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.