Every age has its heroes, and to goggle-eyed youngsters of the 1920s, '30s and even into the '40s, Albert Payson Terhune was a godlike figure. Terhune, who died in 1942, wrote dog stories—most often about collies—by the score, and the influence they had was tremendous, if not traumatic. "I must have read every one of his books when I was a kid," says Merrill Pollack, a New York editor. "I wanted to be a collie when I grew up. Mention Terhune's name and I go to pieces." Most of the collie breeders going today got into the sport of dogs because of Terhune. "I grew up on Terhune's stories and cried salty tears over them," says Mrs. Peggy Young, a collie breeder in Finleyville, Pa. "I still cry," says Mrs. Eugene Price, a collie fancier in Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y. "My husband cries too. We're both sloppy that way." By working 11 hours a day, six days a week, Terhune was able to meet the demands of his public. In fact, his productivity was such that one critic remarked, "It is easy to imagine the printer of anyone of a half dozen magazines returning a dummy of the month's issue to the editor and saying: 'There's some mistake. You've left out the Albert Payson Terhune story.' "
Terhune buffs can quote phrases or recite plots from the stories and books, much in the manner of the Baker Street Irregulars reeling off Holmesian lore. There is Lad, "such a dog as is found perhaps once in a generation." Lad had "absurdly tiny silver white forepaws," which he was always licking clean when the action got dull. There was Lad's mate, Lady, "an imperious and temperamental wisp of thoroughbred caninity," and then there was Bruce, "the dog without a fault," or, to put it another way, "Bruce is not just a 'mere dog.' He is—he is Bruce."
Bruce, Lad, Lady, Gray Dawn, Thane, Athos, Buff—the mind reels from nostalgia at this roster of the great. They herded sheep, caught robbers, saved babies and cheerfully charged into battle against maddened bulls, angry hawks, lurking snakes and stags in rut. Almost every story had at least one rousing fight, and no matter how bad things went at first, "a collie down is not a collie beaten," for "the collie brain—though never the collie heart—is wont to flash back in moments of mortal stress, to the ancestral wolf." The piles of tumbled ruff hair gave "a protection no other breed of dog can boast," and the unfortunate opponent soon found that the collie "may bite or slash a dozen times in as many seconds and in as many parts of the body. He is everywhere at once—he is nowhere in particular."
Like knights-errant of old, collies roamed through Terhune's stories with big hearts that "ever went out to the weak and defenseless."
January 15, 1968
Terhune claimed he based most of his stories on actual dogs, often his own, and on occasion fact outdid fiction. When Sunnybank Wolf was killed saving a cur from being hit by a train, The New York Times ran a long obituary, and the American Kennel Club Gazette reported that "the world paused for more than a moment." Unlike Lassie, the TV collie inspired by a novel by Eric Knight, Terhune's dogs did not have perpetual youth. They led epic lives, and they had epic deaths, worthy of Beowult or Little Nell. Thus, "Over a magnificent lifeless body on the veranda bent the two who had loved Lad best and whom he had served so worshipfully for sixteen years. The Mistress's face was wet with tears she did not try to check. In the Master's throat was a lump that made speech painful. For the tenth time he leaned down and laid his fingers above the still heart of the dog; seeking vainly for sign of fluttering.
" 'No use!' he said thickly, bowing his head, harking back by instinct to a half-remembered phrase. 'The engine has broken down.'
" 'No,' quoted the sobbing Mistress, wiser than he. 'The engineer has left it.' "
Terhune, who admitted he was a rank sentimentalist, made a practice of burying many of his canine heroes on his estate, Sunnybank Farm, in Pompton Lakes, N.J. Lad was the first collie to be interred, and a granite block was placed over the grave with the carved lines: "Lad, Thoroughbred in Body and Soul."
