“Dawn, Full Moon Setting” Zane Grey Camp, Vairao, Tahiti, 1931
William Alister MacDonald (1860-1956)
So many writers have fallen in love with Tahiti over the years. The writer, Zane Grey, best known for his adventure novels about the American West including Riders of the Purple Sage, was no exception. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Grey made several long trips to Tahiti in pursuit of his passion for deep-sea fishing. Being one of the first millionaire bestselling writers, he could afford both the time and the money needed to indulge in the sport. For his long stays in Tahiti, he built a permanent fishing camp on Flower Point at Vairao on the south-west coast.
“It certainly was a beautiful site. Captain Mitchell had cleared off a bluff, except for the large palms, breadfruit, and other trees, and had put up a number of bungalows, four on top of the bluff and as many more below, including a bamboo-and-palm dining house and kitchen.... As I write here at night the sea crashes on the cliff below, and above that sound comes the boom and thunder of the outer reef. Huge moths as large as bats fly against my screens, attracted by the lights, and slim, croaking lizards dart around over the wire to try to catch them. ... The fragrance of frangipani – than which there is no sweeter on earth – floats through doors and windows. And when I step out on the porch to gaze down upon the lagoon under a full moon, and out to the broken silver line of surf, and across the bay to the grand, black range, crowned by white clouds, I am not sure that it is real, that I am not in some enchanted land of dreams.”
Grey and his crew spent months fishing the waters off Tahiti searching for the massive billfish - swordfish, sailfish, spearfish, sharks, and above all the Pacific blue marlin - that cruise along the edge of the continental shelf on the trail of large schools of bonito and tuna. He had only partial success in fishing terms, but he fell under the spell of the South Pacific and Tahiti in particular. In his book Tales of Tahitian Waters, he wrote lyrically about the island and the ever-changing, unpredictable sea that surrounds it. Here he describes a storm that suddenly erupted in the midst of “the most perfect day to fish.”
“The grand Pacific was gently heaving, in slow endless swells, and the water was dark purple toward the island – which was hidden in a vast gray pall – and toward the west a shimmering silver. Storms were all about us, except the central west, where some sky showed pale blue. A thunderhead mass of cloud, black as ink, whorled and columnar, with a funnel-shape dragging, occasioned us alarm. But it passed on out to sea. Other storm centers let down lines of wavering rain that trailed along. All the grays and blacks prevailed. As we ran on in toward where the island ought to be, these conditions of light and shade and storm were magnified, until I seemed on neither land nor sea, but in some region of magnificent dark lowering light. We entered the zone of rainstorm where a soft, seething, silky roar of raindrops fell, gray as steel, and sweetly fresh to the face and hands. We ran out of the storm, and there loomed Tahiti, vast and black and splendid, a mountain range of sharp lines, peaks, ridges, with not a curve in sight, and not a bare spot of earth or rock. All verdant green, dark in the absence of sunlight.”
|Zane Grey contemplating the jetty at Flower Point|
Zane Grey was much too absorbed in his fishing and too averse to Papeete to mix very much in Tahitian social circles, but he did have one brief interaction with a member of the Salmon family. This was Ina Salmon, granddaughter of Tati. Born in 1898, Ina was the eldest child of Tati’s middle son Tauraa, who at 14 years old had lost his forearm in an accident at his father’s sugar mill though this did not prevent him from becoming a hard-working plantation farmer. When Ina was 15, her father sent her to school in Minneapolis to learn English under the guardianship of the famous University of Minnesota botanist, Josephine Tilden, who had come to know the family when living in Tahiti for several months collecting Pacific algae. By the time Ina returned to Tahiti, her father and grandfather had both fallen victim to the Spanish flu, dying on exactly the same day in December 1918. In September 1920, we catch a glimpse of Ina at a traditional Tahitian picnic described by the artist George Biddle with her cousins Princess Takau (daughter of ex-Queen Marau) and Poma Salmon. This was around the time when she was described by one painter, Robert Lee Eskridge, as looking like Helen of Troy. By 1928, aged 30, she was engaged to be married, and Zane Grey put his boat The Fisherman at her disposal.
“There was an Englishman and Princess Ina, a Polynesian of high degree as well of fame, and these two were going to be married by my skipper, Captain Tobin. They could not be married ashore, because there is a French law that prohibits marriage for foreigners within the three-mile limit. So I lent them my yacht. They were terribly seasick, but had the knot tied securely, which was the main thing for them.”
Grey wrote his only non-American novel, The Reef Girl, about the prejudice of westerners against the Polynesians, which he saw as a parallel to the way the white man had treated the Native Americans back at home. The novel was considered so racy that it wasn’t published until 1978, nearly 40 years after Grey’s death. It’s intriguing to speculate whether, in creating the ravishing half-native girl Faaone with whom the writer hero falls in passionately in love, Grey was thinking of the lovely young Ina Salmon.