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A Curious Man

Cover of A Curious Man

A Curious Man

The Strange and Brilliant Life of Robert "Believe It or Not!" Ripley

A Curious Man is the marvelously compelling biography of Robert "Believe It or Not" Ripley, the enigmatic cartoonist turned globetrotting millionaire who won international fame by celebrating the world's strangest oddities, and whose outrageous showmanship taught us to believe in the unbelievable.

As portrayed by acclaimed biographer Neal Thompson, Ripley's life is the stuff of a classic American fairy tale. Buck-toothed and cursed by shyness, Ripley turned his sense of being an outsider into an appreciation for the strangeness of the world. After selling his first cartoon to Time magazine at age seventeen, more cartooning triumphs followed, but it was his "Believe It or Not" conceit and the wildly popular radio shows it birthed that would make him one of the most successful entertainment figures of his time and spur him to search the globe's farthest corners for bizarre facts, exotic human curiosities, and shocking phenomena.

Ripley delighted in making outrageous declarations that somehow always turned out to be true--such as that Charles Lindbergh was only the sixty-seventh man to fly across the Atlantic or that "The Star Spangled Banner" was not the national anthem. Assisted by an exotic harem of female admirers and by ex-banker Norbert Pearlroth, a devoted researcher who spoke eleven languages, Ripley simultaneously embodied the spirit of Peter Pan, the fearlessness of Marco Polo and the marketing savvy of P. T. Barnum.

In a very real sense, Ripley sought to remake the world's aesthetic. He demanded respect for those who were labeled "eccentrics" or "freaks"--whether it be E. L. Blystone, who wrote 1,615 alphabet letters on a grain of rice, or the man who could swallow his own nose.

By the 1930s Ripley possessed a vast fortune, a private yacht, and a twenty-eight room mansion stocked with such "oddities" as shrunken heads and medieval torture devices, and his pioneering firsts in print, radio, and television were tapping into something deep in the American consciousness--a taste for the titillating and exotic, and a fascination with the fastest, biggest, dumbest and most weird. Today, that legacy continues and can be seen in reality TV, YouTube, America's Funniest Home Videos, Jackass, MythBusters and a host of other pop-culture phenomena.

In the end Robert L. Ripley changed everything. The supreme irony of his life, which was dedicated to exalting the strange and unusual, is that he may have been the most amazing oddity of all.



From the Hardcover edition.

A Curious Man is the marvelously compelling biography of Robert "Believe It or Not" Ripley, the enigmatic cartoonist turned globetrotting millionaire who won international fame by celebrating the world's strangest oddities, and whose outrageous showmanship taught us to believe in the unbelievable.

As portrayed by acclaimed biographer Neal Thompson, Ripley's life is the stuff of a classic American fairy tale. Buck-toothed and cursed by shyness, Ripley turned his sense of being an outsider into an appreciation for the strangeness of the world. After selling his first cartoon to Time magazine at age seventeen, more cartooning triumphs followed, but it was his "Believe It or Not" conceit and the wildly popular radio shows it birthed that would make him one of the most successful entertainment figures of his time and spur him to search the globe's farthest corners for bizarre facts, exotic human curiosities, and shocking phenomena.

Ripley delighted in making outrageous declarations that somehow always turned out to be true--such as that Charles Lindbergh was only the sixty-seventh man to fly across the Atlantic or that "The Star Spangled Banner" was not the national anthem. Assisted by an exotic harem of female admirers and by ex-banker Norbert Pearlroth, a devoted researcher who spoke eleven languages, Ripley simultaneously embodied the spirit of Peter Pan, the fearlessness of Marco Polo and the marketing savvy of P. T. Barnum.

In a very real sense, Ripley sought to remake the world's aesthetic. He demanded respect for those who were labeled "eccentrics" or "freaks"--whether it be E. L. Blystone, who wrote 1,615 alphabet letters on a grain of rice, or the man who could swallow his own nose.

By the 1930s Ripley possessed a vast fortune, a private yacht, and a twenty-eight room mansion stocked with such "oddities" as shrunken heads and medieval torture devices, and his pioneering firsts in print, radio, and television were tapping into something deep in the American consciousness--a taste for the titillating and exotic, and a fascination with the fastest, biggest, dumbest and most weird. Today, that legacy continues and can be seen in reality TV, YouTube, America's Funniest Home Videos, Jackass, MythBusters and a host of other pop-culture phenomena.

