. His wife Dolly, it seems, knew all about them, but turned a blind eye.

I suspect my wife might not be quite so understanding.

'Zane Grey: His Life, His Adventures, His Women', by Thomas H Pauly ($34.95, Univ of Illinois Press)