Unfortunately for Terhune, his readers were not content with simply reading about the dogs. They wanted to see them, dead or alive, they wanted to visit "The Place," as Terhune called Sunnybank in his stories, and they wanted to chat with "the Master" himself. "The public at large seems afflicted with the belief that Sunnybank is a zoo; and that I am a freak of sorts," he complained in his autobiography, To the Best of My Memory. "This I judge from the hordes of motor tourists who swarm into the grounds to see our collies and to waste my own time." This intrusion of visitors "rips at my nerves and temper," he declared, and after counting more than 1,700 strangers in one season who came to see Lad's grave, he shut the iron gates to The Place and posted a sign saying, NO ADMITTANCE TODAY.
Despite Terhune's distaste for welcoming his readers to his home, he relished personal publicity, and at the height of his career his every coming and going was news.
Though the press constantly followed him, Terhune began to fear that he had been around so long that he was being neglected, and in the mid-1930s he hired a press agent, Amy Vanderbilt, then a young writer in New York. Miss Vanderbilt recalls that Terhune was a big, bumbly grandfather type, and "He couldn't stand dirty stories about dogs." She wangled him reams of publicity; he was especially delighted with the worldwide play he got when he announced that cats were smarter than dogs.
Terhune was a huge man. He was 6 feet 3 and weighed 220 pounds. He had the build of a lumberjack, and his head was almost heroic. His hair usually hung over his forehead, making him look like a brooder, and he had a massive, determined chin. Most of the time he dressed like an English squire and was fond of striding through the countryside accompanied by 30 or 40 of his collies. A capacious drinker, he had a great fondness for Swiss S, a cocktail that is made with Pernod, and he ordinarily began lunch by ordering a pair of doubles.
Physical strength and a talent for writing ran in the Terhune family. His great-grandfather, Abram Terhune, was in George Washington's bodyguard, and, according to family tradition, Abram is shown in the painting, Washington Crossing the Delaware, pulling the starboard bow oar. Terhune's father was the Rev. Dr. Edward Payson Terhune, a Dutch Reformed minister who occasionally shocked his congregations by his fondness for fast horses, billiards, shooting and fishing. Terhune's mother was from Richmond, where she had known Edgar Allan Poe. Under the pen name of Marion Harland, she wrote best-selling romantic novels and a cookbook, Common Sense in the Household, which sold almost half a million copies.
Terhune was born in Newark, N.J. on Dec. 21, 1872. His father later accepted calls to Springfield, Mass. and Brooklyn, but home was always Sunnybank, a 40-acre estate on the shore of Pompton Lake in north Jersey. Terhune went to Columbia and, to earn money during his senior year, he boxed professionally under an assumed name. He was fond of fencing, too, and one of his favorite opponents at Sunnybank was a neighbor, Cecil B. De-Mille. Upon graduating from Columbia, Terhune visited the Middle East and wrote his first book, Syria from the Saddle, which earned him a few good reviews and a $50 advance. Then 21 and in need of a job, he became a reporter on the New York Evening World, published by Joseph Pulitzer. Terhune stayed at the World until 1916. "I did not like newspaper work," he wrote later. "I loathed it. During my entire 21½ years on the World I never once ceased to detest my various jobs there and the newspaper game in general." Yet Terhune had a nose for news and a zest for work, so much so that he was nicknamed the "Iron Man" by his colleagues. One morning, upon observing a pile of broken chains in front of the World building, Irvin S. Cobb exclaimed, "Terhune must be taking a day off!" Terhune liked to make light of his labors, but he was proud that, when he quit, the World hired two men to replace him.
Terhune had a hand in everything at the World. He did rewriting and reporting, he wrote editorials and edited letters and features. For a while Terhune wrote a feature column for the World, "Up and Down with the Elevator Man." But his forte was long serials, such as Ten Beautiful Shopgirls and Ten Popular Actresses. He was the shopgirls and the actresses. He did another series, supposedly by Lillian Russell, who wrote to the World, "I wish it to be understood by all my friends that I am not in any way responsible for the incoherent drivel appearing in your pages under my name." For another series, an editor assigned Terhune to box with the leading prizefighters of the day. Terhune got in the ring against Jim Jeffries, Bob Fitzsimmons, Jim Corbett, Tom Sharkey, Gus Ruhlin and Kid McCoy. He had sparred with all of them on his own, but for the readers of the World he went through an ordeal, emerging with two missing teeth and a broken left hand. Later he discovered that the editor had secretly offered a special half-page story in the Saturday paper to the boxer who kayoed him. Terhune was on friendly terms with Corbett and Fitzsimmons, but "John L. Sullivan was the only fighter I knew well whom I did not like...he was a bully, a sodden beast, a hog. He has been handed down to posterity as a ring hero. He was nothing of the kind. Fie had the intelligence of a louse—if any." Terhune was often apologetic about his writings, but he was proud of a now long-vanished novel, The Fighter, which he called "my nearest fictional approach to literature."
