(David Lyon for the Boston Globe)

Their little wild isle

Zane Grey and William Wrigley had Catalina in common

Email|Print| Text size + By David Lyon
Globe Correspondent / December 17, 2006

SANTA CATALINA ISLAND -- Zane Grey knew how to write and he knew how to live. Back in 1926, when he was the best-selling author in the world and the toast of Hollywood, he built himself a faux Hopi adobe retreat on this island 22 miles off the California coast.

These days, Catalina is a getaway for Angelenos hankering to be free of freeways and Grey's home above the city of Avalon has metamorphosed into the Zane Grey Pueblo Hotel, with bargain rates in the off-season. The hotel is a steep hike from the center of Avalon up to a scenic overlook on the ridgeline .

Just when I thought I had arrived, the hotel loomed another eighth of a mile straight up, surrounded by terraced gardens of aloe, cacti, and desert palms. Catalina may be in the middle of the ocean, but the island is a desert, which goes a long way toward explaining its appeal to the author identified with the purple sage and red-rock canyons of the American West.

The Pueblo Hotel could almost be a trading post in a Grey novel. It still feels like a gentleman's retreat with its big adobe fireplace, a grand piano crafted from wood Grey brought back from a Tahiti fishing trip, and walls of bookcases displaying his oeuvre , which posthumously (Grey lived from 1872-1939 ) approached 90 books .

My room, "The Vanishing American," was, like the other 15 sleeping quarters, named for one of Grey's novels. The sentimental Indian painting, wood paneling, and beautifully tooled cowboy boots mounted on the wall perfectly evoked the author's western melodramas. For kicks, I borrowed a copy of "The Vanishing American" (1922) from the living room to read on the patio outside my room.

When Hollywood filmed the novel on Catalina in 1925, Grey insisted on having 14 American bison shipped over as window dressing. After the silent movie wrapped, the beasts were released to the hills to fend for themselves. Today the free-ranging herd numbers about 200.

The bison flourished because most of the rugged island remains untracked wilderness. In 1919, chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr. bought most of the stock in the Santa Catalina Co. , gaining control of about 90 percent of the island. Wrigley made it his playground, bringing the Chicago Cubs over for spring training, and constructing such amenities as the Avalon Casino to keep his family and his friends amused. Except for establishing a ranch to raise Arabian horses, he left the island's interior virtually untouched.

In the 1970s, the family transferred 42,000 acres of wilderness to the Catalina Island Conservancy, which guards it zealously. (Because a fire could devastate the tinder-dry interior, hikers must obtain special permits.)

But there are ways to reach the interior other than in hiking boots . Driving is not an option -- there are no rental cars on Catalina, only bicycles and golf carts -- but Discovery Tours offers both a four-wheel-drive, off-road excursion and a bus trip on the interior roads. Recent rains had made the dirt tracks impassable, even aboard the 12-passenger Mercedes Unimog, so I settled for the bus tour to the island's airstrip a few miles inland on a flattened mountaintop.

Winding up the edge of the ridges, we passed through and above the clouds as the climate changed from temperate rain forest to volcanic desert . The ravens so ubiquitous at low altitude gave way to bald eagles and red-tailed hawks in the highlands. Where the road was wide enough, the driver stopped so we could take photos as we kept our eyes peeled for bison. There was plenty of evidence of the beasts near one small water hole (tracks and buffalo chips), but the wildest creature I spotted was a housecat-sized Channel Island fox darting into the chaparral.

Grey, who lived in Altadena, in the foothills northeast of Los Angeles, was less interested in the wildlife of Catalina's hills than in the fish of its surrounding waters. Founded in 1898, Avalon's Tuna Club is generally considered the birthplace of rod and reel billfish trophy fishing. Grey himself landed a world-record 582-pound broadbill swordfish in these waters -- and sent it off to join his other mounted trophies at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Winter isn't prime season for the giant fish, but down at the ferry dock, people were casting with great success for 5- to 7-pound bonito on the incoming tide. The waterfront is the central nervous system of the village. Even in winter, the water is warm enough for swimming and snorkeling (especially in the kelp forest of the Avalon Underwater Park) and the Avalon Casino still dominates the village pastimes.

The Wrigleys built the casino (always an entertainment center, never a gambling casino) in 1929. The architects drew on the Moorish stream of Art Deco, and the fantasy has endured well. Upstairs is a 180-foot-diameter dance floor that hosted as many as 6,000 people in its Jazz Age heyday and still brings out the crowds for occasional dancing to big bands. Tucked in a lower level, a small museum of Catalina history is stuffed with memorabilia and photographs of Hollywood stars who vacationed here, B movies shot on the island, photos of the Chicago Cubs at spring training camp, and examples of the Art Deco tiles of the defunct Catalina Tile Co .

But the best and most functional museum piece is the ground- level movie theater, stunningly restored to the flamboyant style of the 1930s, when silver screen stars were frequently in the audience. One of the first theaters equipped for both silent films and sound, it plays second-run Hollywood movies several nights a week.

Even the lobby is a period piece, with once- risqué murals in the Parisian Art Deco style, and an unquestionably American stylized depiction of Indians astride 16-foot-long horses on a desert landscape. It's easy to imagine Grey here, in a Western shirt with his cropped steely mustache, showing the rest of the movie goers photographs from his latest fishing trip.

Contact Cambridge-based freelance writer David Lyon at

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