The subject of this book, Leroy Robert Ripley of “Ripley’s Believe it or Not!”, was very interesting. He was a strange, strange man who came up with an incredible concept and made quite a name for himself, although he remained unhappy for most of him life. The writing, however, left something to be desired. Thompson’s style is weirdly informal and relaxed, and comes off like he didn’t do his research (which I’m sure he did!) — more like he’s just making stuff up on the fly. The insertion of little “Believe it or Not!” facts was cute, but very uneven — some chapters were littered with them, others had none at all.
“You must carry along with you a lively imagination and plenty of romance in your soul. Some of the most wonderful things in the world will seem dull and drab unless you view them in the proper light.”
Born poor in Santa Rosa, California in the 1890s, Ripley possessed an incredible talent for drawing and cartooning from an early age. Unfortunately for him, the combination of his family’s poverty (especially after the death of his father) and Ripley’s incredibly disfiguring teeth made him shy and he rarely spoke aloud due to a speech impediment. Still, with the help and encouragement of teachers and mentors who recognized his talent, he ended up pursuing his dream of cartooning for newspapers, particularly in the sports section. From there, he began his newspaper-sponsored travels of the world, collecting strange facts and trivia and artifacts to share with the American public, deep in a depression and desperate for some entertainment.
Once he hit it big, Ripley’s personal life blew up in a big way. Perhaps trying to compensate for his childhood, he became quite the womanizer, constantly finding new girls to spend his time with. However, he still struggled with his shyness and speech impediment, and found that alcohol relaxed him. So he drank. A lot. He married for a very while, a marriage that exploded spectacularly in the newspapers, and spent a lot of his time and travels sleeping with married women (and buying them things). While you could probably see that he was trying to overcome his own demons, he still comes off like a huge ass.
Ripley obviously accomplished quite a bit in his relatively short life (he died in his 50s from a heart attack, like his father did). But after reading the book, you realize he wasn’t really a very nice guy. And of course, in a more modern era, a lot of what he did feels kind of icky — the freakshows, the appropriation of other cultures and religions for Americans to gawk at and make fun of. His writing, too — the casual racism of his newspaper articles made my skin crawl at times. He did seem to have an honest love for a lot of what he saw around the world — China and India, above all — but still came at it from a very condescending point of view. Maybe if he’d been raised in a different time, had a different education, things would have been different. Then again, it’s unlikely that Ripley’s Believe it or Not! would have taken off at all in our time.