Man and Wunderkammern: "The Strange and Brilliant Life of Robert Ripley"
By Megan AbbottMay 7, 2013
A Curious Man: The Strange and Brilliant Life of Robert “Believe It Or Not!” Ripley by Neal Thompson
WHEN I WAS SEVEN OR EIGHT, my family vacationed at Ocean City, Maryland. Every night, walking the boardwalk with my dad, we’d pass the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum, and I’d linger, staring up at its lurid red sign. One night, he offered to take me inside.
“Just so you know,” he said, at the last moment, “you might see really creepy things.”
“Like a baby in a jar.”
I can’t quite explain the complicated rush of feelings that followed: horror, curiosity, exhilaration, fascination. Suddenly, I couldn’t go inside.
And at its core was this: I wasn’t ready to admit, to myself or to my dad, that I was the kind of person who most definitely did want to see a baby in a jar. It became my darkest secret.
The truth was that much of my childhood was devoted to All Things Unusual, and I spent countless hours devouring Ripley’s compendia, The People’s Almanac Book of Lists, Time-Life’s Curious and Unusual Facts, TV’s In Search of… and That’s Incredible! In the privacy of my bedroom, though, I didn’t have to admit anything — least of all the thing that Ripley seemed to know about me: that I wanted nothing more than to step inside those museum doors.
Today, it is primarily through these museums, including a mammoth one in Times Square, that Ripley is remembered (if he is remembered at all), meaning his legacy is that of a commercial freak purveyor, a kind of P.T. Barnum promoter of oddities in the grand American huckster tradition. But, as Neal Thompson reveals in A Curious Man: The Strange and Brilliant Life of Robert “Believe It Or Not!” Ripley, Thompson’s deliriously entertaining new biography, Ripley was far more than a sideshow hawker — and his insight into the curiosity of the American public was timely and enduring but also utterly native to him. Because it was a curiosity he shared.
In Thompson’s vivid rendering, LeRoy Robert Ripley (1890–1949) led a life best described as Horatio-Alger-as-directed-by-Preston-Sturges-at-his-madcap-best. Like Alger, he started out on the lean, a poor kid in Santa Rosa, California. In 1906, the San Francisco Earthquake decimated his town. This event, along with his father’s death the year prior, became the “dark scar” on Ripley’s childhood. But just as the quake launched his tiny childhood home into the air, timber buckling and heaving, it also launched Ripley, sparking a hunger in the 16-year-old to escape the confines of his small town and hunt for success in the Big World.
Thus begins the magnificent rise of Ripley, first as a sports cartoonist at the San Francisco Chronicle and eventually at The New York Globe during an era when newspapers were entering their zenith. But it was Ripley’s personal fascination for odd spectacles and human feats that transformed what might have proven a short flurry of newspaper success into something quite larger. Demonstrating versatility and ingenuity early on, Ripley took advantage of the “off season” in sports by featuring for readers unusual facts — the man who once remained under water for six minutes, the time two men boxed for seven and a half hours before ending in a draw. The seeds for his grand success were sown.
In 1918, Ripley launched “Chumps and Champs,” a compilation of sports facts. Within months, the column expanded beyond sports to become “Believe It Or Not,” which appeared sporadically over the next year, eventually becoming one of the nation’s most voraciously consumed comic strips. Readers were hungry to read the daily assemblage of odd facts (it takes two years to make a billiard ball!), miraculous feats (a Frenchman once drank 13 pints of wine in one breath!), and nature’s oddities (four-legged chickens, peg-legged cows), encouraging readers to send in their own stories, to be a part of it all. While no overnight sensation, the comic grew in popularity with the passing years and made Ripley’s name.
As Thompson points out, the era in which Ripley first came to fame was one marked by the transient success of countless cartoonists who tapped into a gimmick briefly and then the gimmick passed. And, in fact, Ripley spawned countless imitators of his particular brand of facts, oddities, and phenomena. So, other than luck and timing, why did Ripley succeed? Thompson makes the claim that one of the comic’s strengths is that his curiosity came from an entirely genuine place. Saddled with an inglorious mug — in particular, a set of buckteeth that humiliated him as a boy — Ripley, according to Thompson, “always had an affinity for underdogs and outcasts since he often felt like one himself.” Ultimately, “Believe It Or Not” was at once utterly universal (insatiable curiosity for the “strange”) and deeply idiosyncratic.
In 1929, after the success of a compilation book of “Believe It Or Not” columns, Ripley heard the siren’s call (in the form of a $100,000 annual salary) of William Randolph Hearst, which wanted to syndicate the column, expanding its reach across the globe. Thompson sums it up thusly: “Hearst […] sent a two-word telegram to one of his editors in New York: ‘HIRE Ripley.’” We can picture the swirling black-and-white newspaper montage to follow.
