Friday, June 17, 2016

A believable Ripley

For cartoonists, as with those in so many other fields, it takes more than talent to be successful. It also takes a big idea. For Charles Schulz, that idea took the form of Charlie Brown and Snoopy. For Jim Davis, it was a cat who prefers lasagna to mice. And for Robert Ripley, who began his career in San Francisco as a sports cartoonist, the big idea was a cartoon showing some of the strange-but-true oddities to be found in the world.

Within a very few years, the success of Ripley's "Believe It or Not!" turned this shy, buck-toothed young man into a wealthy,  world-famous celebrity who lived a playboy lifestyle while Hugh Hefner was still a toddler. Besides his newspaper cartoon, Ripley also starred in radio and television programs, wrote books and sanctioned exhibits of the strange people and objects he had discovered. Neal Thompson tells all about this amazing life in A Curious Man: The Strange and Brilliant Life of Robert 'Believe It or Not!'  (2013). Ripley, it turns out, was the kind of man who might have appeared in one of his own cartoons.

Among the oddities one learns about his life: Ripley traveled often to faraway places, but he was afraid of flying. As a young man, he was a handball champion. He also tried out for a major league baseball team. He played a key role in the adoption of The Star-Spangled Banner as the national anthem. Barry Goldwater, who later ran for president, as a young man took Ripley down into the Grand Canyon for a radio broadcast. And a dog belonging to the aforementioned Charles Schulz, then 14 years old, once appeared in one of Ripley's cartoons. The dog ate pins, tacks, screws and razor blades.

One of the curious things about his life that Ripley kept secret was that while he was making as much as $350,000 a year during the Depression for drawing his cartoons, he paid a man named Norbert Pearlroth just $75 a week to dig out most of the oddities that appeared in those cartoons. Pearlroth didn't seem to mind, for he loved spending long hours in the library looking through books.

Ripley drank too much, and although an athlete as a young man, he turned fat and flabby in middle age. He died at 59.

Thompson's fine biography turns this "curious man" into someone who was flesh and blood, and even believable.

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