Monday, December 1, 2014

A Curious Man - Neal Thompson

Summary:  "A Curious Man" is the marvelously compelling biography of Robert "Believe It or Not" Ripley, the enigmatic cartoonist turned globetrotting millionaire who won international fame by celebrating the world's strangest oddities, and whose outrageous showmanship taught us to believe in the unbelievable. 
As portrayed by acclaimed biographer Neal Thompson, Ripley's life is the stuff of a classic American fairy tale. Buck-toothed and cursed by shyness, Ripley turned his sense of being an outsider into an appreciation for the strangeness of the world. After selling his first cartoon to "Time "magazine at age eighteen, more cartooning triumphs followed, but it was his "Believe It or Not" conceit and the wildly popular radio shows it birthed that would make him one of the most successful entertainment figures of his time and spur him to search the globe's farthest corners for bizarre facts, exotic human curiosities, and shocking phenomena. 

Ripley delighted in making outrageous declarations that somehow always turned out to be true--such as that Charles Lindbergh was only the sixty-seventh man to fly across the Atlantic or that "The Star Spangled Banner" was "not "the national anthem. Assisted by an exotic harem of female admirers and by ex-banker Norbert Pearlroth, a devoted researcher who spoke eleven languages, Ripley simultaneously embodied the spirit of Peter Pan, the fearlessness of Marco Polo and the marketing savvy of P. T. Barnum. 

In a very real sense, Ripley sought to remake the world's aesthetic. He demanded respect for those who were labeled "eccentrics" or "freaks"--whether it be E. L. Blystone, who wrote 1,615 alphabet letters on a grain of rice, or the man who could swallow his own nose. 

By the 1930s Ripley possessed a vast fortune, a private yacht, and a twenty-eight room mansion stocked with such "oddities" as shrunken heads and medieval torture devices, and his pioneering firsts in print, radio, and television were tapping into something deep in the American consciousness--a taste for the titillating and exotic, and a fascination with the fastest, biggest, dumbest and most weird. Today, that legacy continues and can be seen in reality TV, YouTube, "America's Funniest Home Videos, Jackass, MythBusters" and a host of other pop-culture phenomena. 

In the end Robert L. Ripley changed "everything. "The supreme irony of his life, which was dedicated to exalting the strange and unusual, is that he may have been the most amazing oddity of all. (Summary and image from  I was provided a copy of A Curious Man in exchange for an honest review.)

My Review:  I think we've all grown up with the Ripley brand - I vaguely remember the "Believe it or Not" shows from my childhood (and sadly, remember the Dean Cain iteration a little better).  My son has a Ripley's Believe it or Not full of trivia and amazing facts that he loves.  But I'd never given much thought to the man behind the machine - Robert L. Ripley.

Neal Thompson has done an incredible job telling the story of Bob Ripley.  From his humble and inauspicious beginnings (fatherless early on, didn't excel at school, but found drawing on everything) to his incredible rise to fame, I was entranced with Thompson's telling.  Ripley was truly a self-made man, taking a raw talent for drawing and honing it, taking necessary risks, and by making calculated decisions (and with a little bit of luck), he was able to overcome job losses, build an empire during the Depression, and truly create a place for himself in history.

Thompson depicts Ripley as Howard Hughes crossed with P.T. Barnum -- a genius and giddy admirer of the macabre, Ripley sought out the fantastic, the horrific, the amazing, and the truly mind-boggling worldwide.  Unlike Barnum, who prided himself in tricking or duping the public, Ripley was determined to only present that which was true.  As I read, however, Ripley seemed to also resemble Hugh Hefner - down to the penchant for harem-like guests and an inability to not appear in public in a dressing gown.   

Like most artistic individuals who storm into history, it was difficult reading about some aspects of Ripley's life.  Especially as he aged and those who were dear to him either passed away or fell out of his life, he seemed to lose control of his emotional state.   His health suffered for his art (whether that be radio, television, or his cartoons), and with it, so did his personal relationships.  It broke my heart.

You know how occasionally you pick up a book and dive into it without thinking you wanted to read about or learn about the subject?  This was one of those books for me.  I was intrigued, but by midway through, I had a difficult time putting the book down.  Ripley may have had some unlikeable qualities, but his story is one of endurance, hard work, ingenuity, and, as Thompson asserts, may be the strangest of all.

My Rating: Four stars

For the sensitive reader:  Ripley was vocal about his disdain for monogamy.  He was a womanizer, drank heavily, and was emotionally abusive to his companions later in life.  However, Thompson handles the details with tact.

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