In a style neatly mimicking the speed and verve of the era (complete with its own “Believe It” sidebars about the sundry characters to cross Ripley’s path), Thompson carries us through these dizzying years, a time when Ripley worked constantly, churning out daily cartoons day and night and traveling constantly while also somehow managing to become one of the nation’s top handball champs (a habit he picked up during his 15 years as a hard-living, man-about-town bachelor at the New York Athletic Club), marrying and, very publicly, divorcing a Ziegfeld Follies dancer, buying Chinese “junk,” amassing countless objets from around the world, and generally living the life of a staggeringly successful but also hopelessly restless man — a man chasing something and never quite finding it.
It is hard to overestimate Ripley’s popularity and reach during the 1930s and ’40s. His comic, read daily across the globe, spawned a book series, comic books, Vitaphone variety shorts, radio shows, a chain of museums (“odditoriums”), the world’s first “oceanarium,” countless promotional “events” (“Ripley to broadcast his entire radio show … from underwater!”) and, in the last year of his life, a television show. At the peak of its popularity, “Believe It Or Not” had more than 80 million readers and received around two million fan letters a month. Meanwhile, Ripley’s personal life was as overstuffed as his professional one, as he compulsively collected objects, pets, and mistresses to fill his grand 28-room mansion, a “moated castle” stuffed to the rafters with everything from African idols to medieval armor, sealskin kayaks from Alaska, a guffa boat from Iraq, the dried penis of a whale, and a basement grotto filled with erotica. In other words, a “living” version of his own world-famous comic strip.
“Believe It Or Not” owes two great debts: first, to Ripley’s invaluable researcher Norbert Pearlroth, who spent his days poring over the New York Public Library collections for obscure facts and figures, and second to Ripley’s countless, heavily publicized overseas adventures — long tours funded by his employers to exotic locales from Shanghai and Singapore to Delhi and Cairo to Azerbaijan and far Siberia, during which he offered a steady stream of dispatches about the oddities and wonders he uncovered. While permitting Ripley to indulge his lifelong taste for the exotic, for exploration and for oddity, these trips proved critical to “Believe It Or Not,” giving it a “living authenticity” that facts and feats gleaned from books alone could not provide. Ripley proved a natural curator for the masses.
An intrepid, curious traveler, Ripley roamed not just to see renowned wonders and not just to drink and tomcat (though he would do both, vigorously, through his entire life), but to unearth the unusual, the hidden, the specific. His travel dispatches, laden with stereotypes of the day, reflect Ripley’s private obsessions — in particular, “the inexplicable things people did for their gods,” particularly if they appeared, to American eyes, grotesque, such as the man Ripley dubs the “Hanging Hindu,” an adherent dangling from a tree via a hook stuck in his back.
Ripley’s complicated relation to “the Other” is one Thompson explores in depth. He locates in Ripley a genuine desire to burrow into the cultures he explores and share the glories and mysteries of other places. But, in large part, the comic’s success hinged on Ripley’s expert skill not at penetration but at sensationalization. And sensationalizing came naturally to him. His entire life, he remained a parachuting explorer, never staying long, never digging deeper. While Thompson notes his horror over the poverty he uncovers and, in particular, as war ravages the places he loves most, Ripley always stops well short of transforming that desire into something more significant: an effort to bridge cultures, to gain understanding or, when encountering humanitarian crises, to call to action. After his first trans-global trip, Thompson notes, Ripley struggled with seeing widespread hunger in India and China “while America was so full-fed.” At the same time, he admits that “whatever miseries he had witnessed […] he wasn’t ready to reform the world. ‘I can’t reform myself!’”
These conflicting impulses would never resolve themselves. While in many ways a typical “ugly American,” Ripley increasingly found himself returning to one of more than 200 countries he’d visited and bemoan the flattening impact of Westernization. After a visit to Nairobi, he disparaged the efforts of “stupid white people trying to change the age-old habits of the Africans.”
But, at heart, Ripley was not a man given to introspection or to cause. The froth and frenzy of his life suited his restless nature, and the next possibility always tantalized most. This quality means A Curious Man never penetrates Ripley’s interior life. He was not prone to self-reflection but rather manic projection. In the end, this is a biography less about the man than about a man-in-(and of)-his-time. He is less important for who he was than the impulse he tapped into: a desire to explore and to connect, particularly as the nation struggled through the changes brought on by modernity and war.
