A Curious Man: The Strange and Brilliant Life of Robert “Believe It or Not” Ripley

by Neal Thompson

(Crown Archtype, $26, 432 pages)

Who is this author?

Neal Thompson, who is based in Seattle, is a journalist who has written for many fine publications, including Outside, Esquire, Sports Illustrated, Men’s Health, Backpacker, The Washington Post Magazine, and The Huffington Post, and his work has been featured on NPR, ESPN, the History Channel, C-Span, Fox, and TNT. His earlier books are “Light This Candle,” “Driving with the Devil” and “Hurricane Season.”

Here is what he told interviewer Jon Meacham about why he chose to write a biography of Robert Ripley of “Believe It or Not!” fame:

“I had a general sense of Ripley’s appreciation for the so-called “freaks” that have anchored the Believe It or Not! brand. But I was thrilled to learn that Ripley was hardly a Barnum-style exploiter. In fact, he was a compassionate champion of those whose weirdness defined them. As a shy and bucktoothed oddball, I found that his devotion to strange people and the strangeness of the world grew from his own sense of being a bit of a misfit. He was the underdog who celebrated underdogs. I was equally thrilled to learn that this passion for discovering the overlooked and the outcast made him fabulously rich and famous.”

What is this book about?

Believe it or not, Robert Ripley’s real first name was LeRoy. Believe it or not, he was grossly bucktoothed and shy. BION, he turned his penchant for discovering odd facts, drawing cartoons about odd folks and documenting their odd achievements into world-wide celebrity and vast wealth and lived on a private island with a menagerie of exotic pet animals. No one expected this lonely and dentally challenged little boy to grow into such a powerful and admired man, not to mention one who enjoyed the attentions of many women…but BION, he had the guts and determination to make it happen.  This is a deeply researched biography of a genuine American original.

Why you’ll like it:

Ripley was an underdog who became a roaring success – who doesn’t love that kind of story, especially when it is a true one? Thompson, drawing on his extensive background in reporting, has created a fully fleshed-out story of a very unusual man, one who understood what it was like to be outside the normal and empathized with his subjects even as he sensationalized their stories.

Here is a sample of Thompson’s easy-to-read and vividly visual style:

“LeRoy was lean and slight, socially timid but full of energy. He had a ball-­shaped head and high forehead, a tousled mop of hair above comically jutted-­out ears, a freckled and often-­dirty face. His most notable feature was an unfortunate set of protruding and misaligned front teeth, a crooked jumble that practically tumbled from his mouth. When he smiled, it looked like he was wearing novelty teeth. He usually kept his mouth closed, lips stretched to hide his dental deformity.

He suffered from a debilitating shyness, caused largely by his disfigured smile, and by a stutter that filled his speech with uhs, ums, and frozen words. Ripley carried himself in ways meant to shield his smile and stutter from others: hunched inward, chin tucked down, shoulders drawn forward, a protective stance. He seemed fragile, almost effeminate, and years later would admit to feeling embarrassed about his ‘backwardness.’ “

And here is what Thompson told Meacham about contemporary versions of what Ripley did in the 1930s and ‘40s:

“It’d be impossible to find a modern equivalent, and I’ve often wondered if Ripley, who thrived in a pre-TV era, would find an appreciative audience in today’s screen-centric, beauty-obsessed culture. He was a goofy looking dude, and not entirely comfortable as a public figure. Yet, remarkably, he was a multimedia pioneer, on radio and TV, usually thanks to his nerve-taming paper cups of gin or whiskey. Today, what most resembles Ripley is a mash-up of pop-culture personalities and phenomena: Anthony Bourdain, Andrew Zimmern, Oprah, Dr. Phil, The Amazing Race, MythBusters, and Fear Factor.”

What others are saying:

An Amazon Best Book of the Month, May 2013, says:  “Like some old uncle you run into at family gatherings, LeRoy Robert Ripley was both charming and odd. He was obsessed with the weird, the gross, and the silly pun (a favorite town in Iceland was pronounced “Hell,” ergo lots of “Go to Hell” jokes). Born sometime in the 1890s (the record is unclear), he grew into a wildly talented cartoonist and radio personality who became rich in the Depression, eventually turning his fascinations into the Believe It or Not brand that survives to this day. With wit and passion, Neal Thompson, an Amazon senior editor, has chronicled this interesting weirdo’s life–just his amorous adventures could fill a book–and in the process come up with a portrait of early 20th-century America different from any you’ve read before. Trust us, which is 21st-century speak for: believe it or not! “

Says Booklist: “You can be very familiar with someone’s work but know next to nothing about the person himself. Ripley’s Believe It or Not!, which began life as a newspaper feature before becoming a popular television series, is a staple of popular culture. But who among us knows much about its creator? LeRoy Robert Ripley was born in 1890, although he often claimed other birth years; he wanted to be a pro baseball player but wound up a sports cartoonist; he was a bit of a womanizer, quite a bit of a drinker, and he had an insatiable curiosity about the unusual, the exotic, and the just-plain weird. Believe It or Not! made him a wealthy man, which allowed Ripley to indulge his own passions, which included collecting some truly odd things (torture devices, for example). Thompson paints a picture of Ripley as a brilliant but aggressively eccentric man, a globe-trotting curiosity seeker who always believed there was something even more unusual just around the corner. A fine introduction to a man who, for most of us, has been merely the name above a famous title.”

“Deliriously entertaining…In Thompson’s vivid rendering, LeRoy Robert Ripley (1890-1949) leads a life best described as Horatio-Alger-as-directed-by-Preston-Sturges-at-his-madcap-best…At the peak of his popularity, ‘Believe It Or Not!’ had more than 80 million readers and received around two million fan letters a month.  Meanwhile, Ripley’s personal life was as overstuffed as his professional one, as he compulsively collected objects, pets, and mistresses to fill his grand 28-room mansion…Reading  A Curious Man, it’s easy to see the hunger into which Ripley tapped still raging…his comics feel akin to one’s inaugural adventures into YouTube, particularly in its early days.  The novelty or even extremity is not the true appeal—instead, it’s the experience.  Random discovery.  Each link leading to other links, creating a simulacrum of worlds both remarkably similar and different from our own,” says the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Says Publishers Weekly: “Robert Ripley was as unique and fascinating as the “Believe It or Not” newspaper feature that made him one of the most popular and widely read syndicated cartoonists in the country during the 1930s, and Thompson  . . . delivers an equally fascinating biography that captures the influence of Ripley’s work life then and now, well into the age of television and the Internet. A slight, bucktoothed and “socially timid” youth growing up in Santa Rosa, Calif., Ripley’s main interests were baseball and drawing caricatures of his classmates and teachers. He moved after high school to San Francisco to draw for the city’s main newspapers, first the Bulletin and then the Chronicle. Thompson presents a vivid portrait of the city’s hotbed of cartoonists who were “taking the concept of illustrated newspaper entertainment to new levels.” Later, he explores in detail how Ripley moved east to draw for the New York Globe, whose overseas assignments to cover odd sporting events eventually led to Ripley developing the “Believe It or Not” concept, turning it into a widely popular comic, a bestselling book, a radio show, and a traveling show—becoming “an unlikely playboy-millionaire” in the process. Thompson superbly shows how Ripley’ work is the basis for today’s more extreme reality shows by teaching readers “to gape with respect at the weirdness of man and nature.”

When is it available?

The Downtown Hartford Public Library has copies….BION!

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