August 23, 2013

By now, the wildly full, remarkable life of Robert L. Ripley (1890-1949) should have inspired several high-profile biographies and at least a couple of biopics. The pioneering cartoonist, creator of the “Believe It or Not!” brand and celebrated ambassador of all things bizarre was just the sort of quirky American underdog/celebrity who normally attracts the attention of authors and Hollywood studios. Indeed, Paramount has attempted for years to develop his globetrotting exploits into a movie with, so far, no motion picture to show for it. But thanks to Neal Thompson — who, like his subject, knows an untapped editorial opportunity when he sees one — we finally have the definitive Ripley book.

“A Curious Man” is a wonderfully detailed, thoroughly enjoyable portrait of an awkward high school dropout who grew up to become one of the wealthiest, most beloved media personalities in America. Long before the Internet made it a journalism-survival requirement, Ripley smartly built himself into a multi-platform presence, one that could be read in newsprint and books, heard on radio, experienced via his traveling “Odditorium” exhibits and seen on the earliest flickers of broadcast television.

And he did it by relying on the principle that nothing hooks an audience like strange, surprising, “You’ve gotta be kidding me” stories. The headline on the first Sunday cartoon he published for Hearst newspapers in 1929 reflects that ethos. It declared that “America Has No National Anthem” because, technically, Congress had at that point failed to officially endorse “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the U.S. theme song. (That was rectified in 1931.) Yes, Ripley possessed the same instincts that today would fill a Gawker editor with pride.

Ripley also had talent; as a kid struggling with debilitating shyness exacerbated by an awkward stutter and a set of teeth Thompson describes as “a crooked jumble that practically tumbled from his mouth,” he gained confidence by developing his natural flair for drawing. Just shy of graduation, the boy of modest means ditched his home town of Santa Rosa, Calif., first for San Francisco and later for Manhattan, where he established himself at various newspapers as a sports cartoonist and, increasingly, a chronicler of the exotic, outlandish sights he encountered while traveling to such faraway lands as India and China.

Eventually, he stripped the “Believe It or Not!” title across all of his columns, and his popularity grew — as did his collection of shrunken heads and stories of sideshow-freakish oddballs capable of, say, smoking cigarettes through their eye sockets. Not long after newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst sent a telegram to one of his editors that stated, simply, “HIRE Ripley,” the in-demand curio collector was receiving 3,000 pieces of often strange fan mail per day, eventually prompting the postmaster general to stop processing all that paper because “postal clerks have had to devote too much time recently to deciphering freak letters intended for Ripley.”

“A Curious Man: The Strange and Brilliant Life of Robert ‘Believe It or Not!’ Ripley” by Neal Thompson (Crown)

Thompson recounts his unconventional hero’s many accomplishments in matter-of-fact prose clearly informed by many years of research. The author knows that hyperbole isn’t needed to describe a man whose very existence was drenched in exaggeration, excess, an appetite for women of every international flavor and a never-ending fascination with the downright peculiar. Ripley was Jay Gatsby, Indiana Jones, George Clooney and Todd Ray (overseer of the Venice Beach oddballs on the AMC series “Freakshow”) all rolled into one. But even though his subject is unquestionably a character, Thompson doesn’t reduce him to mere caricature. Instead he paints a portrait so vivid that we can practically see Ripley right in front of us (“He walked quickly and pigeon-toed, with a slight butt-waggle,” Thompson says of the man at age 50) and feel sympathy when he experiences loss, particularly after his closest female companion, Ruth “Oakie” Ross, dies of breast cancer.

Ultimately what stays with the reader, though, is how much living Robert Ripley packed into his 58 years of roaming around planet Earth, so much that Thompson had to sprinkle “Believe It or Not!” sidebars throughout the text to capture all the fascinating pieces of trivia he managed to uncover: Did you know Ripley partly inspired the speech-impeded Looney Tunes character Elmer Fudd?

These sidebars are a clever gimmick, the kind that good ol’ Ripley himself would undoubtedly have approved. But they are just one small part of what makes “A Curious Man” such an educational, enriching literary adventure. Thompson is a gifted, straightforward storyteller blessed with a once-in-a-lifetime subject: a hyper-ambitious eccentric whose cartoons and various related endeavors — including a chain of Believe It or Not! museums — continue to keep the Ripley name culturally relevant. Ultimately the biggest “Believe It or Not!” of all is that it took so long for someone to finally write a book that does justice to Ripley’s almost unfathomably rich life.

Jen Chaney is a pop-culture writer and critic who contributes frequently to The Washington Post, New York magazine’s Vulture, Esquire and other outlets.

A CURIOUS MAN

The Strange & Brilliant Life of Robert “Believe It or Not!” Ripley

By Neal Thompson

Crown Archetype. 421 pp. $26

When she isn’t at a movie theater or writing about movies, Jen Chaney is ... um ... probably at home, watching a movie.
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