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

Posted: Friday, September 27, 2013, 8:35 am

In brief

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Believe it! You will like this book!

My first introduction to Ripley's Believe It or Not came via the television show of the same name hosted by Jack Palance from 1982-1986. The presence of Palance, with his breathy delivery and menacing eyes, coupled with stories of the absurd, made tuning in on Sunday evenings a must in our house.

So, when I heard about Neal Thompson's biography, A Curious Man: The Strange and Brilliant Life of Robert "Believe It or Not" Ripley, I myself was curious. Who was Robert Ripley and, more importantly, what would lead him to one day amassing a collection of shrunken heads?

Born in Santa Rosa, California in 1890, Ripley was the very definition of a self-made man. He grew up poor. His father died when Ripley was very young. He was not attractive (Thompson makes much of Ripley's buck teeth, stuttering speech and somewhat ghoulish appearance) or a particularly talented student. But he could draw.

Ripley sold his first comic (a sweet depiction of his mother doing laundry) to Life magazine when he was only 18. In just three years, he would move from Santa Rosa to San Francisco to Manhattan, landing ever more lucrative positions as a newspaper cartoonist with an uncanny knack for always being in the right place at the right time.

When Ripley finally devotes his talent and energy to stories of people doing weird and wonderful things, he strikes a definite chord with the American public and becomes a national sensation, sealing his place in newspaper, radio and television history.

Thompson's book reveals Ripley as not altogether likeable (I daresay his wife got more eccentricity than she bargained for), but quintessentially American. Peppered with "Believe it!" facts throughout, it's an appealing tale of a small-town misfit who turned his insatiable curiosity into fame and fortune.