In 1901 Terhune married Anice Stockton, whom he had known as a child. Terhune had one daughter, Lorraine, from a previous marriage, who died in 1946. In 1905 Anice Terhune became gravely ill, and Terhune, unable to afford a nurse, had to take time off from the World to look after her. She recovered, but it was a turning point of his life. "I realized I was a lazy failure," he wrote. "I was thirty-two years old. I had not one hundred dollars in the world, above my weekly pay. I was several thousand dollars in debt. I had no reasonable hope of doing better along the lines I was following.
"I saw no way to get ahead in the world except by forcing some kind of opening for myself as a fiction writer. Thenceforth, for several years, I set aside five hours a night, five nights a week, for this kind of work. After my nine-hour office day, I came home, got a shower and a rubdown; and, as soon as dinner was ended, I went to my desk and began writing. At first it was torment, to attack fresh toil at the jaded end of a nine-hour work period. But, bit by bit, I got into my stride."
Most of the stories were cheap melodrama without the slightest pretensions to literature—"I knew that better than did anyone else; and I grieved bitterly over the knowledge," he admitted—but he did well financially. By 1912 he was getting $100 for a story and $1,400 for a serial, and in a typical year he was writing 20 short stories and five 60,000-word serials. He was able to spend more and more time at Sunnybank with his wife and dogs. He had for some time tried to persuade editors to buy dog stories, but he was told that the reading public was not interested. One weekend in 1914 Ray Long, editor of the Redbook, happened to be at Sunnybank. Long, who had taken a fancy to Lad, suggested Terhune do a story about the dog. Terhune wrote His Mate, about Lad and Lady, and it was such a success that other editors began clamoring for Lad stories. Terhune left the World and quickly turned out a dozen stories, all revolving around this "eighty-pound collie, thoroughbred in spirit as well as in blood." In real life Lad was not registered with the AKC, yet in print he had a "benign dignity that was a heritage from endless generations of high-strain ancestors." Moreover, Lad had "the gay courage of a d'Artagnan, and an uncanny wisdom. Also—who could doubt it, after a look into his mournful brown eyes—he had a Soul."
Lad, obviously, was a dog of destiny, and in successive stories, or "yarns," as Terhune called them, Lad captures a thief in the night; rescues the Mistress from drowning; saves a baby from a copperhead snake; rescues his offspring, Wolf, from drowning; wins two blue ribbons at the Westminster Kennel Club Show; gets lost in New-York but makes it back home to Sunnybank by swimming the Hudson River. (In a later epic, Gray Dawn, the collie of the title name also becomes lost on the east bank of the Hudson but, instead of swimming the river, he wisely takes the Nyack-Tarrytown ferry.) There is little that Lad cannot do. Perhaps the best-remembered Lad stories involve the nasty Hamilcar Q. Glure, who "had made much money in Wall Street—a crooked little street that begins with a graveyard and ends in a river." Having "waxed indecently rich," Glure buys "a hideously expensive estate" and settles down as a gentleman farmer in the north Jersey hills, where he dresses like "a blend of Landseer's Edinburgh Drover and a theater program picture of What the Man Will Wear." Anxious to accumulate prizes for his dogs, Glure offers a $1,600 gold trophy in the shape of a hat for the dog that wins a specialty competition, conditions to be announced later. They are not announced until the day of the show at Glure's estate, and it turns out that Lad is the only visiting dog that can qualify to compete for the trophy. He has won at least one blue ribbon at a licensed American or British Kennel Club show, and he has a certified five-generation pedigree with at least 10 champions. Now all he need do to win the trophy is to complete the obscure and tricky competition prescribed by the Kirkaldie Association, Inc., of Great Britain for Working Sheepdog Trials. But Lad really doesn't have a chance. He has never gone through such a competition, while the sly Glure has paid $7,000 to the Duke of Hereford for Champion Lochinvar III, the only dog in the world that can possibly qualify and win. But the Mistress, "like Lad, was of the breed that goes down fighting," and surely but very slowly Lad responds to her commands to complete the course. Full of confidence, Glure dismisses his dog's Scottish trainer to give Lochinvar hand signals. The dog bounds off to do the course, but Glure, who has been smoking a cigar, burns his fingers. He shakes his hand in pain, then he sticks his fingers in his mouth. Baffled by these strange movements, Lochinvar stops and refuses to move. In a rage, Glure tries to kick the dog and thereby forfeits the match by moving from the central post. Lad wins the Gold Hat, and the Master sends it to the Red Cross to have it melted down and sold to buy hospital supplies, explaining, "If that doesn't take off its curse of unsportmanliness, nothing will."
