Zane Grey - The Hardy Connection
Zane Grey is one of those people that sound too unlikely to be true: a failed dentist who became a best-selling novelist so that he could pay for the kind of fishing that most of us can only dream about... or at least that's the way it worked out. Now you might ask, "What is an American novelist doing on this site, when you have so clearly drawn a line in the sand and told us that the museum will only deal with British and Irish fishing?"
Well, there is a connection. You will just have to be patient and read on. Trust us, we aren't fooling.
Pearl Zane was the fourth of five children and was inseparable from his younger brother, Romer, who shared his passion for hunting and fishing – Romer is frequently referred to in Grey’s books as ‘R.C.’. Pearl was a moody character and never made a particularly good student, spending as much time as reading dime novels as he did fishing, which may explain why his father Lewis tore up Pearl’s first attempt at fiction when he found it.
Lewis Gray ran into financial trouble in 1890, forcing the family to move to Columbus, Ohio, where Pearl helped out with his dental practice, although he was still a minor and had no license to do so. An investigator pounced, the upshot being that Pearl agreed to go to dental school to avoid prosecution and ended up graduating with a diploma in a profession that he hated.
In 1896, he moved to New York and set up in practice – having changed his name so that his plate read ‘Dr. P. Zane Grey D.D.S.’ – but his ambition was to become a writer. His brother had also qualified as a dentist, although R. C. spent most of the season playing professional baseball, earning enough to allow them to go fishing at the weekends, a favour which would be repaid by Zane many times over. It was on one of these trips, in 1900, that Zane met his future wife, Lina Elise Roth.
After a lot of effort, Grey had his first novel accepted in 1905, got married and went to California on honeymoon, where Zane went fishing most days, as far as can be told. For the next couple of years the couple eked out a living, before he hit on the idea of doing a Western. He spent the last of their money travelling to Arizona to do the research, only to have the resulting book rejected. It was 1909 before Harper spoiled their unbroken record of rejecting him - they also rejected Riders of the Purple Sage, although the book became a phenomenal best-seller when they finally relented in 1912.
And then, Grey did something which makes him stand out – he went out and spent the money doing what he enjoyed - fishing. Money all too often breeds such insecurity that people who have it must always be working to get more, but although Grey never stopped writing, producing nearly 90 books, which made him the favourite author of at least two generations of Americans, he never forgot to go out and play. The couple moved to California with their three children and lived a life where Grey was frequently far away from home on fishing trips or gathering stories for his novels, and as often as not, R. C. came fishing with him, on epic trips that spanned the globe and which are immortalised in spell-binding books like Tales of Swordfish and Tuna and Tales of an Angler’s Eldorado.
The British connection came in when Grey got seriously into big game fishing. To give some idea of his wealth, this was a man who thought nothing buying yachts and even building small villages to support his angling activities, so it must have been a work of small moment for him to get in touch with Hardy's of Alnwick when he wanted to build the world's finest big game reel. In Grey's opinion there wasn't any other firm that had the design and engineering resources to build it, and he was probably right, because in 1928, when the reel went on sale, there were very few tackle makers with the global reach of Hardy's, who had agencies worldwide.
The reels were sold in 5, 5 1/2" and 6" sizes to begin with, although Hardy's added 3 1/2" and 4 3/16" sizes in 1929 and offered to build 7" and 8 1/2" versions to special order. At £30 each for the first three sizes, Zane Grey could claim that the reel was not only the best in the world, but the most expensive and the optional leather case alone cost more than most of the other reels in the Hardy catalogue. The reel was built out of Monel alloy and featured a 2 1/2 to 1 1/2 gear ratio with a sophisticated drag mechanism which could deal with salt water species up to 1000 lb and beyond without breaking into a sweat, so there wasn't anything to match it. Today, examples are rare and cause tremendous excitement on the few occasions that they come up at auction: and if you ever get to hold one, let alone spin the handles, you will end up dreaming of selling your soul to own it.
Zane Grey died on 23rd October, 1939, after a heart attack. At the time of his death, 27 million copies of his novels had been sold and Harper’s had twenty more books of his waiting to be published.
The reel wasn't Grey's only venture with Hardy's and they also sold rods and a gaff built to his specifications.