By Eric Allen Been
2:31 PM EDT, May 11, 2013
In 1933, Robert Ripley crash-landed into Chicago, opening his first "Odditorium" exhibition at the World's Fair. At the showing, writes Neal Thompson in “A Curious Man,” a fascinating and fun biography of the "Believe It or Not!" creator, "visitors walked past display cases with shrunken heads, medieval torture devices, and hundreds of other treasures and trinkets that Ripley finally released from his boxed-up personal collection, including Jesse James' first gun and a ‘cannibal fork' from Fiji."
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Ripley was the country's great raconteur of freakiness, even though he repeatedly maintained that he disliked the term "freak" (preferring to "think of his religious fanatics and disfigured performers as 'oddities' or 'queeriosities.'" But he was also, in Thompson's estimation, a central figure in changing America's conventional wisdom about the strange and unusual. "By celebrating weirdness," writes Thompson, "he made it mainstream."
In many ways, Ripley's story on the whole is a weird mix of idiosyncrasy and archetypical Horatio Alger myth. Born in Santa Rosa, Calif., in 1890, Ripley came from a hardscrabble household. His carpenter dad — described by Thompson as a "glum, gruff, and serious man" — died when Ripley was a teenager, leaving his mother scraping by in odd jobs to support him and his two siblings. At the time, Thompson writes, Ripley was socially awkward, a characteristic that largely stemmed from his stutter, gawky physique and his most prominent feature being "an unfortunate set of protruding and misaligned front teeth."
But Santa Rosa, then "more Wild West than wine country," proved to be "an ideal hometown" for Ripley, "a place where the unusual was acceptable, where a person could be a bit peculiar and still succeed." His calling card came in the form of drawing comics, a medium that was then invigorating the newspaper industry. Ripley, a self-taught artist and high-school dropout, sold his first cartoon to Life magazine when he was 18. In short order, he landed work as a sports cartoonist at the San Francisco Chronicle. Three years later, he made his way to Manhattan and into another newspaper job, this time with The New York Globe.
Ripley's culture-at-large break was the cartoon series he called "Believe It or Not." In its infancy, it mostly featured eccentric athletic achievements like "a wrestler who tested his neck strength by hanging himself" (Thompson notes "he survived"). As the series rose in stature, his editors sent him on a transglobal trip deemed "Ripley's Ramble 'Round the World." During the assignment, Ripley cultivated a persona that oscillated between "the ethnocentric American buffoon, and the curious anthologist."
While "A Curious Man" is mostly hagiography, Thompson does sprinkle the book with some of Ripley's boneheaded bias. For instance, during his Globe dispatches, he claimed Japanese people "are the only civilized peoples with a fundamental religion of their own." Elsewhere, Thompson quotes him making the wince-inducing claim that "[w]omen are wonderful, simply wonderful — in their place."
This backwardness, however, didn't hinder his meteoritic rise (and, to be fair, Ripley did grow to be a sympathetic champion for the marginalized people he often investigated). Following his Ramble, his focus moved away from athletics and zeroed in on the off-kilter and grotesque. By 1936, Ripley was bringing in a salary roughly on par with the president of General Motors, Alfred P. Sloan Jr. And when the Boys Club of New York surveyed thousands of boys about who had the best job in the United States, Ripley topped the list (which also included Franklin D. Roosevelt, James Cagney and J. Edgar Hoover).
One of the most fascinating aspects of "A Curious Man" is how Ripley used and mastered just about every media platform available during his time. He jumped from newspapers (where he was "syndicated in a hundred papers in North America") to publishing (where his first collection of cartoons and essays landed him a best-seller). He had similar success with Warner Bros.-backed films, an NBC radio show and later television. And, as it happens, television was his last public appearance. In May 1949, Ripley became ill during a live taping of his show and subsequently died of a heart attack a few days later. Like his parents, he didn't reach his 60th birthday.
Ultimately, while "A Curious Man" lacks hefty psychoanalytic ruminations on what drove Ripley, it nonetheless makes a convincing case that he struck something deep in the psyche of the American public — one that still shows up in our contemporary moment. If there's an overarching argument to the book, it's this: Ripley's legacy isn't just found in those tourist trap Believe It or Not attractions (which, Thompson writes, now number dozens worldwide), but anywhere where pop culture meets the "driving passions of voyeurism, exhibitionism, and the base appreciation of freakishness, oddities, and pranks of nature." That covers a lot of modern entertainment, and he may very well be right.
Eric Allen Been is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Review of Books and elsewhere.
A Curious Man
By Neal Thompson, Crown Archetype, 421 pages, $26
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