Skimming through The New York Times one day six years ago, a certain headline caught Neal Thompson's eye: “Prepare to be Amazed.”
The story was all about a new “Believe it or Not Odditorium” that had just opened in Times Square, a freakish collection of curiosities ranging from shrunken heads to a life-size albino giraffe. But what intrigued him even more was reading about the odd man whose legacy was behind the “odditorium,” one Robert Ripley.
Writer Edward Rothstein described the bucktoothed, big-eared man from Santa Rosa, who traveled the world documenting the strange and unbelievable before he died in 1949, as a “cross between the Coney Island barker and the cultural anthropologist.”
Thompson, a former journalist and author whose books include “Light This Candle” about space pioneer Alan Shepard, was persuaded to dive into the cartoonist's eccentric, globe-trotting and occasionally sad life, after finding only one slim biography published 50 years ago.
His biography, “A Curious Man: The Strange & Brilliant Life of Robert 'Believe it or Not' Ripley,” was a “Best Book of the Month” in May at Amazon.com, where Thompson also works as a staff book reviewer.
“It's a bit of an overlooked story of this adventurous guy whose influence is still with us. It's also a story with a little history and a little Americana,” Thompson said of Ripley, an underdog who went on to become one of the most highly paid newsmen of his generation. One newspaper survey back in 1936 declared him “the most popular man in America.”
Over a lifetime, Ripley built an entertainment empire in print, radio and TV as a modern P.T. Barnum, trafficking in the kind of sideshow freaks and weird, exotic, creepy and titillating tidbits, cultural practices and rituals that are a staple of “reality TV” and the Internet today. He started with a regular cartoon panel and expanded from there.