The memory of that triumph probably helped sustain him during the next decade, during which he moved to New York, practiced dentistry, and tried to crack the publishing world. Years later, he would tell interviewers that a wealthy dental patient had offered to lend him the money to publish his first book—Betty Zane, a Revolutionary War-era novel based on one of his ancestors. What he didn’t say was that the patient was one Lina Elise Roth, better known as Dolly, whom he had been courting for three years. Dolly paid the cost of self-publishing Betty Zane in 1903, and in 1907, two years after they married, she used the last of her inheritance to underwrite his first solo trip to the West.

It grew out of a talk by one J. C. “Buffalo” Jones, a former buffalo hunter who was attempting to breed “cattalo”—a hybrid of buffalo and cattle—on his ranch near the Grand Canyon. Grey heard him speak at the Campfire Club in New York, and while most of the audience hooted at his implausible-sounding adventure stories, Grey believed him. Furthermore, he proposed to accompany Jones out West and write a book about his work. Jones agreed, and the planning commenced—until Grey saw how much the trip would cost, at which point he realized he couldn’t afford it. But Dolly, who was sharp enough to describe her husband’s more overblown passages as “periods of retardation,” also had the vision to see his potential.

“I’ve got a hunch that this trip to the West will be the turning point in your career,” she told him.

The trip—during which he rode into the wilderness with some tough-minded Mormons, shot a mountain lion, and drank in the landscape—sparked a lifelong obsession with the West. It also yielded The Last of the Plainsmen, whose scope was considerably broader than Buffalo Jones’ cattalo experiments.

There was only one problem. “I do not see anything in this to convince me you can write either narrative or fiction,” a Harper Brothers editor named Ripley Hitchcock told Grey after reading The Last of the Plainsmen. A dozen other publishers also rejected it. Even when the Outing Publishing Company agreed to print the book, it didn’t pay him anything for it.

But Grey, bless his stubborn soul, kept at it, and just two years after his humiliating rejection, he asked Hitchcock to read his new book, a sprawling Western novel titled The Heritage of the Desert.

Hitchcock read it, and summoned Grey to New York.

“You’ve done it,” Hitchcock told him. “You’ve made me eat my words. It’s a fine novel, and here’s the proof of it.” With that, he handed the writer a contract.

Seven years later, Grey would return to Philadelphia in order to receive an honorary Master of Letters degree from Provost Edgar Fahs Smith. The citation poured praise upon the dental-school alumnus, noting that his “travels and adventures, since graduation from the University, have been vividly portrayed in fascinating and instructive volumes of fiction.”

Instructive is a particularly nice word to describe Grey’s novels. One wonders if Zane would have used it to describe Pearl’s treatment at the hands of the Sophs—or the message he sent back with those potatoes.

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2004 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 02/27/04

Dentist of the Purple Sage
By Samuel Hughes
Illustration by David Hollenbach

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