To order Bring 'Em Back Alive click here

Jungle Author Back in Print Frank Buck, New York World's Fair Flyer, 1939

Press ‘bucks’ trend in book market

by Bill Whitaker

Abilene Reporter-News

July 30, 2000 p 2F

When it came to reviving in print the exotic, danger-filled adventures of Frank "Bring ‘Em Back Alive" Buck, editor and lifelong fan Steven Lehrer had to bring’ em back to Texas.

As well-known as Buck was throughout America in the 1920s, '30s and early ‘40s, as acclaimed as his books and movie spin-offs proved through much of the 20th century, Lehrer found today's publishers reluctant to reissue Buck's long out-of-print classic, Bring 'Em Back Alive.

Finally, Texas Tech University Press agreed to republish the 70-year-old work, along with several chapters from Buck's Wild Cargo (1932) and excerpts from Fang and Claw (1935) and Animals Are Like That! (1940).

"I found out it's mainly the Texas publishers who are even interested in Frank Buck, and that may be because he's a Texan," said Lehrer, 55, associate professor of radiation oncology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. "I guess he's been forgotten here in New York.

"Fame is fickle. Maybe it's the animal rights thing. People who are 60 or 65 or older know him and his work, but the younger ones who are now editors at so many publishing houses don't know him."

Buck's fame was once substantial enough that popular films were made of his adventures traveling to far off lands and humanely capturing animals for zoos. One film--this one highly fictionalized--even had him battling Nazis in the bush.

Yet Buck has been one of the great casualties of changing times, partially because of American society's increasingly divided views on wildlife, zoos and racial relations. Views on the latter showed Buck tolerant of other races but somewhat condescending in the manner of the times. In editing the book for its return to bookstore shelves, Lehrer quietly jettisoned the more objectionable racial references.

That said, Buck's Bring 'Em Back Alive boasts not only colorful, tensely told accounts of run-ins with dangerous animals but lots of wit and irony. Buck even shows his compassionate side, especially involving animals such as a beloved, quite intelligent orangutan named Gladys.

If Buck was something of a promotional showman--with himself as the top act--it was enough to enthrall Americans in the grips of the Great Depression.  Lehrer says Buck even served as the model for wild game showman Carl Denham in the Hollywood film classic "King Kong."  Buck's bigger-than-life persona figures  considering his Lone Star roots.

Born in Gainesville, he grew up fascinated by stories of foreign lands and wild animals--an interest that compelled him to explore local game, including a nearly disastrous encounter with a 2-foot copperhead.

Lehrer's own fascination with Buck began when he was 10 years old and picked up a copy of Bring 'Em Back Alive at his school library. The tales of faraway locales, exotic game and Buck's own courage in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds held Lehrer transfixed.

"It was the high point of my childhood," he said. "Everything from his battle with a cobra to nearly being pulled into a pit by a man-eating tiger--all of it made me realize how brave he was. And, even now, when I look at his books, I realize just how well written they actually are."

It didn't hurt, of course, that Buck's collaborator early on was Edward Anthony, a prominent figure in New York literary circles, who helped impart a certain dramatic urgency to Bring 'Em Back Alive and Buck's second book, Wild Cargo.

Sadly, Anthony and Buck parted ways over the movie adaptation of Bring 'Em Back Alive (1930), which Anthony felt cheated him. Buck found other collaborators for such books as Fang and Claw, but his collaborations with Anthony are acknowledged to be the finest of Buck's books.

Buck the brass

Buck was a tough customer when it came to holding on to his share of rights.

"Even now, I'd like to know just how he was able to cope in the jungles of Hollywood after surviving the jungles of the Far East,” Lehrer said. “In the 1930’s he had as his agent the man who was also agent for Raymond Chandler.

