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This Dentist Lived to Write and Wrote to Live

May 14, 2019

By Dean George

Once or twice a year in this space we play a game with readers where we share clues about former dentists who earned fame and fortune in other careers and have the readers guess who they are. 

In The Dentist, the Doctor and the Denture, we wrote about the many exploits of Paul Revere and how the ‘midnight rider’ performed the first known dental forensic procedure in North America.  

In To Be or Not to Be a Dentist, we featured actor Edgar Buchanan, who left a successful dental practice with his wife to play a variety of characters in more than 100 movies and television shows over a 35-year career. 

We’ve also written about famous people related to dentists, like actress and United Nations alternate delegate Irene Dunne in A Dental Love Story and the famous actor/rebel James Dean in This Diminutive Actor was a Hollywood Giant

Today we’re writing about a famed novelist who worked as a dentist for five years in New York City before pursuing his dream of a famed literary career. But today’s subject was not just any fiction writer.  


He was one of America’s first millionaire authors. Pearl (his legal first name before he adopted his middle name as his preferred one) authored more than 90 books, some of which were published posthumously and/or were based on magazine serials. 

Pearl’s total book sales exceeded 40 million copies and after his death in 1939, his publisher had enough manuscripts to publish one new title each year until 1963. His last published book based from his leftover manuscripts was published in 2007. 

He pioneered the Western genre, writing 60 books that all became movies. Like many of his novels though, his life plans took some unexpected turns based on circumstances, personal choices and the author’s personal peccadilloes.  

Back Story 

Pearl was born on January 31, 1872 in Zanesville, Ohio to Alice Josephine and her husband Lewis Gray. (After Pearl’s birth the family changed the spelling of their last name from Gray to “Grey.”) His father was a grumpy, antisocial dentist, and his mother was the granddaughter of the founder of Zanesville, an American Revolutionary War patriot and English Quaker immigrant named Robert Zane. 

Pearl was a mediocre student but was an avid reader of adventure stories and dime novels. At 15 he wrote his first story, Jim of the Cave. For whatever reason, his father didn’t like the story and showed his disapproval by shredding it and then beating Pearl. 

That wasn’t the first beating the elder Grey gave Pearl or his brothers Romer and Lewis. Pearl and Romer were athletic, active youth and often brawled with other boys to spite their cantankerous father. 

The main outlet for Pearl and Romer came later when their father moved them to Columbus, OH after losing a large share of money from a poor investment in Zanesville.  Both boys were talented ballplayers with Romer eventually playing professional baseball and Pearl receiving several offers from many colleges. 

It was after their move when his father was working to establish his dental practice in Columbus that Pearl would help by making rural house calls and doing basic extractions like his father had taught him. This business strategy worked well for the Grey’s until the Ohio state board of dentistry learned of it and put a kibosh on it. 

From that point until starting college, Pearl made his money by working as a theater usher and playing semi-pro baseball with the Columbus Capitols. It was there that Pearl drew the attention of baseball scouts, eventually accepting a baseball scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania where he joined a fraternity and studied dentistry. 

College and Dental School 

Many pro baseball players drew the attention of scouts in the highly competitive Ivy League, and Pearl Grey meant to be one of them. A talented pitcher with a killer curve ball, Grey enjoyed “Joe College” status because he was known around campus for his pitching and clutch hitting. 

Regardless, Pearl’s shy nature and refusal to drink alcohol meant he rarely socialized, spending much of his college time off the ball diamond swimming and doing creative writing, especially poetry.  

Being an indifferent student and having poor grades almost jeopardized his chance to be a dentist; however, he still entered the school’s dental program based largely on his hands-on experience working with his father. 

After graduation in 1896, Pearl Grey opened his dental practice in New York City under his publishing name.  Years later he confessed he chose his dental practice location because of its proximity to book publishers. Every day after treating patients he couldn’t wait to close his office so he could spend his evenings writing. 

A gifted storyteller, his early work was grammatically weak and hindered his marketability as a writer. In 1900 while canoeing with his brother Romer in Lackawaxen, Pennsylvania, fate intervened in his writing pursuit by introducing Pearl to a 17-year-old girl who would change his life forever. 

Hello, Dolly 

Lina Roth’s family were physicians, and the girl everyone called Dolly was studying to be a schoolteacher. That was good training for counseling her writer wannabe husband who suffered from mood swings and depression throughout their courtship and marriage. 

Dolly not only saw the skill and talent of her husband, but over their 34-year marriage she proved to be a gifted editor, psychologist and business agent who oversaw all his contract negotiations with publishers and movie studios. 

Dolly believed in her husband’s dream of becoming a famous writer, and she put her money on it when an inheritance she received from her family provided the Grey’s the financial stability for Pearl to quit his dental practice and pursue writing full-time.  

It’s been said that living with a writer isn’t easy, and Pearl proved no exception to that adage. During their five years of dating he made no secret of his fascination with women and his desire to continue seeing other women after marriage: 

“I love to be free. I cannot change my spots. The ordinary man is satisfied with a moderate income, a home, wife, children, and all that...but I am a million miles from being that kind of man and no amount of trying will ever do any good...I shall never lose the spirit of my interest in women,” he told her. 

Reportedly Dolly saw Pearl’s infidelities as a handicap he couldn’t help, and while disapproving and hurt by his behavior, she apparently thought that was the price for being married to a man she was convinced was a temperamental literary genius.  

Next week we’ll share the two novels that launched Pearl to literary fame, an outdoor passion that also helped him gain international notoriety, and two syndicated television shows that were based on book characters he created. 

Thanks for reading Agent Straight-Talk and for more rootin, tootin tales, follow us on FacebookTwitterPinterest, and LinkedIn.    

Sources: Wikipedia,, 

Photo sources: Ohio Historical Society, Pinterest (Zaney Meyer Collection), 

Copyright 2019, Bloom Insurance Agency, LLC©  

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