Biography

He was an unbelievable showman

 

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.

But when sports alone couldn’t sustain the feature, Ripley turned to the oddities he witnessed on his world travels. By 1936, his “big idea,” which now included radio shows and his museum of “queeriosities,” the Odditorium, was raking in more than $500,000 annually.

Thompson ably explains how historical events contributed to Ripley’s success. World War I, he says, turned news stories into adventure stories set in faraway lands, which stoked the public’s appetite for the exotic. Later, during the Great Depression, Ripley’s affordable amusements were “the ideal tonic for an ailing nation.”

The author also draws a striking, unforgettable portrait of his subject. Ripley, always on the lookout for new material, would immediately ask new acquaintances, “What’s the strangest thing you know?” Known for drinking “like an acquitted convict,” he compensated for what Thompson calls “fanged teeth” and “jug ears” by building a gymnast’s physique and dressing, as one friend put it, like a “paint factory hit by lightening.”

An early marriage ended in divorce, and Ripley, a terrible male chauvinist, spent the rest of his life trying “to have sex in every country he visited.” But two years before his death at 59 of a heart attack, he gave an interview with True Confessions magazine that betrayed an emptiness that neither his excesses nor his dazzling adventures could fill.

“I’ve discovered that fame and good fortune don’t mean a thing,” Ripley said, “unless you can share them with the right woman.”

John Wilwol reviewed this book for The San Francisco Chronicle.

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