On Valentine’s Day 1928, Robert “Believe It or Not!” Ripley learned there was nothing sweeter than being called a liar.
The previous day, American hero Charles Lindbergh had been feared lost during a flight from Cuba to St. Louis. With the nation still reeling, Ripley’s latest cartoon asserted that the great aviator had not been the first man to fly across the Atlantic. In fact, Ripley argued, Lindy had not even been among the first.
The public pounced, but Ripley stood fast. Three days later, he explained to some West Point cadets that “two English aviators, John Alcock and A. Whitton Brown, had flown nonstop from Newfoundland to Ireland in 1919, and that two dirigibles later made trans-Atlantic crossings, carrying thirty-one and thirty-three men, respectively.” Lindbergh, therefore, was No. 67 by the cartoonist’s count.
But that was now beside the point. Ripley had hit pay dirt. “Being accused of lying by so many people, Ripley realized, was the best publicity he could have hoped for.”
He began his career as a gifted editorial cartoonist and died one of the finest showmen America has known. He rubbed elbows with legends like Jack Dempsey and Babe Ruth, earned fabulous sums of money and emerged as a broadcast media pioneer. But while Robert Ripley was perhaps “more widely traveled than Marco Polo, Magellan, and any other human being that ever lived,” one place he never appeared was the pages of a biography.
Neal Thompson has changed that. His jaunty new book vividly revives the “liar who always told the truth.” A buoyant, boozy tale of American adventure and enterprise set in the first half of the 20th century, A Curious Man fully measures up to the life of its subject. And that’s no mean feat.
LeRoy Robert Ripley was born in 1890 in what was then a colorful California whistle-stop called Santa Rosa, where folks “shot each other over card games, stole horses, and robbed banks.” An awkward stutterer whose teeth were “a crooked jumble that practically tumbled from his mouth,” Ripley took refuge in sketchpads, drawing scenes from his textbooks and caricatures of his teachers.
When Ripley was 15, his father died, and the boy was forced to earn money. He worked first as a newspaper delivery boy (he quit shortly before the 1906 earthquake), then began earning as much as $15 a week doing odd jobs.
But he was in love with drawing, and he had heard there was money to be made in “the popular new phenomenon called comics.” After Life accepted one of his submissions, Ripley found his way to the biggest papers in San Francisco, including The Chronicle.
Then it was off to New York, where in 1913 the Globe and Commercial Advertiser sent him abroad to Egypt and Europe for “a series of entertaining stories and cartoons.” The first of many such odysseys, the trip would “guide him toward his eventual big idea.”
“Believe It or Not!” began as a sports feature. A superb athlete himself (he purportedly tried out for John McGraw’s New York Giants and was the 1925 New York Athletic Club handball champion), Ripley drew a 1918 comic called Champs and Chumps that featured “quirky and fresh” depictions of curious athletic feats, such as an Englishman’s almost 13-foot jump backward.