"I got to look through some of that agent's letters and papers about Frank Buck and I gathered Buck was a pretty shrewd individual who probably didn’t even need an agent. I've always wondered how he dealt with these very sharp movie moguls such as Louis B. Mayer and Jack Warner"

Asked if republishing Bring 'Em Back Alive may prompt reviving other Frank Buck works, including his autobiography, All in a Lifetime (1941), Lehrer says the idea is an appealing one but highly dependent on the success of the new edition of Buck's classic.

These are different times, he says.

"There's a different view of animals that has developed over the years," he said. "The animal rights groups don't even really like zoos and they want to do things like take the elephants out of the circuses. That's more politically correct today."

Lehrer's editing of Buck's classic is something of a departure for him. The son of a doctor, Lehrer's previous books have been more in line with his profession. They include Understanding Lung Sounds and Understanding Pediatric Heart Sounds.

Nor has he traveled to some of the exotic, often dangerous climes that Buck seemed to thrive in. That said, Lehrer does work near New York City's Central Park--"and that's pretty close!"

Contact associate editor Bill Whitaker at 676-6732 or whitakerb@abinews.com.  

East Texas Historical Association
Book Review Section, Spring 2001

Bring 'Em Back Alive: The Best of Frank Buck,
Steven Lehrer, editor (Texas Tech University Press, P. 0. Box 41037, Lubbock, TX 79410-1037) 2000. Reprint 1930. Introduction. B&W Photos. Index. P. 248. $28.95. Hardcover.

For many people of middle age or older, the phrase "bring 'em back alive" recalls jungle adventurer Frank Buck, a powerfully-built man who sported a pencil mustache and a pith helmet. Frank Howard Buck was born in 1884 in Gainesville, Texas, and died sixty-six years later in Houston. During the years between his Texas beginning and finale, Buck became famous for a career that took him to exotic locales in search of rare and dangerous creatures.

As a boy growing up in nineteenth-century Texas, Buck avidly trapped and collected small animals, birds, and snakes. He quit school after the seventh grade and found work as a cowpuncher on a train to the Chicago stockyards. In Chicago he associated with unsavory characters, engaged in barroom brawls, and, at seventeen, took a forty-one-year-old bride. The couple divorced, allowing Buck to marry soul-mate Muriel Reilly. In 1911, with the profits from a poker game, Buck journeyed to Brazil to buy exotic birds, which he sold in New York. Buck began traveling to the jungles of India, Borneo, Sumatra, and the Philippines in search of animals, reptiles, and birds he could sell to zoos and circuses. At this time the jungle animal business was dominated by a German company, Hagenbeck. But the First World War curtailed the activities of Hagenbeck, and Frank Buck aggressively seized this opportunity. Soon he was the most notable animal supplier in the world, and in 1922 the city of Dallas commissioned him to populate an entire zoo.

"I have made it my business to bring them back alive," wrote Buck, in explanation of the painstaking care he gave the creatures he purchased and trapped. The first of eight autobiographical books, Bring 'Em Back Alive, appeared in 1930. The next year, with 125,000 feet of film he shot in the jungle, Buck produced a hit movie with the same title. He served as the model for a character in the legendary motion picture, King Kong. Buck had a network radio show, appeared with Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus, and was a popular subject of comic books. By the time he died of lung cancer in 1950, Frank Buck had achieved worldwide fame. That this hardy Texan's celebrity was earned is made evident in a new version of Bring 'Em Back Alive, which is a compilation of exciting and often chilling first-person adventures excerpted from five of his books.

Bill O'Neal
Panola College

“As a boy I read everything that I could get my hands on that had anything to do with animals. My reading list went from "The Swiss Family Robinson" to Teddy Roosevelt’s stories about big game hunting to Frank Buck and his books. I also remember Frank Buck from the movie he was in with Abbott and Costello [Africa Screams, 1949].

“As a zoo person today I'm dealing with captive populations of many endangered species, some of which may possibly be descendants of animals collected by Frank Buck. As I read the book I was continually impressed with the care and attention given to the wild animals brought into captivity by Mr. Buck. He had neither the equipment nor the means of transportation that we have available to us today, yet he was able to work out the logistics of relocating animals from the forests and savannas safely to the zoos that would be their homes.