In the end Robert L. Ripley changed everything. The supreme irony of his life, which was dedicated to exalting the strange and unusual, is that he may have been the most amazing oddity of all.



From the Hardcover edition.
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Excerpts-
  • Chapter 1 chapter 1

    Isaac Davis Rip­ley, whose son would one day explore all corners of the earth, fled his dead-­end Appalachian home at age fourteen and headed west. He didn't get far before the Ohio River blocked his path. Unable to pay for a ferry crossing, Isaac swam solo across the turbulent river, eventually making his way to Northern California, seeking gold but instead finding work as a carpenter and cabinetmaker. By 1889, having settled in Santa Rosa, he fell in love with a woman fourteen years younger.

    Lillie Belle Yocka's family made their own risky journey toward dreams of a sunnier California life. The Yocka clan left Westport Landing (later called Kansas City) in the late 1860s, joining a straggly crowd along the Santa Fe Trail. During the westward journey, Lillie Belle was born in the back of a covered wagon, and she spent her childhood in a Northern California encampment on the banks of the Russian River.

    On October 3, 1889, Lillie Belle—­twenty-­one and ­pregnant— married thirty-­five-­year-­old Isaac Rip­ley, their union earning a brief mention in the Sonoma Democrat. Isaac built a cottage on a postage-­stamp lot on Glenn Street, with intricate wood trim that looked like icicles.

    A son arrived five months later, although the exact year and date of birth would remain a lingering mystery. Possibly to prevent profilers from revealing his mother's premarital pregnancy, LeRoy Robert Rip­ley would never admit to being born on February 22, 1890; on passport applications and other documents he'd declare 1891, 1892, 1893, or 1894 as his birth year. He'd also later claim to have been born on Christmas Day or Christmas Eve.

    Isaac and Lillie named him LeRoy but usually called him Roy. Only later in life would he adopt his middle name. A daughter, Ethel, arrived three years later and the family moved into a two-­story bungalow Isaac built on Orchard Street, in a quiet grid of streets, home to saloon keepers and dentists, milliners and hops brokers.



    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."

    Though thin, he grew to be fast and fit. A tireless neigh­bor­hood explorer, he ventured into the orchards north of town and probed south into the beckoning city. Mostly, he preferred to be alone. Barefoot, wearing carpenter's overalls or knickerbocker pants and a ragged straw hat, the curious, dreamy boy roved and reconnoitered, collecting bottle caps, cigar bands, and the baseball cards that came inside cigarette packs. He amassed a set of nails bent in the shape of each letter of the alphabet, keeping them in a cigar box under his bed.

    At the one-­room Lewis School, he was forced to wear shoes. He owned a single beat-­up pair and would stuff newspaper into the holes and...

About the Author-
  • NEAL THOMPSON is the critically acclaimed author of Light This Candle, Driving with the Devil, and Hurricane Season and has contributed to such publications as Outside, Esquire, and Sports Illustrated. He lives in Seattle with his wife and two sons. You can find him at www.nealthompson.com.



Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    March 25, 2013
    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 (Hurricane Season) 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.”

  • Kirkus

    April 1, 2013
    Biography of legendary "Believe It Or Not" cartoonist, world traveler and eccentric millionaire Robert Ripley (1890-1949). Although capturing every dimension of an oddly complex character like Ripley is no easy task, biographer Thompson (Hurricane Season, 2007, etc.) turns in an obsessively researched but somewhat workmanlike study of the Believe It Or Not founder, whose amazing American life itself plays out like an impossible fairy tale without the need for any particular showy literary finesse. Ripley was born in the 1890s into a lower-middle-class family in California and grew into both a formidable athlete and cartoonist, two interests he would later combine and pursue as a sports cartoonist. But after a few failed stints as a cartoonist for small-time San Francisco newspapers, he moved to New York to try his luck. But it wasn't until he took his first overseas journey to Egypt and across Europe that he began to cultivate an interest in human oddities and exotic cultures that would eventually make his fortune. He jumped from cartoons to radio and then took the Believe It or Not franchise to books and TV. By the 1930s, while most of America was reeling from the Depression, Ripley was one of the highest-paid and most well-traveled men in the world (he visited around 150 countries in all). Unfortunately, once World War II commenced, he found the world was no longer his playground, with hostilities breaking out in all his favorite countries: China's submission to communism in the late 1940s was particularly heartbreaking for Ripley. Overall, Thompson's book only skims the surface of Ripley's psyche without delving too deeply into what drove his odd wanderlust and exotic tastes. The author's competent bricks-and-mortar prose is nothing special, but it does adequately convey a detailed fly-on-the-wall-style narrative from the (often unbelievable) facts of Ripley's own life. A nuts-and-bolts, mostly nonextraordinary rendering of an extraordinary American life.

