As a fan of anything odd or creepy, I was intrigued to see a biography for Robert Ripley cross the checkout counter. Robert Ripley is best known for Ripley’s Believe It or Not! cartoon sketches, books and museums, but I was interested in learning more about the man behind the drawings.
In the book A Curious Man: The Strange and Brilliant Life of Robert “Believe It or Not!” Ripley by Neal Thompson, the reader is introduced to a young boy in Santa Rosa, Calif., named LeRoy Robert Ripley. Bucktoothed and painfully shy, ignored and mocked by many of his classmates growing up, LeRoy was most comfortable behind a drawing pad.
After selling a drawing to LIFE magazine, Ripley put together a portfolio of sketches consisting of political and sports themes and started showing them to different editors in San Francisco with the help of a friend. With no real artistic training, he was hired at the San Francisco Bulletin. Hired and fired from two newspapers in just two years, Ripley was helping support his mother and siblings, so he was determined to find a new job. With the same type of luck that seemed to follow him throughout his life, Ripley landed a job at the San Francisco Chronicle, just as their sports cartoonist was suffering from an eye injury.
Ripley was known for his sports cartoons, and after three years in San Francisco, he made the leap across the continent to the bright lights of New York City. While still using the name of LeRoy at this time, it was decided by Ripley’s editors at the New York newspaper the Globe, that LeRoy wasn’t manly enough for the sporting department. Thus, he was reborn as Robert L. Ripley.
On a day in December 1916, with little happening sports wise, Ripley put together a cartoon featuring unusual sports records. Featuring a man who stayed underwater for six minutes, one who skipped rope 11,810 times and two who boxed to a draw after seven and a half hours, this cartoon was one of the earliest harbingers of the big idea that would make him famous worldwide.
In December 1918, Ripley published a cartoon that is considered the first “Believe It or Not,” called “Champs and Chumps,” about sports oddities. It wasn’t until October 1919 that the first cartoon carrying the title “Believe It or Not” was published. The first year or two of cartoons featured sports peculiarities and records, but by 1921 they started featuring non-sports characters, including a man who ate 60 eggs a day for a week and another man with a “revolving head.”
After a messy divorce, Ripley fled America with an around-the-world tour that started the fascination he had for exotic and foreign oddities. After this trip, gruesome seemed to be the new theme behind Ripley’s “Believe It or Not” cartoons. With many upheavals in the newspaper world, Ripley moved from newspaper to newspaper but managed to make a living while still drawing the cartoon that continued to grow in popularity. But it wasn’t until his 1928 cartoon claiming that Charles Lindberg was the 67th person to make a non-stop flight over the Atlantic Ocean that his reputation as the man who had been called a liar “more often than any other living person” took off. With more shocking and startling statements like that, Ripley engaged and enraged readers, always able to prove the veracity of his statements.
At one point in the 1940s, Ripley’s’ cartoons were voted the second favorite feature of newspapers, behind only the front page and he was considered one of the most well-known and well-liked personalities in America. Ripley went on to have a multitude of radio shows, movies and a television show, along with a variety of books, comic books and exhibits.
Ripley was an obsessed world traveler up to almost the very end of his life, hoping to one day visit every country in the world. He bought many exotic and unusual items, filling his house and apartment with the objects. Different world fairs featured these objects and some of the people he’d drawn about, in what were known as the Ripley “Believe It or Not” Odditoriums. The first permanent Ripley museum and Odditorium was started in St. Augustine, Fla., after Ripley’s death and there are now over 30 Odditoriums around the world.
On a personal note, my family and I visited the Branson museum during a family vacation and were amazed by the extremely odd trivia, items and people featured. My youngest purchased a three-armed stuffed monkey that was based on an actual monkey Ripley brought back from a trip. She was heartbroken when her sister’s dog destroyed it a few years later. When I called the Branson museum’s gift shop to find a replacement, I was told they no longer carried the monkey. But the staff found that the St. Augustine museum had some and gave me their phone number. When I called and told the gift shop staff the story hoping to purchase a monkey, they sent me the replacement monkey free of charge, making my daughter extremely happy.
I feel this serves as a perfect example of the spirit of Robert Ripley because throughout the book he was portrayed as a loyal and generous friend, sharing his good fortune with others and always looking for the oddest thing or person in the world. He knew it was still out there somewhere. This book was enjoyable; reminding me of the different “Believe It or Not!” cartoons I’ve read over the years and was a fascinating look at the man behind the sketches.