Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend.
Of course, the simple answer to Orlean's initial question is that Rin Tin Tin was a dog, but not the dog that she imagined. There were numerous Rin Tin Tin's before (and after) the one she thought she knew from The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin which debuted on ABC in 1954 and was dropped by CBS in 1965, and none of the dogs used in the television series was ever the official Rin Tin Tin of the time. The original was a puppy found by American soldier Lee Duncan in the ruins of a World War I battlefield in 1918. Duncan nearly lost this dog before shipping home, but a sympathetic officer intervened to allow the puppy on board the troop ship. A broken leg and a failed screen test nearly kept the original from becoming a silent movie actor, but Duncan persevered, and Rin Tin Tin became a movie sensation.
In the early movies, Rin Tin Tin played dogs with other names. Later, dogs with other names played Rin Tin Tin doing things that he never actually did. Reality was especially ignored in nineteenth century stories of the Wild West. German shepherds were not introduced as a breed (in Germany) until the late 1890s, and very few were brought to the United States before the end of World War I. Rin Tin Tin became in many ways a myth and trademark instead of a real dog.
The constant throughout the story with its many Rin Tin Tins is Duncan and his chosen successor as protector of the Rin Tin Tin legacy, film producer Bert Leonard. While Duncan was a loner and Leonard was a fast-spending lady's man, both were dreamers devoted to the idea of dog movies and incapable of protecting their own families from financial ruin. Leonard died amid many lawsuits, some aimed at a Texas dog breeder who thought she owned the Rin Tin Tin name by virtue of owning some of the descendant dogs.
I listened to Orlean read her wide-reaching biography/history in which readers learn about dogs in war, silent movies, German shepherds in America, the Baby Boom, early television, dog breeders, and the collectibles industry in the age of eBay. She sounds natural and at times confessional, as her book is also a memoir. Her story is compelling throughout and deserves the many readers it is getting.
Orlean, Susan. Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend. Simon and Schuster Audio, 2011. 10 compact discs. ISBN 9781442344969.