“I think that the way in which Mr. Buck wrote his book will interest just about any reader with an appreciation for wildlife. Frank Buck was a wildlife collector who was handling animals at a time when there was no such thing as an endangered species, and in many cases little was known about the behavior of the animals he collected. Considering what he was up against, I find it quite remarkable that he was as successful as he was. This book is a fun read about how he did it...Because of my work I appreciated this book much more now than I did as a young man.

James G. Doherty
General Curator
Bronx Zoo

“Bring 'Em Back Alive: The Best of Frank Buck, introduced and edited by Steven Lehrer, is a delight for anyone interested in wildlife and conservation. Its depiction of vast untamed wildernesses has substantial historical value.

“During Buck’s lifetime, wildlife was abundant everywhere. He employed a multinational cadre of hunters, trap and cage builders, translators, and caretakers to cover every facet of the operation for a safe and humane transit for animals from the wild to the zoo. The logistics of rounding up, housing, and feeding a collection of mammals, birds, and reptiles for a two to three week journey across the Pacific are mind boggling.

“Today most zoos obtain new animals from other zoos. Very few animals are taken from the wild. Most species breed freely in captivity in collaborative management programs. In fact, many species are unavailable from the wild because of their scarcity or because of local and international conservation regulations that protect endangered species. Today's human population explosion, resulting in destruction and fragmentation of wildlife habitat, would shock Frank Buck. Yet no doubt, descendants of some of his imports to zoos ensure that their species continue.

“Frank Buck was a personal friend of the major zoo directors of the world. He was respected for his honesty and his concern for the welfare of his charges. His conservation-minded nature is expressed in his writings. As a child, I read all of his books, and I'm sure they influenced my early interest in wildlife and wilderness. Bring ‘Em Back Alive: The Best of Frank Buck is a wonderful reminiscence for old  timers like me, and an adventurous introduction to the past for young wildlife enthusiasts.”

Charlie Hoessle 
St. Louis Zoo

Adventurer spent ‘down time’ in San Angelo

“During his heyday, the 1920s and '30s, adventurer Frank "Bring 'Em Back Alive" Buck was one of the most famous men in America, in the same league with the Lindberghs, Ruths and Dempseys of the day.

The wild game hunter (he captured animals live for zoos and circuses; that's how he got his nickname) lived and worked all over the world. But when he needed a little rest and relaxation where did he go?

Right here. San Angelo, Texas.

Why? For the same reason that a lot of us come back: family. Buck's father, sister, brother and daughter lived in San Angelo, and another brother lived in Fort Davis. Buck, who died of a lung disease in 1950 at age 66, spent his last years in San Angelo, living in his sister's house on South Bishop Street.

A recent book by a New York doctor recaptures some of Buck's best adventures.

"Bring 'Em Back Alive: The Best of Frank Buck" by Steven Lehrer begins with a short description of Buck's life. (Unfortunately, it skips over Buck's early San Angelo connection, but I'll get back to that.) The rest of the book reprints some of Buck's writing from "Bring 'Em Back Alive," "Wild Cargo," "Fang and Claw" "All in a Lifetime" and "Animals Are Like That."

Just listen to the titles from some of the chapters: "Man­ Eater," "Killer of Killers," "Spitting Cobra," "Terrible Tusks."

Just listen to this excerpt from Buck's description of a cobra attack: "I flattened myself against the back of the shed, grimly eyeing the killer that lay almost at my feet. The expressionless eyes calmly looking back at me gave me a cold and clammy feeling. I didn't want to die this way. It was not my notion of a decent death. Surely there must be some way out."

Naturally, there was. And the books about his adventures, and movies made from the books, kept a generation on the edge of their seats.

Back to the San Angelo connection.

