In the past, my friend Neal Thompson has illuminated the lives of astronauts, moonshiners, race car rivers and high school football players. Now he turns his considerable research and storytelling talents to the life of Robert Ripley, the buck-toothed, socially awkward cartoonist who dazzled Americans with his compulsive need to seek out the world’s greatest oddities. I had the opportunity to ask Neal about his latest book, “A Curious Man: The Strange and Brilliant Life of Robert ‘Believe It or Not!’ Ripley.” Here’s what he had to say.
—Denise Kiernan, author of “The Girls of Atomic City.”
This is one of those topics I love–something I’ve heard about for years but realized I know little about. When did you first get “curious” about Ripley?
-It was one of those smack-you-in-the-face moments… I’d always known about and been vaguely curious about Ripley. As a newspaper reader and reporter, I’d grown up with the Believe It or Not cartoons. But it wasn’t until coming across a New York Times article about the opening of a Ripley’s museum in Times Square that I thought, “Oh, Ripley was a real guy. Wonder what he was like?” By that afternoon – a Friday in August in 2007 – I knew Ripley’s overlooked story was my next book project. (In fact, I probably told you and Joe about it over beers that very night.) It grew into an obsession – who was this guy? and why has no one written about him? – that lasted five years.
How did you do your research? Were you able to talk to Ripley’s descendants? Were there any significant gaps in documentation or was his life an open book?
-The research was tricky. Ripley didn’t have kids. He had been dead for more than half a century. At first, I couldn’t find anyone who actually knew him. Fortunately, I got the generous cooperation of the Ripley Entertainment company, which oversees all the Believe It or Not museums and publishes those fat, annual Believe It or Not books. I convinced them to let me into their climate-controlled archives, which was an absolute treasure trove – Ripley’s personal papers, travel journals, business documents, archival photos and film footage. For a researcher, this was Nirvana. It was practically a one-stop shopping locale for the book. Then, weirdly, a few months later I discovered a newly opened collection at the University of North Carolina: the collected papers of Ripley’s business manager. I was heaven. Dorky, but true.
The one missing element, though, was Ripley’s personal reflections on his life, his success. But I don’t think he was much for self-reflection. I think he just kept moving onward in his madcap life.
After spending so much time researching his life, why do you think Ripley ended up following the career path that he did? What sparked his fascination with oddities?
-Ripley grew up poor, shy, bucktoothed, and awkward, and I really believe that his own sense of feeling like a misfit and an outcast fueled his curiosity about – and his empathy for – other oddballs. For “the other.” Though he featured all types of weirdness in his cartoons, books, radio and TV shows (from strange sports feats to religious fanatics to people with bizarre abilities or deformities) one constant is Ripley’s appreciation for the underdog. I think he never tired of being a champion of the odd-duck underdog. Combined with that, the man was almost pathologically curious, especially about weird s**t. He would always ask new acquaintances, “What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen?” He really wanted to know more and more and more about the world, about other peoples and cultures, animals and nature. He had a bottomless appetite for a good story and, especially, a good hard-to-believe shocker.
You and I both started out in journalism, which is a challenging field. Can you talk about the world of media in Ripley’s day? How was he able to break into newspapers and publishing, and become the highest paid “journalist” of his time?
-Ripley started out so humbly: drawing cartoons for the sports page for $8 a week. His rise to the highest ranks of journalism and entertainment is one of the more remarkable aspects of his story. As I mentioned, he was shy and awkward. He also stuttered and had terrible stage fright. Yet he managed, through sheer will (and a lot of savvy, and more than a little liquor) to expand his Believe It or Not concept from newspaper cartoon, to bestselling books, to wildly popular radio programs, to the lecture circuit, to museums and eventually to TV. He was a true multi-media pioneer, and I still find it incredible that during the worst of the Great Depression he was making at least $500,000 a year from his empire. And I think that was largely due to his belief in himself (the underdog!), and he belief that his was giving people what they wanted, and that his audience was as curious about the world as he was.
How would Ripley do today, in our voyeuristic society? Would he thrive? Be just one of many? Would he have his own network?
-Hmm… good one… I think it’d be tough for Ripley to thrive – on screen, anyway — in today’s pop culture, in which a pretty face seems to be a requisite for a journalist or TV entertainer. But I do think there are folks out there who are acting very Ripley-esque – Anthony Bourdain, for one; the folks behind The Amazing Race; YouTube and reality TV stars. And I’d like to think that Ripley would’ve found a way to make his mark. I could see him being a producer of shows, or maybe an Internet sensation. I think his lack of cynicism, and his compassion for his subjects, would endear him to his audience, even today.
I also think he’d have a hell of a Twitter following.
And finally, what are the underlying causes of the French Revolution?
-I’m glad you asked. I’m pretty sure it had to do with an ex-con who stole some bread. And there were barricades. Later, the French Revolution became a famous Broadway musical. Believe it or not.
Neal Thompson specializes in narrative nonfiction, biography, and overlooked Americana. His fourth book, A CURIOUS MAN, chronicles the hard-to-believe life of the eccentric world-traveling cartoonist, media pioneer, millionaire-celebrity-playboy Robert ‘Believe It or Not’ Ripley, considered to be the godfather of reality TV. David Shields says A Curious Man “constructs an elegant argument: the world Ripley created is the world in which we now live”, and Ben Fountain says “anyone who wants to understand America needs to read this book.”
A former journalist, Neal has worked at the Philadelphia Inquirer, the St. Petersburg Times, and the Baltimore Sun, and has written for Outside, Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and Men’s Health. He and his books have been featured on NPR, ESPN, the History Channel, Fox, and TNT. Neal lives in Seattle with his wife and two skateboarding sons. Since 2011 he has worked as an editor, reviewer and interviewer on the books team at Amazon.com, where he oversees the Best Books of the Month program.