Nouveaux riches such as Glure were among Terhune's favorite villains. Others were tramps, any trespassers on The Place, "the professional dog catcher in quest of his dirty fee," and vivisectionists. The last flourished because "There seems to be no law to prevent human devils from strapping helpless dogs to a table and torturing them to death in the unholy name of Science." The vivisectionists were usually Germans, or, to put it another way, Germans were usually vivisectionists. Thus, in Bruce, written in the heat of World War I, the sinister Dr. Halding furtively goes around buying dogs at shows. "The bigger and stronger they are, the more he pays for them. He seems to think pedigreed dogs are better for his filthy purposes than street curs. They have a higher nervous organism, I suppose. The swine!" In time Dr. Halding is arrested as a dangerous alien. In addition to an ample supply of "treasonable documents," the arresting officers discover "no fewer than five dogs, in varying stages of hideous torture...strapped to tables or hanging to wall-hooks." Upon being seized, Dr. Halding bewails, "loudly and gutturally, this cruel interruption to his researches in Science's behalf."
When the Master and the Mistress later offer Bruce for service as a courier dog in France to rid the world of the Hun pestilence, the Master suddenly has second thoughts about his dog: "To think of him lying smashed and helpless, somewhere in No Man's Land, waiting for death, or caught by the enemy and eaten...! Or else to be captured and then cut up by some German vivisector-surgeon in the sacred interests of Science!"
Not even devotees of the dog game were exempt from Terhune's wrath. Woe to the breeder who foisted off a poor pup, or "purp," as Terhune wrote, on some innocent buyer. Woe, too, to fanciers who cared only to exhibit dogs at shows. Terhune was repelled by the anguish bull terriers underwent for shows "by the harsh rubbing of pipe clay into the tender skin. Sensitive tails, and still more sensitive ears were sandpapered, for the victims' greater beauty—and agony. Ear-interiors also were shaved close with safety razors." Even collies were hurt by "murderous little 'knife combs' " that transformed "natural furriness into painful and unnatural trimness. Ears were 'scrunched' until their wearers quivered with stark anguish—to impart the perfect tulip-shape; ordained by fashion for collies....
"Few of these ruthlessly 'prepared' dogs were personal pets. The bulk of them were 'kennel dogs'—dogs bred and raised after the formula for raising and breeding prize hogs or chickens, and with little more of the individual element in it.
"Brain, fidelity, devotion, the human side of a dog—these were totally ignored in the effort to breed the perfect physical animal.... The body was everything; the heart, the mind, the namelessly delightful quality of the master-raised dog—these were nothing. Such traits do not win prizes at a bench-show. Therefore fanciers, whose sole aim is to win ribbons and cups, do not bother to cultivate them." But for all this, Terhune was ready, willing and able to enter his own dogs at a show, provided the show was not too taxing. After all, showing dogs was "the straightest show on earth. Not an atom of graft in it, and seldom any profit." For four years Terhune served on the board of the American Kennel Club, the ruling body of dogdom.
