In 1930, in the depths of the Great Depression, the highest paid artist in America was a cartoonist. Robert Ripley earned $350,000 in 1931. Presidents of railroads earned less. Babe Ruth earned $80,000. The average American earned $1,850. King Features syndicated his Believe it Not cartoons to hundreds of newspapers. That contract alone was worth $100,000 annually. Ripley leveraged his drawing ability and celebrity to earn his fortune via lectures, newsreels, and a radio show.
A Curious Man, The Strange and Brilliant life of Robert ‘Believe It or Not!’ Ripley by Neal Thompson is now out in paperback, published by Three Rivers Press.
I enjoyed the biography. I like Ripley’s charcoal drawing style. Even when he had photo reference his line quality suggests direct observation. I wanted to like Robert Ripley, the man, but found him terribly creepy. He was a world traveler, but like many Americans declined to learn other languages. He’d just speak English louder expecting to be understood.
Ripley did have an urbane assistant, a Polish emigre named Norbert Pearlroth. Pearlroth had a photographic memory and spoke eleven languages. It was Pearlroth who spent long days in The NY Public Library mining the stacks for bizarre factoids to fill the columns. Ripley did the drawings. Ripley paid Pearlroth $75 a week and never publicly acknowledged Pearlroth’s contribution. He never invited Pearlroth to the endless parties at his posh Manhattan digs or to his private island.
Ripley’s island, called BION Island (Believe It Or Not) was on the Long Island Sound. He hired a string of beautiful 18-year-old female assistants and made them sign a waiver stating that they came voluntarily to his island. He was a heavy drinker and by the end of the night could forget his date’s name. His 28-room mansion on BION Island had a basement full of erotic curiosities and medieval torture devices. We learn “girlfriend-secretary-housekeepers overlapped and two or three would be living on BION Island at once.” And “those who stayed found… easy living, easy money, not too much work and plenty of liquor.”
Long before Snoopy appeared in Peanuts, Charles Schulz drew his iconic beagle and mailed it to Robert Ripley. Ripley included the teenager’s drawing in the 1937 cartoon above.
Thompson writes that Ripley, who had buck teeth and a speech impediment felt empathy for the strange people he wrote about. Ripley never liked the term “freaks” He preferred his own word “queeriosities.”
Mister Arjan Desur Dangar was scheduled to appear at Ripley’s Odditorium at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. That did not work as planned. “Dangar fought with his manager, who ripped off half of his mustache. Ripley sent them back to India.”
The syndicated Ripley cartoons continue to this day. Perhaps they have lost some impact. Today everybody is a Ripley documenting the freaks on their block, or you-tubing their own Jackass antics.
Ripley might be pleased that this book has a gimmick: the downloadable “Oddscan” phone app. When the reader finds the Oddscan mark on a page they can scan the page with their cell phone to view exclusive hidden content. “Dear Reader: Want to see a man stick a spoke through his tongue, or get shot in the gut with a cannonball and survive?” Alas, I can’t vouch for this feature. I don’t have a cell phone, Believe it or Not!
I will leave you with one final irony, above. Ripley became a millionaire with his Believe it or Not cartoons. Today Dan Zettwoch and Kevin Huizenga are creating Amazing Facts and Beyond, a satire on Believe it or Not. Zettwoch and Huizenga are two amazing cartoonists, but are making hardly any money at all! -Believe it or Not!
Disclosure: I got this Ripley biography, A Curious Man, free from bloggingforbooks.org. If you blog, check it out.