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

Neal Thompson
Robert Ripley with lion mask from Bali, 1932

The supreme irony of Robert L. Ripley’s life, which was dedicated to exalting the strange and unusual, is that he may have been the most amazing oddity of all.

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

Publisher: Crown
Price: $26.00
Author: Neal Thompson
Length: 432 pages
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2013-05
Excerpted from the book, A Curious Man: The Strange and Brilliant Life of Robert "Believe It or Not!" Ripley by Neal Thompson. Copyright © 2013 by Neal Thompson. Published by Crown Archetype, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group , a division of Random House, Inc. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.

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. It was time for lunch.

Passengers stepped off the car-bus into the brutal heat, including two Americans, one of them more portly and distinctly American than the other.

Robert L. Ripley was dressed in his preferred global traveler’s outfit—black- and-white wing tips, knee- high socks, white shorts, and a short- sleeved shirt. Atop his head sat a wide-brimmed pith helmet. As the tour bus staff handed out bagged sandwiches, Ripley withdrew his own lunch: a thermos of scotch and soda. He turned and offered a swig to his traveling partner, an earnest young Mormon from Utah named Joe Simpson, who worked for Ripley’s boss.

Newspaperman William Randolph Hearst had hired Ripley in 1929, paying him more than $100,000 a year and making Ripley one of the best-paid journalists in all of newspapers. Simpson’s job was to protect and serve the famed and famously erratic cartoonist, a role that veered from traveling secretary to photographer to drinking partner. That night, Ripley’s caravan stopped at the sprawling fortress compound called Rutbah Wells, whose gates lifted as a small crowd gathered to greet the new arrivals. Ripley emerged from his vehicle to hear the distinct drawl of his friend, Will Rogers: “Hi, Bob. Where d’you think you’re goin’?”

Rogers was headed the opposite way, toward Damascus, while Ripley was trying to add two new countries to his list, Iraq and Persia, part of his relentless search for material for his increasingly popular cartoon and its lucrative offshoots: books, films, radio shows and, currently on display at the Chicago World’s Fair, a kooky museum and performance hall called the Odditorium.

After a three-hour stopover at the bustling Rutbah encampment, Ripley said good-bye to Rogers and re-boarded his bus, which drove on through the sweltering night. At dawn, 250 miles later, Ripley spotted the sun-sparkled minarets of Baghdad’s mosques.

RIPLEY HAD BEEN TRAVELING the world ever since moving to New York as a skittish rookie newspaper cartoonist in 1912. In recent years, thanks to his six-figure salary from Hearst and even more income from other ventures, he’d ramped up his travels, accumulating more than 130,000 miles in the past two years alone—more than half the distance to the moon—ranging from South America to North Africa, Fiji to Singapore, Indian holy cities to war-wracked China. His current journey had routed him through Naples, Alexandria, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa, and then Damascus. His real goal was the Garden of Eden, in Iraq, then on to Persia and, finally, forbidden Russia.

At the Tigris Palace Hotel in Baghdad, Ripley washed away two days of Syrian Desert dust and walked among the ancient city’s coffeehouses, jotting his first impressions of Iraq in a journal: “never see women. men everywhere, talking and drinking–smoking... they talk constantly... they are talking about nothing at all.”

Ripley had been warned that Iraqis didn’t always appreciate the arrival of “unbelievers” in their towns, that visitors were sometimes injured for failing to respect local customs and protocols. Despite such warnings, Ripley and Simpson pointed their cameras at everything, which usually drew curious and sometimes angry crowds, especially in poor and remote villages. At a school in Najaf, where cross- legged men studied the Koran, a group of locals surrounded them, gesturing urgently at Simpson’s camera and shouting at Ripley, who later called them “a strange mixture of humanity, paralytic, half- blind, dirty, ragged, and altogether unfriendly.”

In the city of Ur, he and Simpson found a secret canteen that sold cold beer and, despite a sign warning NO DRINKING ON THE PREMISES, tossed back twenty-one bottles between them, then fell asleep on an overnight train ride to Basra, where they finally reached the purported site of the Garden of Eden. An unfaithful husband and Prohibition violator, Ripley was both familiar with and fascinated by sin, which he once called “the curse of the human race -- although it is very popular.”

He was disappointed not to find an intact version of the biblical garden where man’s first sin allegedly occurred. “NO APPLES. NO FIG LEAVES,” he complained. Instead of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, from which Eve had plucked the forbidden fruit, Ripley found only a dead stump.

