Tuesday, June 27, 2017

A Curious Man: The Strange and Brilliant Life of Robert "Believe It or Not!" Ripley

Book:A Curious Man: The Strange and Brilliant Life of Robert "Believe It or Not!" Ripley
Basic Information : Synopsis : Thoughts : Evaluation : Book Group : New Words : Book References : Good QuotesReferences

Basic Information:
Author: Neal Thompson
Edition: eBook on the Nook
Read: June 27, 2017
344 pages (399 with appendixes)
Genre:  History, Biography,
Rated: 2½  out of 5

Robert Ripley growing up is pretty unsociable for a number of reasons ends up being a big name in a niche area of the newspaper. He has a talent for drawing and that is what he does. After getting a couple of jobs with San Francisco newspapers and learns his craft as a cartoonist, .he heads to New York. From there, he has a couple of breaks when newspapers he was working for no longer need him. But he now has big city connections which land him on a Hearst paper.

Ripley catches Hearst’s attention and Hearst starts to set him up so he gets more and more exposure. At first it is with odd facts concern sports. But then Ripley gets to travel to Europe and see how others live. He finds a fascination with this and gets the travel bug. This sells newspapers and Hearst is happy to fund additional trips. As Ripley goes on these trips he sees some of the usual touristy things. But he is quickly side tracked with the oddity which each place presents to his American-concentric views.

This ability to see things differently leads to the Ripley’s Believe It or Not column. Then a radio and TV programs. Ripley turns this into a franchise including an Odditorium and museums. He becomes one of the wealthiest people in entertainment.

But the downside is his personal life. He has some close relationships with his old-time newspaper friends, but does not seem to form close female friendships. They seem more disposable and usable than close, maybe except for one.

Then, at the age of 59, Ripley dies. He does try to leave his empire in order, giving his money and titles to people whom he has been close to. But there is no children or wife, only a brother, associates and girlfriends.


Preface The comment Ripley was both familiar with and fascinated by sin, which he once called the curse of the human race-although it is very popular, is very much the theme of the book. From what Thompson writes about Ripley this the theme of the book. You do not have to read much farther than this to get the jest of the book-rest is themes and variations. I believe the “it” in the popular phrase refers to infidelity and alcohol consumption, not to sin. Which of course, sin is the curse of humanity so it would be redundant to say so.

One explanation which Thompson has for Ripley’s popularity is that his column was a cheap source of entertainment in the Depression era.

Chapter 1 Santa Rosa, where Ripley was born and raised, was known as a place where people could be peculiar and still be accepted. Poets and artists were part of the area.

Chapter 5  Ripley’s eye for the strange was fed by his desire to travel. As a rookie reporter he got an assignment to go to Europe, his first travels outside of the United States. But eventually, this gave him the idea of bringing to America what other places had to offer in terms of different cultural experiences.

Chapter 6: Ripley thinks that being able to think about things is a bigger asset than the ability to draw. But I would say that being able to think through things to understanding along with the ability to draw would make the best combination in a cartoonist. To be able to communicate through your drawings about what you are thinking.

Chapter 8:  Why any one place should forever hold enchantment for the reason you are born is a mystery. There are places which we are all fascinated and drawn to. To Ripley, it was China.

Chapter 9: Thompson notes that Ripley grew up in a time and surrounded by “manly views.” This is one of the themes in Ripley’s life: women were to be used and were a fascination. The lack of respect shows through as he becomes affluent where he hires women to be his servants/employees. But in reality they were to be his sex objects. Yet he was willing to buy them almost anything.

Chapter 10: During the time of Calvin Coolidge, there was a push to have America must be kept American. This is when there was a ban on Japanese immigration. It looks like Ripley thought this was ill-informed and tried to show what other cultures could offer to America. Sort of sounds familiar with what we are currently going through, trying to protect American jobs by rising fears of foreigners. We seem to go through this cycle every decade or two.

