Leroy Robert Ripley (known to family and childhood friends as Roy his whole life) was born in Santa Rosa, California in 1890, suffered twin catastrophies in 1906 when his father died and his city was destroyed by the great earthquake that flattened San Francisco, and endured an awkward adolescence (his extreme buckteeth made him socially shy). He survived through his ability to draw and capture likenesses of teachers and friends that were more than caricatures. With his father's death he dropped out of school to help support the family, so his dream of earning a living with his drawing talent started slowly and took years to reach fruition. Finding work and moderate success as a sports cartoonist first in San Francisco and then New York, his career took off with the "Believe It or Not" series of drawings and captions which seemed too bizarre (the horned man) or too ridiculous (George Washington wasn't the first American President) to be believed.
Always an introverted and enigmatic character, with fame and fortune Ripley was able to indulge his eccentricities and love of travel, and it is these facets of the man that Thompson brings to light and life in this first book length biography of his subject. We learn that the man behind the franchise was in fact boyishly curious and open to the world around him his whole life, and was also despite his awkwardness and appearance because of his misshapen teeth highly attractive to women. Married once but then quickly divorced when he and his wife realized he was not capable of monogamy, Ripley kept rotating groups of attractive women (some friends referred to the women as his "harem") near him and had sexual relationships with many of them. Ripley continually surrounded himself with a growing core of employees, family and hangers-on that today we would recognize as his entourage.
We also learn that Ripley was a heavy drinker even and especially during the years of Prohibition. On his frequent trips around the world (he claimed to have visited 200-plus countries) his dispatches and drawings often featured alcohol and diatribes against the US law. While the drinking may have sometimes been an aid to overcome his shyness in public or in front of the microphones or cameras increasingly important to his growing media empire, it became more problematic as he became more well known and prone to public drunkenness. It may also have contributed to his death of a heart attack at only 59 in 1949.
But what hurt him the most both physically and emotionally was the rising tide of international conflict in the 1930's culminating in World War II. At the peak of his popularity and productivity his ability to travel and collect and capture in ink his beloved oddities was cut off. For a man of his tastes and desires the timing could not have been worse. Cut off from his beloved Asia (China was his favorite country), he increasingly surrounded himself with artifacts, furniture, and women from Asia as his workload (and drinking) increased and his health (and happiness) decreased.In Thompson's hands Ripley's story is more poignant and sad than anything else. Ripley was indeed a Curious man, and Thompson does a good job of telling us his story while protecting his dignity and sharing his wonder at the great wide world with us.
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