Still, before getting back on the road, he was sufficiently inspired to strip naked and have Simpson take pictures of him posing, Adam-esque, behind a palm tree.

Back in Baghdad, Ripley drank German beers at a café near Maude Bridge, then dressed in the white robe and keffi yeh headdress he’d purchased, to the amusement of a nearby crowd. An overnight train ride delivered him to Persia, his 153rd country, where he drank beer for breakfast and began mapping a route home.

DURING THE DEPRESSION, as Americans in a pre-television era sought affordable means of escape and entertainment, Ripley the traveling cartoonist provided both.

A connoisseur of mosts and bests, of fastest and farthest, of the weirdest and freakiest that the world could offer, his cartoons and essays appeared in hundreds of newspapers around the globe, in dozens of languages, and were read by many millions. His life’s mission was to prove to readers that veracity and reality were elusive—King George I of England never spoke English; Aesop did not write Aesop’s Fables; Buffalo Bill never once shot a buffalo; Lindbergh wasn’t the first man to fly the Atlantic— and that sometimes you can’t recognize truth until someone shines a light.

“I think mine is the only business in which the customer is never right,” Ripley once said. “Being called untruthful is, to me, a compliment. And as long as I continue to receive the lion’s share of this odd form of flattery, I don’t worry about a wolf being at my door.”

Fans yearned to see their own strange accomplishments, their disfigurements, and their curious misfortunes reimagined inside a Believe It or Not rectangle. But Ripley, never content to rely on volunteers, roamed constantly, always searching for strange facts and exotic faces for his cartoons. He met beggars and bedouins, headhunters and heads of state, royal highnesses and holy men, most of these forays funded by Hearst, whose publicists dubbed Ripley the Modern Marco Polo.

An insecure and effete kid named LeRoy, with terrible buckteeth and no shoes, Ripley had grown into an athletic and self-assured young man who always seemed to have luck and an influential patron in his corner. Once he stumbled onto his Believe It or Not concept (on the verge of age thirty), he was smart enough to parlay it into more than a newspaper cartoon, transforming and expanding himself from artist to radio and film star, to museum curator, to unlikely playboy-millionaire.

His goofy everyman perception of the world, his limited education and simplistic worldview, his naiveté... turns out, it all meshed with that of his core readership.

The shy, awkward misfit-loner had become champion of the freakishness of others. By celebrating weirdness, he made it mainstream, becoming one of the most widely read and influential syndicated cartoonists of his day—and among the best traveled men in history.

More than entertainment, his global dispatches gave readers hope.

DURING THE SEVENTEEN-HOUR DRIVE from the Iraq border to Tehran, Ripley was stopped nearly every hour by police. He complained bitterly about the “deadly barrenness and dryness” of the police-controlled country.

Ripley had hoped to escape Tehran by plane and fly into the Soviet Republic of Georgia, anxious to slip into the USSR and finally witness the collectivist, communist regime that Stalin had recently formed. Unable to secure a flight, he and Simpson decided to drive to the Persian-Soviet border, where they would walk across into Azerbaijan and then drive to Georgia—an ambitious and potentially hazardous route that would require passage through the snow-packed Caucasus Mountains.

When Ripley and Simpson finally reached the Aras River Bridge, across which lay Soviet territory, they waited two hours for the Persian border patrol to arrive and awaken their sleeping chief. Sullen officials took their time searching each piece of Ripley’s luggage, which had multiplied to more than a dozen pieces in recent weeks with a surging accumulation of trinkets, carvings, and artwork.

When the guards finished with each bag, they’d carry it to the middle of the bridge and drop it in a growing heap. Ripley and Simpson were finally allowed to cross to the middle of the bridge, where they were ordered to “Halt!” Persian soldiers told them to wait while they finished their tea.

Across the bridge, young and twitchy Soviet soldiers stared coldly, aiming their bayonets as if primed for attack. Already Ripley had been at the border for more than four hours, the longest crossing in his two decades of travel. The sky grew dark as he and Simpson, hungry and cold, tired and angry, stood beside their rumpled pile of bags, hour after hour, in no-man’s-land. Just thirty yards away sat their unreachable transportation: a donkey-pulled wooden carriage and its bored-looking driver.

Meanwhile, editors back in New York waited for their well paid, peripatetic cartoonist to please send another batch of popular and profitable Believe It or Nots.

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