A Curious Man

Also featured in ParadeHarpers, Vanity Fair, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, New York magazine, AARPMen’s Health, the LA Review of Books, on NPR’s All Things Considered, the BBC, and … The Daily Show! (see the clip below)

“An engaging, fast-moving biography…” Columbus Dispatch

“A buoyant, boozy tale of American adventure and enterprise The author draws a striking, unforgettable portrait.” San Francisco Chronicle

“Thompson … narrates with the infectious, drop-jaw glee of a writer who cannot believe his good fortune.” Cleveland Plain Dealer

Fascinating and fun… makes a convincing case that Ripley struck something deep in the psyche of the American public.” –Chicago Tribune

A shy, insecure, bucktoothed boy, Robert Ripley willed himself to become a man of the world: a talented artist, an athlete, a rabid traveler, an unlikely ladies’ man, a heavy drinker, a playboy-millionaire, a shrewd businessman, entertainer, and media pioneer. He was Howard Hughes crossed with PT Barnum; Peter Pan crossed with Marco Polo. A goofy everyman, a bit of a yokel, his obsessive curiosity about the world and it’s oddities earned fame and fortune. Yet, as his housekeeper once said, the greatest “Believe It or Not” of all was Ripley himself.

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.” –Peter Heller, New York Times bestselling author of The Dog Stars

“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, National Book Award Finalist and National Book Critics Circle Award winning author of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

Raised poor in northern California, LeRoy, as he was known, survived the 1906 earthquake a year after losing his father. Forced to quit high school and to find a job, he started his newspaper career as a sports cartoonist in San Francisco. After moving to New York in 1912, he toiled in relative obscurity until his ‘Believe It or Not’ cartoons, created in 1919, became increasingly popular through the 1920s.

His first book of cartoons and essays, published in 1929, became an instant best-seller and led to his hiring by William Randolph Hearst, who paid him $100,000 a year. By the mid-1930s, he had become one of the highest-paid entertainers of his day, earning $500,000 a year from his cartoons, best-selling books, lectures, films, radio shows, endorsements, and museums. He received more mail than any single person in history (millions of letters a year), and in 1936 was voted the most popular man in America.

By the start of WWII, he had become one of the most eloquently traveled men alive, visiting obscure corners of more than 200 countries. He crossed the Atlantic and Pacific oceans dozens of times and belonged to the Circumnavigators’ Club and the Explorers’ Club. He collected oddities from around the world–as well as beautiful women–at his eccentric mansion on a private island off Mamaroneck, New York (where he moved after living for fifteen years at  the New York Athletic Club in midtown Manhattan).

He died after suffering a heart attack in 1949 while filming the 13th episode of his TV show, which featured a story about the creation of the funeral song, Taps.

 ~~ See vintage photos, cartoons, and videos with the CURIOUS MAN iPhone app ~~

 Believe it!

  • Charles M. Schulz’s first-ever published cartoon appeared in Ripley’s ‘Believe It or Not’
  • As a radio pioneer, Ripley broadcast shows from the Grand Canyon, from underwater, from overseas, from inside caves and from the decks of ships.
  • A talented athlete, he once tried out for the New York Giants and in 1926 became New York City’s handball champion.
  • Ripley’s popularity foreshadowed such pop-culture phenomena as YouTube, reality TV, Fear Factor, Jerry Springer, Oprah, The Amazing Race, and Jackass
  • For more, check out this timeline, or this Q&A with Jon Meacham.

From the Epilogue:

The revelations that made Ripley gasp – burning ghats in India, shrunken heads in Ecuador, armless/legless girl wonders – seem tame compared to the extremes of shows like Jackass and the exploits of the masses on YouTube.

And yet, the phrase Ripley coined remains part of the English lexicon nearly a century later. In 2010, “believe it or not” appeared 138 times in The New York Times, and a Google search landed more than 5 million “believe it or not” hits. His spirit lives on in shows like MythBusters and River Monsters. Also thriving are the aspirations Ripley embodied – to show people something they didn’t know, to entertain and educate and titillate, to question and challenge the truth – as are the driving passions of voyeurism, exhibitionism, and the base appreciation of freakishness, oddities, and pranks of nature.

The man who considered himself a rube and a farm boy, who indulged in a lifestyle as risky as any character in his cartoons, who taught readers to gape with respect at the weirdness of man and nature, who contributed to the adoption of America’s national anthem and the creation of the memorial at Pearl Harbor and so much more… he may have been the most unbelievable oddity of all.

“Neal Thompson constructs an elegant argument: the world Ripley created is the world in which we now live.” –David Shields, New York Times bestselling author of The Thing About Life Is that One Day You’ll Be Dead

Here’s a brief look at some of the globe-trotting cartoonist’s far-flung travels:

And here’s an interview I did with the BBC:


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • Lorenwallen

    THANK YOU!  I have wondered for years why there was no modern biography of Ripley.   I read the Bob Considine bio with great interest – he  alludes to some interesting aspects of Ripley’s personal life (within the confines of 1961 good taste).  Please tell the real/whole story as best you can.  I look forward to it!

  • Anonymous

    Thanks. Hoping it’ll be published by late 2012, or early 2013. I’ll keep you posted – it’s a fun read. 

  • George

    I have just finished reading an advance copy of your Ripley book as part of Amazon’s Vine program. I don’t know if the finalized published version will have a photo section. I certainly hope. I felt quite frustrated without any. Still…loved it!

  • Jeremy Nichols

    It’s been five years since I met you at the library in Santa Rosa, California, during your research into the history of Ripley. I’m looking forward to finally reading the results of your labors.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mark-Kuykendall/100000982787451 Mark Kuykendall

    I’ve just ordered it. I look forward to it.

  • Catherine Ristola

    I’m most of the way through the book and am loving it. I grew up in SR and we would often visit the Ripley exhibit in the Church of One Tree, but I didn’t know it had been his family’s church. Too bad it still isn’t open for viewing. I do wish you had noted that Schultz had settled in SR as an adult when you put in the bit about his BION/Snoopy cartoon.

  • Kerumbo

    Sorry to pick on the one error I saw in such a great book, but the text refers to Charles M Schulz as Charles F Schulz. Ah well, no one’s perfect — and I do strongly recommend the book.