A Curious Man: The Strange and Brilliant Life of Robert “Believe It or Not!” Ripley
By Neal Thompson
Three Rivers Press
Review by Karl Wolff
The phrase “Believe it or not!” is something nearly everybody knows, but its history has been long forgotten. “Believe It or Not!” (with capital letters) was the brainchild of Robert L. Ripley, a California native who came from a hardscrabble background. He took a winning gimmick and ran with it. Before the concept of omni-media empire was a thing, Ripley had created a personal empire that included a regular newspaper cartoon, a museum of sort (the Odditorium), a radio show, movie newsreels, and a TV show (in multiple incarnations). Before there were the omni-media empires of Martha Stewart, George Lucas, and Walt Disney, there was Robert L. Ripley (1890 – 1949). When I was growing up in Wisconsin, my family would take the occasional trip to the Wisconsin Dells. One of the main attractions was the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum. I may or may not have gone through it. I was a kid, my memories are pretty fuzzy. (Although I do remember going through another monument to American Odd-ness, The House on the Rock.) “Believe It or Not!” is iconic American Odd. Even those unfamiliar with the biography of Robert L. Ripley, know where the phrase comes from. It is akin to knowing Pulp Fiction references without having seen the Tarantino film. I was one of those people, until I read A Curious Man: The Strange and Brilliant Life of Robert “Believe It or Not!” Ripley, by Neal Thompson.
A Curious Man offers a breezy, breathless, and fascinating biography of Robert L. Ripley, the man behind the brand. “Believe It or Not!” has become so iconic, it is a challenge to realize that it almost never came to be. As with many rags to riches stories, Ripley’s life is an accumulation of chance, circumstance, guile, market- and media-savvy, and both successes and failures. Anyone who became wealthy without enduring failure and making mistakes is either lying to you or the wealth was inherited. (Cue inevitable election season joke.)
Robert L. Ripley (born LeRoy Robert Ripley) was born in Santa Rosa, California, a shy, bucktoothed bookish kid who spent his spare hours sketching. Through the help of his high school teacher he was able to land a cartooning job in San Francisco. He was shortly fired. After a few professional hiccups, he landed a job as a sports cartoonist for San Francisco paper. He eventually moved to work as a cartoonist for a New York City paper. During this time, photography was still a slow and expensive process. Cartoonists provided newspapers with a cheap means of communicating the story. Ripley’s contemporaries included Rube Goldberg, another cartoonists whose gimmick turned his name into a descriptor.
“Believe It or Not!” was originally named “Champs and Chumps,” showcasing record-breaking sports achievements. With the help of William Randolph Hearst, the cartoon received syndication, and with the help of his polymath assistant, Norbert Pearlroth, the cartoon became immensely popular. The cartoon still runs today … “Believe It or Not!” The cartoon allowed Ripley to travel the world, collecting odd facts and odd souvenirs. The souvenirs accumulated so fast he needed a place to put them all. He filled a New York City apartment and Believe It or Not! Island, his private mansion. One of his favorite destinations was China. This stemmed from his visits to San Francisco’s Chinatown when he was a young cartoonist. He found the culture fascinating.
During the Depression, “Believe It or Not” provided entertainment to those hard on their luck. They read Ripley’s travel columns, his cartoons, and visited the Odditorium. The Odditorium made Ripley an inheritor of the freak show tradition began by P.T. Barnum. Ripley tried to legitimize the Odditorium by distancing himself from Barnum, but the American public came for the same reason. Americans love to gawk at freaky stuff. Why do we still watch Jerry Springer, Honey Boo Boo, and the insatiable maw of “reality television”? Ripley capitalized on this, making his interests the interests of America at large, and rode this to the bank.
A Curious Man offers a comprehensive biography of Robert L. Ripley and his omni-media juggernaut. He made the American cultural landscape richer, weirder, and stranger. He was an instrumental pioneer of the American Odd.