    COPYRIGHT(2013) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Library Journal

    May 15, 2013

    In the first biography of Robert Ripley (1890-1949) since Robert Bernard Considine's Ripley, the Modern Day Marco Polo over 50 years ago, Thompson (Driving with the Devil: Southern Moonshine, Detroit Wheels, and the Birth of NASCAR) presents a well-researched tale of the man born LeRoy Ripley, who combined his talent for drawing cartoons, beginning with sports-related newspaper spreads, with his interest in strange facts to create what became the multimedia Believe It or Not! brand. Ripley grew from a shy, stuttering, buck-toothed dropout to a world-renowned traveler, eccentric, and playboy. Although sometimes a boor, with biases and awkwardness on display, Ripley's dedication to learning and his success in illustrating elusive realities is conveyed by Thompson in a manner that makes Ripley a sympathetic character. Between the world wars and during the Great Depression, Ripley provided escape and entertainment that lives on in today's popular culture that is full of over-the-top reality TV shows and excessive superlatives. VERDICT Interspersed with "Believe It" sidebars and plenty of outlandish and unusual characters, Thompson's biography is a must read for those who enjoy rags-to-riches stories or anything out of the ordinary. Read it or not? Read it!--Barbara Ferrara, Chesterfield Cty. P.L., VA

    Copyright 2013 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Megan Abbott, Los Angeles Review of Books

    "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."

  • Entertainment Weekly "The life story of Robert 'Believe It or Not!' Ripley is as intriguing as the many oddities in which he delighted."
  • Columbus Dispatch "An engaging, fast-moving biography...makes the case that Ripley was among the first media celebrities, and that his affection for the grotesque and the extreme shaped American pop culture."
  • 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 ....Thompson superbly shows how Ripley's 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.'"
  • Booklist "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 Curious Man is a fine introduction to a man who, for most of us, has been merely the name above a famous title."
  • Kirkus Reviews "Ripley's amazing American life itself plays out like an impossible fairy tale."
  • A.J. Jacobs, New York Times bestselling author of The Know-It-All and The Year of Living Biblically "Robert Ripley's life is just as weird and riveting as a two-headed snake or an 8,000 rubber band ball. And Neal Thompson has told the story brilliantly in this book. What's truly unbelievable is that it's taken us so long to get a full-fledged biography of this great American character, a man who tapped into our fascination with bizarre non-fiction and who can rightly claim to be the godfather of Reality TV. It was worth the wait."
  • Peter Heller, New York Times bestselling author of The Dog Stars "A Curious Man is the rollicking, terrific story of one of America's greatest men...Ripley brought back to an awed nation the richness of an endlessly exotic world, and Neal Thompson tells the story with a perfectly-pitched sense of what makes such a man, and a nation, tick."
  • Karen Abbott, author of Sin in the Second City and American Rose "The breathtaking life of a quintessential American: a Frankenstein monster stitched together with equal parts genius, bravado, insecurity, and propaganda. A master of oddities, Ripley himself was the purest form of his own collection and Neal Thompson is his wondrous exhibitor."--Brad Meltzer, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Inner Circle "Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that the history of a time can be resolved in the biography of a few stout and earnest people. Robert Ripley was certainly one of those and, in this fascinating account, Neal Thompson rescues for us a colorful slice of history." --Colum McCann, bestselling author of Let the Great World Spin "Anyone who wants to understand America needs to read this book...Neal Thompson gives us a vivid portrait of this complex, restless man in all his maniacally conflicted glory."--Ben Fountain, Winner of the Pen/Hemingway Award and author of the National Book Award Finalist Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk "Intelligent and gr
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