Heroic quest

American author and fisherman Zane Grey was a celebrity visitor to the NSW south coast in the 1930s.

 

I am amazed and dumbfounded at the reception given me in Australia. I find myself a favourite author, a hero fisherman, a famous celebrity, come to do well in their country. And have they responded!

So wrote American author Zane Grey in a letter to his wife, Dolly, recently acquired by the Library with nine related photographs.

Zane Grey with striped marlin and black marlin caught off Bermagui, 14 February 1936, photo by TC Roughley, PXE 1776

Zane Grey with striped marlin and black marlin caught off Bermagui, 14 February 1936, photo by TC Roughley, PXE 1776

Grey had arrived in Sydney on the Mariposa on 30 December 1935 intent on pursuing his passion for big game fishing. His entourage of seven included a camera crew and came with 166 pieces of luggage.

Born in 1872, Grey achieved international fame as the author of popular adventure novels and stories associated with the Wild West and the American frontier. A prodigious worker, he published more than 90 books, including one of the most successful Western novels of all time, Riders of the Purple Sage (1912).

In an interview with a Sydney journalist he described his daily schedule: ‘Up at 5 am, dictate or type for four hours; out fishing for the rest of the day; a nap on return, then another four hours writing.’

After several days in Sydney, Grey and his party drove down the coast to Bermagui where they pitched a dozen tents in a grove of gum trees. It was from here that he wrote to Dolly on 31 January 1936.

His camp was on a precipitous bluff overlooking the ocean, ‘beautiful, ideal, except open to the public. The birds are strange, lovely, the trees gorgeous, the bush (forest) magnificent.’

Zane Grey on a fishing boat with sharks he has just caught, MLMSS 10398

Zane Grey on a fishing boat with sharks he has just caught, MLMSS 10398

He went on: ‘I have from 250 to 500 visitors daily. Come to see me, for autographs & photos, to buy books, to visit the famous Zee Gee Camp. They call me Zee Gee. This little town of Bermagui has become notorious overnight. Other towns are jealous. It is a most amazing tribute.’

His enchantment with Bermagui did not, however, extend to the local fishermen whom he bluntly derided as ‘punk. They think they know it all. But I am being as careful as possible. All the same I have caught all the fish so far, and they have none.’

As well as fishing and writing he also made time for radio appearances which proved extremely popular. ‘My talks on radio are going ever bigger & bigger’, he told Dolly with evident pride.

Halfway through the letter he made the surprising admission that although he was ‘supposed to be a millionaire American sportsman’ he was ‘almost broke! … Everything here awfully high, and so many expenses I didn’t account for.’ He complained that all they ‘could chisel out of the Shell Co. for an 18 minute radio talk was $1000.’ Later in the letter he remarked somewhat wistfully, ‘If it wasn’t for the fear about money I’d be having my greatest trip.’

Although he was a serial womaniser, Grey apparently remained devoted to Dolly, whose business acumen and skilful editing of his books had been major factors in his success. ‘I never was so sick, never so sad at leaving you,’ he wrote. ‘I have wished you here often, just to see the people, the kids who come to see me. You’d love it. That has touched me deeply. They come from hundreds of miles away.’

On the night he wrote this letter the townspeople threw a party for him in his camp. His meagre contribution was a bottle of champagne he had been given ‘because I caught the big fish’. Although he ‘didn’t drink’, he enjoyed himself so much that he ‘felt better than at any time since I’ve been away’.

Grey was such a well-liked figure in Bermagui that he was made patron of the Bermagui Sport Fishing Association. And the caravan park across the road from where he camped was renamed Bermagui Zane Grey Tourist Park.

From Bermagui, Grey moved north to establish another camp at Batemans Bay. He also spent several weeks fishing out of Sydney, using Watsons Bay as his base. On 5 May he left Sydney for the Great Barrier Reef where he made a feature film called White Death with himself in the leading role. The plot concerned his heroic quest to catch a large shark that was terrorising the Queensland coast. It was not a success.

Grey also fished in other locations around Australia, but it seems that the south coast of New South Wales remained his favourite spot. His book An American Angler in Australia (1937) is devoted almost entirely to the waters off Bermagui and Batemans Bay. It was there that he and his companions caught 67 big fish, mostly swordfish, weighing nearly 10 tons. ‘This seems incredible’, he wrote, ‘but it is true.’ And he couldn’t help adding: ‘Two thirds of this number fell to my rod.’ (The current bag limit for swordfish in NSW is one.)

Grey died in 1939, only months after a second visit to Australia. He is remembered here not only as a celebrated author but as a significant figure in establishing deep-sea sport fishing in New South Wales.

Warwick Hirst, Librarian, Collection Strategy & Development