If the life story of Robert “Believe It Or Not” Ripley was fiction, you would probably have given up on it after the first couple of chapters because it seems to bear so little relation to what most of us know as real life. While not exactly leading what you may call a charmed life – his father died when he was still in school (which, incidentally he did not finish) and his home town of Santa Rosa, California, was flattened by the 1906 great San Francisco earthquake – he certainly had an incredible knack for finding the right sort of people, ideas and innovations at just the right time. Considering how incredible his rise from dirt poor child to multi-millionaire celebrity journalist and globetrotter was, it is also surprising that Neal Thompson’s new book A Curious Man: The Strange & Brilliant Life of Robert “Believe It Or Not” Ripley is the first biography to be written about the man. This biography may have taken a long time in coming, but the five years it took to compile it were clearly a labour of love.
Ripley’s first big break came as a poor, unemployed high-school drop-out who was cheerfully ignoring his mother’s pleases to find a proper job, instead indulging himself in semi-professional baseball and drawing endless cartoons. At the age of eighteen, he had his first published cartoon appear in Life for the fee of $8; shortly after finding out that his hobby could actually earn him money, Ripley’s mother took in a San Francisco journalist as a lodger. The lodger recognised Ripley’s cartooning talent, and in an age where photography had yet to take hold in the newspaper world, recommended him for an art staff job to an editor she know back in the city. Believe It Or Not, the buck-toothed country kid without a high school diploma was now a professional newspaperman at age nineteen.
It didn’t take long for Ripley to progress to New York, where he moved from paper to paper as a cartoonist, his pay and renown steadily increasing all the while. After several years, his interest for the strange, the unusual and the seemingly impossible provoked him to start a series of cartoon about amazing feats and events. Originally called “Champs and Chumps” as it centred on sporting feats, this morphed into the Believe It Or Not franchise that would come to define his working life – and not just in print. It made Ripley popular enough to have his own radio show, short moving picture films and finally a weekly TV programme, not to mention the museum of the amazing, his “Odditorium” that sprang up at Worlds Fairs and special events across the US to promote his brand. It also paid for multiple globetrotting adventures, and at his death he had visited almost every country on Earth. His personal life was never the equal of his career, however. His mother died at a young age soon after he moved away from California, his relationships with his two siblings were never good and his marriage broke up remarkably quickly after he proved himself a lousy husband.
Thompson’s book is a lively and engaging tour through Ripley’s incredible life. Thorough, generously illustrated and well-written, it is broken up by a series of “Believe It!” snippets about things related to the narrative – the perfect touch to give this biography a bit more of an air of the man it is about. I liked that Thompson, while clearly admiring Ripley, never seems to get star-struck by him. He candidly admits that failings in Ripley’s life, the poor way he often treated the women he loved, his inability to really connect with his brother Doug and how he often didn’t credit collaborators. While too substantial for a holiday read, it is worth picking up by anyone with an interest in American popular culture, cartooning or world travel in days gone, not just for those who admire the man himself. As the book says, “Ripley, it turns out, may have been the most unbelievable oddity of them all.”
A Curious Man: The Strange & Brilliant Life of
Robert “Believe It Or Not” Ripley by Neal Thompson
Published by Random House, June 2013
With thanks to the publisher for providing this review copy.
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