Monday, September 08, 2014

A Curious Man: The Strange and Brilliant Life of Robert "Believe It or Not" Ripley by Neal Thompson

I have never subscribed to a newspaper running Ripley's Believe It or Not strips on its comic page. I thought the strip had probably ceased and was surprised to learn that it is still being published. According to the Ripley Entertainment Inc., the strip begun in the 1920s is still in hundreds of newspapers in over forty countries. You may also see daily strips on the website. There are also Ripley books, videos, podcasts, museums, and aquariums. All of this is the legacy of a strange, mostly forgotten man who died in 1949.

In his book A Curious Man: The Strange and Brilliant Life of Robert "Believe It or Not" Ripley, Neal Thompson tells about Robert Leroy Ripley, who was born in 1890 in Santa Rosa, California, home city of the church built from one tree (which was featured in an early Believe It or Not strip). He was know as Leroy or Roy as a child and was very impressed by sports heroes. Never very studious at school, he spent much of his time drawing; one teacher took pity on him, letting him substitute drawings for essays as long as they were on the assigned topics. This illustration work prepared him to be a sports cartoonist. Thompson tells how Ripley landed cartooning jobs at newspapers in San Francisco and New York. While overseas covering Olympic games and other international sports events, he collected odd facts and occasionally drew them into his cartoons. A strong response to these special strips led to his changing the focus of his work, eventually emphasizing bizarre stories and facts. As his popularity rose, he was asked to lecture, which led to vaudeville, which led to radio, which led to films, which led to television. Like Bob Hope or Will Rogers, he became a celebrity in many mediums.

Though the rags-to-riches story is admirable, Thompson's description of Ripley is not very attractive. The cartoonist stuttered, had buck teeth, dressed in flashy clothes, and was always very compulsive. Most importantly, he seemed to have had many habits and prejudices that look especially bad in hindsight. Even in his day, he was criticized for the sensational quality of his cartoons and radio broadcast, but he was very popular with the general public. I can see why modern defenders of broadcast media and entertainment might want us to forget the real Mr. Ripley, but newspapers and broadcast networks prospered featuring his low entertainment for decades.

I listened to A Curious Man read by veteran audiobook narrator Marc Cashman. The celebrity story never bogs down in the telling, as the text keeps introducing new phases of Ripley's varied life. It is a bit sad at the end, but many biographies are.

Thompson, Neal. A Curious Man: The Strange and Brilliant Life of Robert "Believe It or Not" Ripley. Crown Publishers, 2013.

Audiobook. Books on Tape, 2013. 10 compact discs. ISBN 9780385366373.

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