When the Lad stories were done, Terhune looked around for a book publisher. John Macrae of Dutton offered to gamble on a book about Lad, and it was a success at once. Published in 1919, it went through 38 printings in 10 years. Lad has now sold so many copies the publisher has lost count. The same is true of any number of other Terhune books, some of which are still in print.
After Lad, Terhune went on to Bruce, Buff, Gray Dawn and a host of other canine do-gooders. One theme common to many stories is the dog as an instrument of salvation. Thus it is in the story, The Foul Fighter, with Champ, a collie adopted by Dan Rorke, a dirty fighter who wins by fouling. "That was how he made his living—by tactics his own dog would not stoop to." After seeing Champ fight clean against a mongrel, Rorke vows to do the same in his next bout. He does, and he wins. In the book, His Dog, Link Ferris finds a collie purp by the side of a road. Because of the dog, named Chum, Ferris gives up booze: "I stopped drinking because I got to seeing how much more of a beast I was than the fine clean dog that was living with me." With Chum's instincts for herding sheep and cattle, the sober Ferris pays off the mortgage on his farm, prospers and marries the beautiful Dorcas Chatham, daughter of the postmaster.
Ferris, incidentally, originally found Chum when the dog was tossed from a speeding car going around a curve. A curve in the road was one of Terhune's favorite plot devices. Screeching cars threw forth a veritable army of collies, babies, stolen goods and picnic hampers, all grist for stories. It so happened that The Place fronted, and still fronts, a wicked curve on Route 202, a fact impressed on Terhune himself, who was once struck there by a car doing 60. As a result of the accident, Terhune lost much of the use of his right hand, and he had to give up longhand for typing, a chore he disliked.
Another favorite device was to have two characters explain the whole background and point of the story in the opening dialogue. There are times where the leading character does this in a soliloquy to a dog, as in the novel Buff, where a maltreated purp is rescued by a man named Michael Trent. As Trent drives off with the dog, he says, "I'm an outcast, you know, Buff. An Ishmaelite. And I'm on my way back to my home-place to live things down. It'll be a tough job, Buff. All kinds of rotten times ahead. Want to face it with me?...Not to take up too much of your time, Buff, here's the main idea: I'd just got that farm of mine on a paying basis, and changed it from a liability to something like an asset, when the smash-up came. Just because I chose to play the fool. It was down at the Boone Lake store one night...." After Trent goes on for another two pages of dialogue and tells the dog about his being wrongly sentenced to prison, he pauses. Buff snuggles close and licks his hand. "Good little pal!" exclaims Trent as he heads home to attempt to clear his name. Does he succeed? Of course, and he wins the heroine, too, winsome Ruth Hammerton, daughter of the local judge—but none of this would have happened were it not for the collie Buff, who pursues his kidnaped master with all the eagerness of a man from a bill-collection agency. "Dizzy from his wound, faint from loss of blood, heart-broken and frantic at the vanishing of his master, the collie sped in pursuit...."
Faithful collies! Tireless collies! Psychic collies! They ever carry onward. "A dog is a dog, but a collie is—a collie." Some of what Terhune wrote is outdated or flimsy cardboard, but much still has a magic. He was perhaps at his best in some of his Lad stories or stories where collies revert to the wild, such as in Fox! and Lochinvar Bobby. The writing, at least for children, is highly effective, as in this passage from Fox! where Whitefoot, the registered silver fox escapes from the fur farm: ''Wriggling out of his tunnel, he shook himself daintily to rid his shimmering silver-flecked black coat of such dirt as clung to it. Then he glanced around him. From the nearby wire runs, twenty-three pairs of slitted topaz eyes flamed avidly at him. Twenty-three ebony bodies crouched moveless; the moon glinting on their silver stipples and snowy tailtips.
