A Curious Man: The Strange and Brilliant Life of Robert 'Believe It or Not' Ripley by Neal Thompson
|A Curious Man: The Strange and Brilliant Life of Robert 'Believe It or Not' Ripley by Neal Thompson|
|Reviewer: John Van der Kiste|
|Summary: A biography of the creator of the 'Believe It Or Not!' cartoons, radio and TV show, which exploited the public's fascination for trivia on all subjects|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 422||Date: June 2013|
|Publisher: Random House|
|External links: Author's website|
Robert LeRoy Ripley was indeed a curious man. He throve on curiosity, his own and that of everyone else. By exploiting and never underestimating the public demand for trivia, and by being in the right place at the right time just as the news and broadcasting media were beginning to develop in America into the unassailable forces they were by the end of the century, he became one of the most successful men of the age.
As this biography reveals, it was a classic rags to riches story. Ripley, who in 1919 created the 'Believe It or Not!' newspaper cartoon feature, which later transferred to radio and then TV, was the ultimate self-made man. Born in California in or about 1890, he would be remarkably inconsistent about his date of birth in applications for passports and other official documents (a case of 'I was born on this day in that year – believe it or not'?). What we do know for certain is that he and his family were poor, and both his parents died in early middle age. He was teased at school because of his protruding teeth and stutter, his poor written work and subsequent inability to read aloud in class when asked to do so. Fortunately a perceptive teacher realised that he was uncommonly skilled at drawing, and allowed him to submit his written work in the form of drawings and prose instead of essays if he so preferred.
After leaving school without any qualifications, he joined two newspapers as a humble sports cartoonist but was sacked from both. It proved third time lucky when he was hired by publishing mogul William Randolph Hearst, who published the first 'Believe It Or Not!' cartoon. From its humble beginnings concerned with mainly sporting records, the drawings soon came to embrace all fields of human knowledge. When Hearst discovered how popular the series was, he syndicated it in seventeen papers worldwide, and Ripley was soon the best-paid caricaturist in the land. He won newspaper polls as the most popular man in America, was said to have visited over two hundred countries worldwide, and was allegedly receiving more post than the President.
Some of his drawings showed an uncanny finger-on-the-pulse ability to make headlines in themselves. In 1927 he revealed to an astonished nation that Charles Lindbergh, who had just become a hero by making his non-stop flight across the Atlantic, was the first person to achieve the feat on his own – but it was proved that by omitting the all-important word 'solo', he was in fact the 67th person to make such a journey. Two years later, he caused another furore by informing the public that America had no national anthem. Congress had never officially adopted 'The Star-Spangled Banner' as such, and within two years this remarkable oversight was made good, thanks to Ripley. Further remarkable (if arguably useless) miscellaneous facts followed thick and fast. For example Aesop did not write Aesop's fables, and Buffalo Bill never shot a buffalo in his life.
Ripley once said that his was the only business in which the customer was never right, and he dared his readers to prove him wrong. The cartoons would soon carry a strapline of 'Full proof and details on request'. 'Believe It Or Not!' went on to launch a radio and then a television series, as well as 'odditoriums' or museums. Frankly, these were little more than freak shows staged for public entertainment – and the word is used advisedly. There is something really rather distasteful in contemplating, let alone reading about exhibits such as two-year-old Betty Lou Williams, billed as 'the girl with four legs and three arms', born to a poor family with the remains of her twin sister's undeveloped body emerging from her torso. Doctors were unable to remove the parts, so her hard-up family allowed her to be exhibited at the odditorium in New York, twelve hours a day, for $250 per week. Sad to say, the public lapped such displays up in their thousands.
Thompson succeeds in conveying the strange personality of Ripley. He was to some extent a boy who never really grew up, but lived in his own world of make-believe, an unashamed anorak who was fascinated by every kind of trivia. With his enormous wealth, it is not surprising to read that he had several homes and a lavish estate connected to the mainland by a causeway, which was named BION (Believe It Or Not, naturally) island. A remarkable man with an uncanny gift for the Midas touch, he was a deeply flawed and not very likeable character. His poorly-paid assistant Norbert Pearlroth provided much of the research for his boss, who eagerly took all the credit. He could be impatient and arrogant in his dealings with others, and his marriage, wrecked almost immediately by unashamed infidelities on his part, barely lasted for two years.
As a true patriot he gave his time to charitable causes during the Second World War, but when peace came he went back to his media ventures with such energy as he still had left. In 1948 he launched a television show which in those days was always transmitted live, but ill-health was catching up with him. A heavy drinker, he had probably suffered at least one minor stroke before being taken ill during a show, and he died of heart failure at the early age of 58.
This is an interesting book about a unique phenomenon, and I suspect that had it not been for his pioneering efforts, there might have been no Guinness Book of Records and all its offshoots on the other side of the Atlantic. Nevertheless it does suggest that behind every person who becomes successful beyond their wildest dreams lurks a troubled and often difficult person. I found it entertaining, but one or two aspects did leave an unpleasant taste in the mouth.
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You can read more book reviews or buy A Curious Man: The Strange and Brilliant Life of Robert 'Believe It or Not' Ripley by Neal Thompson at Amazon.com.
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