Monday, July 14, 2014

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

Title:  A Curious Man: The Strange and Brilliant Life of Robert "Believe It or Not!" Ripley
Author:  Neal Thompson
Publication Information:  Crown Archetype. 2013. 432 pages.
ISBN:  077043620X / 978-0770436209

Book Source:  I received this book through the Crown Publishing Group Blogging for Books program. The book was delivered through Edelweiss.

Favorite Quote:  "When the reporter asked Ripley to describe the most unusual thing he'd ever seen, Ripley said he hadn't seen it yet:  'If I had, I would lose my ambitions and I would not travel any more.'"

"And yet, the phrase Ripley coined remains part of the English lexicon nearly a century later. In 2011, "believe it or not" appeared more than twelve thousand times in the New York Times and on its website, and a mid-2012 Google search landed more than seventy million "believe it or not" hits." A Google search today netted me about 266 million web hits, over 73 million video hits, over 1.5 million book hits, and over 30 million news hits!

I have been to several Ripley museums and pored over many of the books with my children, but before reading this book, I had no idea of the man behind the "believe it or not" phenomenon.

Ripley was born in Santa Rosa, California. He lost his father at age fifteen. His mother supported the family by taking in boarders and doing laundry. Ripley contributed to the family income with part-time jobs. In school, he was a good athlete but shy, always hampered by his appearance, particularly his teeth.

He always had a fascination with drawing. He sold his first cartoon to Life Magazine at age 16. He was paid $8. He went on to pursue a career as a cartoonist with the newspapers, first in San Francisco and then in New York. He also developed a passion for travel, as his newspaper jobs sent him to different parts of the world - from the Olympics in Antwerp to trips around the world. Throughout, he captured the little seen aspects of his world.

One journalist "described him as 'a special institution' who found his life and the world around him endlessly interesting and exciting, who felt compelled to share that shameless enthusiasm with his fans - and with anyone else who'd listen."

The New York Globe printed the first Believe it or Not cartoon in December 1918 with the title "Champs and Chumps." The title was changed to "Believe it or Not" in 1919. With the initial success came syndication and eventually radio and TV. Ripley brought to America entertainment from far off places. As his researcher Norbert Pearlroth said, "Our daily life is so cut and dried that we get relief from fairy tales ... Except his fairy tales are true, and this excites people. They like to learn that nature makes exceptions. These are fairy tales for grown-ups."

His personal life was a lot more scattered than his professional life. As success came, he was surrounded by a melee of people. He had many different relationships, "collecting women" as he collected his stories but never being able to settle into the stable loving relationship he so craved.

Robert Leroy Ripley died suddenly at the age of only 59, but his legacy continues - in corporate hands but still bearing his name.

This book is a fascinating insight into the world and life of Robert Leroy Ripley. It is a narrative account of his life beginning with his birth in 1890 to his death in 1949.  The narrative nature of the book works for the most part because his life and his work are interesting enough to not need literary embellishment. A few portions of the book do tend to take on the tone of "this happened...and then this happened...and then this happened." Mostly though, the events and the people themselves maintain the interest of the book.

Sprinkled throughout the book are "Believe it or not" facts. For example:
  • A feud between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst coined the term "yellow journalism."
  • The first use of the term "jazz" for music is attributed to a sportswriter names E. T. "Scoop" Gleeson.
  • Walt Disney's dream as a teenager was to be a sports cartoonist, but he was turned down by the Kansas City Star and other newspapers.
While these snippets may not relate directly to Ripley's life story, they add to an understanding of how wide his interest and research spread.  "His life's mission was to prove to readers that veracity and reality were elusive .... and that sometimes you can't recognize truth until someone shines a light."

A New York American advertisement once said, "There's a little bit of Riplianism in all of us," that everyone harbors a "fascination with the apparently untrue facts of life." That perhaps explains the fascination his work and the work of those who continue his legacy still holds for adults and children around the world.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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