Near the end, a year before his death following an on-air heart attack at age 59, we experience the book’s bravura setpiece. After winning a radio show contest, George McMillin, a young stockbroker from Chicago, won an all-expenses-paid trip on the S.S. President Cleveland to the Orient with Ripley, “the most traveled man in the United States.” Thanks in large part to the invaluable reminiscence of McMillin, we are able to experience through his eyes the swirl of Ripley’s increasingly frenzied life, much of it of the screwball variety, with Ripley juggling girlfriends and mistresses, wild parties, revolving state rooms — but also of growing darkness, as the glories of the good life contrast with visits to Manila in ruins. As they continue, McMillin notes Ripley’s increasing absences but lacks the life experience to fully understand it. Thompson, however, offers us a striking picture:
Ripley seemed to spring to life just before his broadcasts, and performed dutifully. Then he’d disappear back to his room. Windows shut and shades drawn, it became rank with leftover food, fruit peelings, unwashed clothes, and empty cocktail glasses. One night, in a rare display of hospitality, Ripley hosted a cocktail party for thirty guests, all of them getting bombed and silly. Li [one of Ripley’s girlfriends] sang “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” and Storer [Ripley’s frequent production partner] and McMillin performed a mock Believe It Or Not radio show that had Ripley howling. “Gosh, life is wonderful,” McMillin declared in that night’s journal entry.
If much of Ripley’s life feels like a madcap Preston Sturges film, in the vein of Hail the Conquering Heroes or Palm Beach Story, this trip feels more Billy Wilder — wickedly funny but darker, richer. McMillin’s exuberant naiveté plays off Ripley’s world-weariness, as he tries and fails and tries again to resist the darkening pall of cynicism and disillusionment about the state of the world and perhaps his own personal life — the insatiable desire to collect objects, homes, business, and women — to ward off what? Mortality? The pains of introspection? And, perhaps, in true Citizen Kane fashion: loneliness. In him, we see someone overwhelmed by modernity, savoring its gifts but alarmed at its dangers — and increasingly bewildered by the bright horrors of the world around him, which once seemed to offer only mystery and pleasure.
When one looks at “Believe It Or Not” today, random captioned groupings of facts, feats, and reader-contributed oddities in a style of illustration that seems lost to another era (perhaps an era before Ripley — more like 19th-century advertisements), it has the quality of peeking into a cabinet of curiosities. Celeste Olalquiaga differentiates between the curiosity cabinet, which had its heyday during the rationally focused 17th and 18th centuries, and its Renaissance precursor, the Wunderkammern, or “wonder chambers.” The former reflects a desire to order and control the natural world (“divide and conquer”) and highlight the privilege of its owner who could afford to gather such objects. The Wunderkammern, by contrast, sought to offer “objects of puzzlement and awe” for an effect of exhilarating spectacle.
And “wonder chamber” seems a perfect way to describe each daily “Believe It Or Not” strip. There is no desire to order (just as we see in the chaos of Ripley’s personal life), only to dazzle and provoke — but also to invite us in, just as its title implies: it is we who must decide! And while, like the curiosity cabinets, the strip relied heavily on Ripley’s financial capacity (and Hearst’s) to explore the globe, the comic’s was, at heart, a highly democratic operation.
With every dispatch, readers were invited to this marvelous and strange party, submitting their own items, commenting on, and even challenging others’ letters from around the world. There was, after all, Ripley’s masterful provocation: “I dare you to prove me wrong.” The cartoon even bore the tagline: “Full proof and details on request.” And to see one of their items — the armless man in their town who could play piano with his toes, the chicken born with two heads — featured and illustrated in the cartoon and to know it reached readers across the world — what could be more thrilling?
Reading A Curious Man, it’s easy to see the hunger into which Ripley tapped still raging. In his conclusion, Thompson notes that Ripley’s “burning ghats in India, shrunken heads in Ecuador” would likely seem tame today alongside the excesses available on reality TV shows like Fear Factor and Bizarre World. It seems a closer parallel can be found not in these slick, packaged-product shows that are commercially driven Cabinets of Curiosity, curated to draw the eyes of bored viewers; Ripley’s comics feel more akin to one’s inaugural ventures into YouTube, particularly in its early days. The novelty or even extremity is not the true appeal — instead, it’s the experience. Random discovery. Each link leading to other links, creating a simulacrum of worlds both remarkably similar and remarkably different from our own: the sad-faced 12-year-old girl in remote Lampang offering a poignant cover of Ke$ha’s “TiK ToK,” the gray-faced Indiana man in a paneled basement much like our own who somehow has mastered swallowing his own tongue. The same, but different. Familiar, exotic. Lacking only a curator — rendering us, if we so choose (and many have — on Tumblr, in particular) our own curators. A dizzying kaleidoscope that makes the world seem larger and stranger and smaller and strange-like-me at the same time. And we could find ourselves there too. In an instant. Standing on the boardwalk, the gaudy red sign summoning us with secrets to shock and amaze if we will come inside its doors, summoning us to see ourselves.
Megan Abbott is the Edgar-winning author of seven novels, including Dare Me, The End of Everything, and The Fever. Her stories have appeared in anthologies including Queens Noir and The Best American Mystery Stories. She is also the author of The Street Was Mine, a study of hardboiled fiction and film noir. Her next novel, You Will Know Me, comes out in July 2016.
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