"The eyes of the world were on the fugitive. The nerves of his world were taut and vibrant with thrill at his escapade. But they were sportsmen in their own way, these twenty-three prisoners who looked on while their more skilled fellow won his way to liberty. Not a whine, not so much as a deep-drawn breath gave token of the excitement that was theirs. No yelping bark brought the partners out to investigate. These captives could help their comrade only by silence. And they gave him silence to a suffocating degree."
Terhune always had doubts about his writing, stating at one point, "I found I could make more money as a scrawler of second-and third-rate stuff. While it is a noble thing to starve in a garret and to leave to posterity a few precious volumes which all folk praise and few read, yet to me there was something better worthwhile in grinding out work which brought me plenty of cash, if no high repute." In an even darker moment, he wrote, "I have become an Apostle of the Obvious, a writer for the Very Young."
In the 1930s Terhune discovered he had cancer. He bore the illness as would Bruce or Lad or Buff, stoically. Bruce Chapman, producer of Terhune's radio show, says that Terhune would tell the doctors, "Take out enough so I can be on the air next Sunday." Always close to his wife, his dear "chum," he loved their hours together at Sunnybank. "He was happy in the simple sense," says Chapman. On Feb. 18, 1942 Terhune died at The Place. A religious man, his last words to his wife were, "I know the Dear Savior will help me across."
The story of Albert Payson Terhune does not end there. Mrs. Terhune survived him for 22 years. A gentle, old-fashioned Victorian sort of lady, Anice Terhune continued to set her beloved Bert's place at the dinner table. For solace, she wrote music. She wore flowery hats, and she was upset by women in slacks. Before his death, Terhune had prepared rough notes for an article, Across the Line, in which he speculated on life in the hereafter and which he ended, "It is not ridiculous to believe—to KNOW—there is something very definite, Across the Line. It is ridiculous to believe there is not." The psychic had always held an interest for him. Indeed, he touches on this in a couple of stories, most notably Something, where a collie howls at his master's death far away.
Mrs. Terhune's loneliness did not last for long. According to a book she wrote and which she called Across the Line, Bert first manifested himself to her while she was searching for the pedigree papers for their dogs in his untidy study. "Bert's voice—dear and familiar—suddenly startled me. It came clear, distinct and natural." He told her where to find the missing papers. "'Look behind you, little girl!' he said. 'Look right behind you! They're all there! Everything! Look! Look right behind you! Turn around!' "
In time, she wrote, she was able to take dictation from her husband, a celestial being who, through electrical impulse, manipulated a pencil she held. He reported, "Laddie and Wolf knew me at once. It was so good to have them bounding around me again!" He still loved her and Sunnybank. He gave her advice on how to handle a mischievous dog. She once asked, "How about swearing? Do you still do it?" Terhune replied, "No, Annie; I no longer swear. I had to clean all of that out of my heart at once." When she asked Terhune about John the Baptist, she reported her husband replied, "He is here. In a droning, resounding voice he tells us the Eternal Truths." She then asked, "Why does he do it in a droning voice?" To which Terhune replied, "Because he is the same soul he was on earth."
In the old house by the lake the servants grew fewer, and in 1964 Mrs. Terhune died. Under wills set up by her husband and herself, the Albert Payson Terhune Foundation and Albert Payson Terhune, Inc. came into being. Terhune, Inc. earns money to give to the Terhune Foundation, which dispenses largess to charity. Sunnybank was sold to earn money. A housing developer ended up with the final 10 acres, including the house, kennels, barn and gazebo. A year ago Wayne Township condemned The Place. Weeds grew around the graves of Lad and Bruce, and vandals pillaged the house for souvenirs. Last October the township dedicated The Place as a park. The house stands, in need of repair. From time to time collie fanciers, dog lovers and people who remember the stories and books with affection drive in to look around. They come from all over the country, and one of them who lives nearby, Mrs. Claire Leishman, of Paramus, N.J., has started a drive to restore the house as a shrine. She has written about her efforts in the monthly Collie Cues, and the response has been excellent. One lady in California pledged $1,000, writing, "Everything I am and ever have been in collies is because of the Terhune books."
Apostle of the Obvious, writer to the Very Young, Albert Payson Terhune is still very much alive.