Thursday, March 12, 2020

The Lady Behind Zane Grey

By Kathy Kovach

Back in the days of the wild west, men ruled the land. They rode through the hot desert, scaled the steepest mountain, and stood in the middle of the dusty street just to help the other guy meet his fate at high noon. These were the legends, written about in Western lore by the likes of Zane Grey, Louis L’Amour, and Larry McMurty. Man’s land, pure and simple.

Until a young woman came along, an artist named Lillian Wilhelm. A New Yorker who had fallen in love with the west after visiting Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show at Madison Square Garden in 1907. 

Coming from a wealthy family, she studied art at the National Academy of Design, the Art Students League, Columbia University, and the Leonia School of Art in New Jersey. The Native American performers of the Wild West Show so impressed her that she painted more than a hundred pictures of the Arapaho and Sioux participants and their children.

The prolific western author, Zane Grey, was married to Lillian’s cousin and asked if she’d illustrate the sequel to his book Riders of the Purple Sage, entitled The Rainbow Trail. She visited the couple often in Arizona and came to love the people and the landscape. After moving permanently to the fairly new state in 1916, she met and married Westbrooke Robertson, but the marriage was short-lived and they divorced eight years later.

Lillian often scouted out new locations with Grey that he could use for his stories. They traveled to locations that ladies of good breeding would never go. One such place is now known as Rainbow Bridge National
Monument in Utah. They accessed it from Arizona by horseback. She sketched and painted with watercolor while they were there, and later created her first book cover for Grey, The Rainbow Trail. She would continue to accompany Grey and his team to several other remote locations, becoming one of the first women to visit such sites. She went on to illustrate more of his books, and others, as well. She also employed her love of the Native American people and designed Hopi and Navajo motifs to be used for china patterns.

Her partnership with Zane Grey led to another when she met the ‘good natured cowboy,’ Jessie Smith. Jessie served as a model for some of Grey’s characters. They fell in love and married, then later the two ran a trading post and guest ranch in Tuba City, later moving to other places in Arizona.

Lillian Wilhelm Smith led an unconventional life, doing the things she loved. She became my inspiration as I wrote the novella, “Riders of the Painted Star” included in Barbour Publishing’s *MissAdventure Brides Romance Collection.* My character, Zadie Fitzgerald, is also an artist from New York with an obsession for all things Western. She meets a cowboy, ‘a real cowboy!’ while an artist in residence at a dude ranch in Arizona, requesting he model for the book cover for which she’s commissioned. But Royce Rutger has a secret that could dash Zadie’s dreams, and break heart.

Because of copyright laws, I wasn’t able to find any images free to use here, but please click this link to see Lillian Wilhelm Smith's work.

MissAdventure Brides Romance Collection
Seven daring damsels don’t let the norms of their eras hold them back. Along the way these women attract the attention of men who admire their bravery and determination, but will they let love grow out of the adventures? Includes:
"Riders of the Painted Star" by Kathleen E. Kovach
1936 Arizona
Zadie Fitzpatrick, an artist from New York, is commissioned to go on location in Arizona to paint illustrations for an author of western novels and falls for the male model.

Kathleen E. Kovach is a Christian romance author published traditionally through Barbour Publishing, Inc. as well as indie. Kathleen and her husband Jim raised two sons while living the nomadic lifestyle for over twenty years in the Air Force. Now planted in northeast Colorado she's a grandmother, though much too young for that. Kathleen is a longstanding member of American Christian Fiction Writers. An award-winning author, she presents spiritual truths with a giggle, proving herself as one of God's peculiar people.


  1. Wonderful post. I love Zane Grey and his books, but didn't know anything about his illustrator or personal life. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Thanks for the interesting post!

  3. Wow! Lillian was a gifted artist. Just think how many people must have enjoyed her pictures of the West. She sounds like the perfect heroine for a novella.