‘Lassie’ Ate Here

Lassie Ate Here

Once upon a time, from 1939 to 1942, a collie named Toots gobbled raw steaks straight from the floor in this very corner. Her dining companion was her owner, Eric Knight, an English-American author, a resident of a farm in nearby Pleasant Valley and one of the Red Lion Inn’s favorite customers. The royal meal was Toots’ reward for being Knight’s most loyal friend and for inspiring him to write the 1940 novel Lassie Come Home, the world’s best-known, most beloved dog yarn.

Knight met Toots in 1934, when he was writing movie stories for the likes of Spencer Tracy and Shirley Temple. He bought the collie pup as a Christmas gift for his wife Jere, a writer-editor and former collie breeder-trainer whose dog had just been killed by a car. Toots was so tiny, she fit in his jacket pocket.

For the next eight years Toots was Knight’s comforting, amusing muse. He gave the literary Lassie many of her virtues: her playfulness, her intelligence, the come-homing instinct that allowed her to find her owner in the most unfamiliar, most remote places. She rode shotgun as he typed parts of Lassie in his car. She heard him read his fiction out loud, a ritual he dubbed “Trying it out on the dog.” And she humored him as he showered her with authentic canine affection. Knight liked to fall on all fours, nuzzle her fur, and bark, in the salty accent and peppery language of his native Yorkshire: “If ye could only cook, I’d marry ye!”

Knight died at age 45 in the 1943 crash of a U.S. military plane. Two years later Toots passed away at 11 and was buried on her Bucks County home. The stain on the floor in this very corner disappeared in 2002 when cleaner, safer wood replaced boards rotted by oils from Toots’ steaks–the mark of a truly remarkable relationship between a dog and her man.

Geoff Gehman wrote Down But Not Quite Out in Hollow-weird (Scarecrow Press), a biography-in-letters of Eric Knight’s life as a screenwriter. He is also a dedicated dog dude.