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Robert Ripley, the man

Created date

January 23rd, 2014
Robert Ripley biography

Since his death in 1949, Robert Ripley’s name has become more familiar than the man himself. The passage of time has reduced his presence to a title on TV, a sign on a museum, and the catch phrase “Believe it or not.”

But Robert Ripley was indeed a living, breathing human being. 

Born in California in 1890, “Rip,” as his friends called him, was a shy, awkward youth. Gangly and bucktoothed, he found comfort and confidence in art and proved a gifted cartoonist with a winning sense of humor.

In his early twenties, Ripley tried his hand professionally, working for a series of papers as a sports cartoonist. And by the 1930s, he was an enormous syndicated success, appearing in broadsheets across the country and earning upwards of $500,000 a year.

Behind his incredible salary was a cartoon featuring oddities from around the world. He called it “Ripley’s Believe It or Not.”

In his latest book, A Curious Man (Crown Archetype, 2013), Neal Thompson does what no other author has done before: He brings Robert L. Ripley back to life. 

“When I first started working on this project,” Thompson recalls, “I couldn’t believe that it hadn’t already been done. As it turned out, though, Ripley the man had faded over the years. His work had eclipsed his memory.”

So he set out on an exhaustive research tour that, most importantly, led to the archives of Ripley Entertainment, Inc., in Orlando, Fla. Here, Thompson had unrestricted access to Ripley’s personal and professional letters, film footage, and original examples of his cartoons chronicling fascinating and sometimes oddball specimens.

Fascinating in his own right

Sifting through these materials, he discovered a character every bit as fascinating and likeable as the work that made him famous.

“Ripley was a guy who didn’t take himself too seriously,” says Thompson. “He had this loveable childlike innocence that drew readers to him, and that shines through in his drawings.”

It also served as the underpinning for how he viewed life and people. Given his ungainly appearance, Ripley always saw himself as something of an outsider and, as Thompson points out, this helped fuel his thirst for exploration.

Using his wealth, Ripley traveled the globe in search of the strange and exotic. His travels took him to Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and the islands of the Pacific. 

Upon his return, he was always sure to share his discoveries in cartoon form with his millions of readers.

Of course, the forward thinker that he was, Ripley wasn’t about to confine himself to the pages of newspapers. He also dabbled in radio and film and, near the end of his life, television. 

Those who enjoyed his work in print also looked for him on the silver screen. In short reels that appeared before feature presentations, Ripley would demonstrate astonishing feats like how to cut a hole big enough to jump through in a piece of cigarette paper. 

Viewers devoured it.

“One of the things that I most admire about Ripley is that, in turning the spotlight on the strange and unusual, he didn’t exploit anyone,” says Thompson. “He demanded respect for those that had existed in the shadows as so-called freaks. Actually, I think he felt akin to his subjects.”

Furthermore, Thompson notes that Ripley helped instill hope in his readers, especially during the Great Depression, when all seemed lost for many. His “Believe It or Not” series taught audiences to believe in the otherwise unbelievable.

“Before writing this book, I had no idea how incredible the man behind the name really was,” he says. “He was a remarkably talented artist, a tireless explorer, and an entertaining showman.”

And thanks to Thompson’s book, people can once again see the real Robert Ripley—a man who never should have been forgotten.