Buck was born in 1884 in Gainesville, Texas (and a great little zoo there is named for him). He later moved with his family to Dallas.

In his autobiography, "All in a Lifetime," Frank Buck said that his brother, Walter, migrated to San Angelo in the early 1900s and got a job on the Suggs Ranch. (Walter later became a San Angelo car dealer.)

As a North Texas teenager, Frank Buck felt the itch to travel, and he asked his brother for help.

"All I can offer, Frank, is cow punching. We're sending a train­load of beef to Chicago next week," Walter told him.

"OK,"Frank replied. "I'll be a cowpuncher."

And that's how the world's most famous wild game hunter got his start: accompanying a load of San Angelo cattle on a train trip to Chicago.

He was off and running.

Buck's animal  trapping travels took him around the world. He made a living capturing and selling animals, and, beginning in 1930, Buck's books, movies and radio programs about his adventures made him famous.

Though he regularly visited family members in San Angelo, Frank Buck didn't spend a lot of time here until the late 1940s when he moved here to recuperate from lung surgery. He lived with his sister, Mrs. John M. Logan, and his daughter, Barbara Buck.

Needless to say, we were thrilled to have such a celebrity among us. It seemed like every time Buck mailed a letter, the newspaper would be on hand to take a picture and write a story.

How did Frank Buck feel about trading the jungles of the world for a little town in West Texas?

"I was now Frank Buck, who had achieved fame in the jungles, in motion pictures, in literary circles and in the show world," he wrote in his autobiography in 1941.

"Yet in my heart I am still the small  town Texas boy who loves birds better than anything else on earth."

Two of Frank Buck's books, "All in a Lifetime" and "Bring 'Em Back Alive" are available at the Tom Green County Library. Steven Lehrer's new book, "Bring 'Em Back Alive: The Best of Frank Buck" can be ordered from local bookstores or through www.barnesandnoble.com.

Contact Rick at rsmith@texas­west.com or 659 8248.

San Angelo Standard Times
May 31, 2000

Shades of my youth. Those years when going to the movies for 15 cents included many things, besides the feature picture. Frank Buck in "Bring 'Em Back Alive" was one of them.

Frank Buck was an international celebrity. The stories of this courageous animal hunter and jungle adventurer captivated generations of readers and moviegoers.

These are stories that appeal to young and old alike. It is time for the present generation to be introduced to a man who in his day was as well known as Charles Lindbergh, Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey. (Who are they?)

Buck spent his life bringing them back alive--birds, snakes, elephants, etc. In those days there were no tranquilizer darts. Buck learned how to build traps and snares in ways that prevented injury to the animals he caught. He always accompanied his animals aboard ship to make certain they were well treated, and also to his credit was the fact that he refused sale to anyone who did not have an impeccable reputation for animal care.

The purchase of this book will enable the reader to join Frank Buck on some incredible adventures.

Ron W. Fischer
The Tombstone Epitaph
October 2000

What the critics said about Bring 'Em Back Alive in 1930:

 A most exciting book...it is vivid and lively and can be recommended to anybody who likes being made to sit on the edge of his chair and gasp for breath as his eyes eat up the print to see what happens next.

Florence Finch Kelly
New York Times Book Review

"I do not know when I have read a book concerning wild animals that is so interesting from cover to cover."
George Eastman
Eastman Kodak Company

...packed with excitement and common sense and a real feeling for animals.

A rattling good yarn.
New York World

If you like animal adventure stories, read this book.

Bring ‘Em Back Alive gets you from the first glimpse of its gorgeous dust jacket...Once the story is begun the reader jumps from one breathless moment to another.
Detroit Free Press

A book full of the richest and juiciest yarns that have come from the presses in many an autumn.
Newark Evening News

Anyone interested in animals or actual stories of adventure will find Bring ‘Em Back Alive good reading, where the completion of one chapter lures one into another. It is an exciting trail.

Raymond L. Ditmars, Curator
Bronx Zoo
New York Herald Tribune