Chapter 11: Nothing was safe from the musings of a man whose mind was “uncluttered by culture.” This was a colleague saying about Ripley. Almost get an impression of a mad man who is full of life.

Chapter 13: In one of the more fascinating parts of the book is how people corresponded to Ripley. He was so well known that just pasting his picture on an envelope got it to him. Or another person drew a picture of a bird, but upon closer examination, with a magnifying glass, the words Robert Ripley was each line of the bird. Eventually the Postmaster General said they would need to hire more people if they kept processing his letters this way.

Do “freak” shows thrive during times of national woes? Thompson notes that Ripley’s expanding menagerie of misfit characters was the ideal tonic for an ailing nation. As a note: Ripley tried to differentiate his people from the vaudeville and carnival sideshows as being real people doing things they did not as a show.  I wonder if when we are hurting, if we want to know if someone is worse off than us.

Chapter 14:  he wanted to love and be loved.  Maslow got this right. We all have an innate need to be loved. If we do not get it, then we try to find things which will fill that void. Many of these things are destructive. I think that this need to be loved starts early on in a family setting. To be loved by one's mother, to have a relationship with your father are the basic building blocks. We can each have some substitute, but they do not seem to fill the void. Later on we try to find that love in our friends and partners. In Ripley’s case he did not seem to have that attachment which would make the relationship. He was intent on sabotaging it.

Chapter 15: Ripley noted that a man may be too foolish for his own good, but not for mine. Their folly is my fortune. Ripley was also an opportunist who would try to share his good fortune with those who were outcasts because of their strangeness.

Chapter 16: Hearst, being both his publisher and his benefactor-not necessarily monetarily, but with opportunities, may have influenced Ripley’s tirades against FDR.

Thompson says about Ripley’s religious life that He was A non-practicing Christian, Ripley never made it clear exactly where his own faith lay, except maybe a deep belief in the strange truths of life. And in himself.  This becomes clearer as Ripley’s life devolved as he lived longer (he died before reaching the age of 60). He became more obsessed with strangeness and sex.  It was not the Eastern religions but what drove people to do strange things which interested him. You wonder if he had adopted a faith, even if it was not Christian, if it would have settled him down so that he would learn contentment.

There was a survey done in 1936 by the Boys Club of New York asking young males who they most admired. Ripley was  beat out Roosevelt for popularity. There was a comment by Rube Goldberg, a friend of Ripley, which said, Roosevelt also met many freaks, “only he keeps quiet about  it.”

Chapter 20 and 22: One of Ripley’s mistresses, a Chinese woman, Li,  said that Ripley had a soul of a Chinese person. I am not sure this is fair to the Chinese people. In another place, Li wondered if Ripley liked the Chinese people because he saw them working despite poverty and the war.

For so long, Ripley hobnobbed with the rich. He gained many of their attitudes. So when he became wealthy. As Thompson says, he became one of those people who now hated sharing his money with the government. This is not saying he wasn’t generous, just not with the government.

Chapter 23: Ripley definitely would be out of step with today’s trends. Such as he thought women are only happy when they are dominated by men. This explains why he collected woman. Also how they got treated.

Chapter 24: Believe It or Not became his whole being.  No matter how great a person is, if that person is their whole world, then there is not much else besides themselves. That is such a sorry state to be in.  The other thing is that it leads to something like a rat race where you are only racing yourself-never can get ahead and never can be content.

Epilogue: Thompson remarks that we who live in the 21st Century are jaded by the ready access to novelty. That is one thing which Ripley had, was a zest for looking at life and seeing that there is some strangeness to it.

As a personal note, Thompson says that Ripley has a tendency to “pontificate” while on the radio, particularly about the Soviet Union which he detested. My wife says that I also have that tendency, to hold court and pontificate, particularly about some aspect which we are walking by while we are hiking. This particularly occurs if we are in a group. I guess Ripley is not all bad.


