A Curious Man: The Strange and Brilliant Life of Robert "Believe It or Not!" Ripley
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A Curious Man is the marvelously compelling biography of Robert “Believe It or Not” Ripley, the enigmatic cartoonist turned globetrotting millionaire who won international fame by celebrating the world's strangest oddities, and whose outrageous showmanship taught us to believe in the unbelievable.
As portrayed by acclaimed biographer Neal Thompson, Ripley’s life is the stuff of a classic American fairy tale. Buck-toothed and cursed by shyness, Ripley turned his sense of being an outsider into an appreciation for the strangeness of the world. After selling his first cartoon to Time magazine at age eighteen, more cartooning triumphs followed, but it was his “Believe It or Not” conceit and the wildly popular radio shows it birthed that would make him one of the most successful entertainment figures of his time and spur him to search the globe’s farthest corners for bizarre facts, exotic human curiosities, and shocking phenomena.
Ripley delighted in making outrageous declarations that somehow always turned out to be true—such as that Charles Lindbergh was only the sixty-seventh man to fly across the Atlantic or that “The Star Spangled Banner” was not the national anthem. Assisted by an exotic harem of female admirers and by ex-banker Norbert Pearlroth, a devoted researcher who spoke eleven languages, Ripley simultaneously embodied the spirit of Peter Pan, the fearlessness of Marco Polo and the marketing savvy of P. T. Barnum.
In a very real sense, Ripley sought to remake the world’s aesthetic. He demanded respect for those who were labeled “eccentrics” or “freaks”—whether it be E. L. Blystone, who wrote 1,615 alphabet letters on a grain of rice, or the man who could swallow his own nose.
By the 1930s Ripley possessed a vast fortune, a private yacht, and a twenty-eight room mansion stocked with such “oddities” as shrunken heads and medieval torture devices, and his pioneering firsts in print, radio, and television were tapping into something deep in the American consciousness—a taste for the titillating and exotic, and a fascination with the fastest, biggest, dumbest and most weird. Today, that legacy continues and can be seen in reality TV, YouTube, America’s Funniest Home Videos, Jackass, MythBusters and a host of other pop-culture phenomena.
In the end Robert L. Ripley changed everything. The supreme irony of his life, which was dedicated to exalting the strange and unusual, is that he may have been the most amazing oddity of all.
From the Hardcover edition.
postmaster general issued a directive: “Postal clerks have had to devote too much time recently to deciphering freak letters intended for Ripley.” With Arjan Desur Dangar, one of the performers at Ripley’s Odditorium exhibition at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. Just before the fair started, Dangar fought with his manager, who ripped off half his mustache. Ripley sent them back to India. With lion mask from Bali, 1932. Ripley amassed many crates of collectibles during his years of world
Tokyo’s red-light district (“bizarre and brilliant”), and spent New Year’s Eve amid the “kaleidoscopic throng” of the Ginza (“the busiest, noisiest, unhandsomest, and most flamboyant of all streets”). He found Japan to be “a hive of industry” where “everybody seems to be pushing or pulling something.” As with his remarks about America’s military presence in Hawaii, he presciently assessed Japan’s military affairs, troubled by the ubiquity of naval vessels and the rampant construction of “massive
only working for an hour on the cartoon and the rest of his day managing offers from those wanting him to sign books or speak to their organization. Requests poured in for product endorsements or charitable donations, and Ripley had a hard time saying no. With an affinity for boys’ and orphans’ groups, he donated cartoons and cash to the Boys’ Work Committee of the Rotary Club, the National Tuberculosis Association, and the Orphans Automobile Day Association. When the publicity demands slowed,
appearance at the Plaza in Johannesburg and awoke feeling embarrassed about his public drunkenness “and more or less sore at the world in general.” He forced himself out of bed for a scheduled trip to the Robinson gold mine, which turned out to be the perfect hangover cure. He descended by elevator nearly two miles underground into a buried city of railroads, electric lights, blacksmith shops, and hospitals, all squeezed beneath a low ceiling propped up by crooked timbers. He was amazed that
on his right. Some nights the women jostled for the more respectable position to Ripley’s right. Sometimes the arrangement flat-out collapsed. Ripley once invited Bugs Baer and others for Christmas dinner, but Baer had plans and Ripley found himself alone with just four guests: a widowed ex-girlfriend and her teenage son, a French actress, and an Asian girlfriend. As Ripley later described it to Baer, the ex-girlfriend propped a framed photograph of her late husband next to her plate while her