This book had such great potential. Robert Ripley is one of those people who has a story to his life. A world traveler, self-proclaimed explorer, playboy, and fascinating character. So why did the book seem to be such a slog to get through?  It is a well researched with plenty of oddities to keep me interested.

I think there was two things which made this book more of a trudge to get through, rather than a book to enjoy: First, Ripley may have been likeable in person, but in the book, I kept thinking that as an adult, I am glad he is not my neighbor. Both from his dependence on alcoholic beverages to get him through life and from his treatment of women. I would find both un-enjoyable to be around.

The other thing is how the book is written. Thompson does talk about the oddities which Ripley ran across-both human and art-form. And there is much there. And maybe that is the reason, I felt that there was so much odd, that I wanted to know a bit more about the odd, rather than Ripley collecting them and making use of them.

If you are a Robert Ripley fan, you probably will enjoy the book. But as an engaging story of Ripley’s life is, I was glad to be done with it.
Notes from my book group:

Did the title describe the book adequately?

Why do you think the author wrote the book?

How does the type of entertainment Ripley offered tie in with what we see today?

Was Ripley’s use of the strange found in people exploitive or was he giving these strange people a chance?   a man may be too foolish for his own good, but not for mine. Their folly is my fortune. (Chp 15)

Talk about the Calvin Coolidge slogan America must be kept American. (Chp 10) How did Ripley react? Why? Is there a comparison  today?

Would Ripley fit in today’s world?
    How about his views and usage of women?
    Would he have been friends with Hugh Hefner?

What early influences did Ripley have?

What ideas or conclusions does the author present?
  • What evidence does the author use to support the book's ideas/conclusions?
    • Is the evidence convincing...definitive or...speculative?
    • Does the author depend on personal opinion, observation, and assessment? Or is the evidence factual—based on science, statistics, historical documents, or quotations from (credible) experts?

Describe the culture talked about in the book.
  • How is the culture described in this book different than where we live?
  • What economic or political situations are described?
  • Does the author examine economics and politics, family traditions, the arts, religious beliefs, language or food?

What world view did Ripley espouse?

In what context was religion talked about in this book?
    What kind of religious language is used? How is it used?
Ripley was both familiar with and fascinated by sin, which he once called the curse of the human race-although it is very popular (Preface)
    A non-practicing Christian, Ripley never made it clear exactly where his own faith lay, except maybe a deep belief in the strange truths of life. And in himself. (Chp 16)

What “take aways” did you have from this book?

Talk about specific passages that struck you as significant—or interesting, profound, amusing, illuminating, disturbing, sad...?
    • What was memorable?
    • Nothing was safe from the musings of a man whose mind was “uncluttered by culture.” (Chp 11)
    • he wanted to love and be loved.  (Chp 14)

What would you ask the author  if you had a chance?

New Words:
  • avuncular (Chp 10): relating to an uncle.
  • sartorially (Chp 17): relating to tailoring, clothes, or style of dress.
  • rube (Epilogue): a country bumpkin
Book References:
  • How to Draw  unpublished by Robert Ripley

Good Quotes:
  • First Line: In the middle of the Syrian Desert, halfway between Damascus and Baghdad, the half-breed vehicle with twelve sand-surfing balloon tires came to a stop at an indistinct pile of rocks bordered by a scrawny stand of palm trees,
  • Last Line: LeRoy Ripley, it turns out, may have been the most unbelievable oddity of all.
  • Why any one place should forever hold enchantment for the reason you are born is a mystery. (Chp 8) Robert Ripley in an essay to the New York Globe, December 1922
  • Nothing was safe from the musings of a man whose mind was “uncluttered by culture.” (Chp 11)
  • The difference between joy and sadness isn’t so very much after all. (Chp 23) Robert Ripley, probably from a memo by Cygna Conly.
  • It is life that is exciting and interesting, no matter what. (Epilogue)  said by Li Ling-Ai about Robert Ripley


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