Prior to reading Neal Thompson’s A Curious Man: The Strange and Brilliant Life of Robert “Believe it orNot!” Ripley, my main exposure to “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” came from the TV show of the same name that Jack Palance hosted in the eighties. I can clearly remember Palance’s dramatic whispers of “believe it or not” after he finished discussing a bizarre fact. What had always been murky for me is who Robert Ripley was and how the “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” franchise has continued in one form or another for over ninety years.
“Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” started out as a cartoon before becoming a successful series of books, carnival sideshows, and a radio program. Late in life, Robert Ripley even had a brief run on television during its early days. At different times in his career, Ripley was earning as much as General Motors executives and movie stars. He also became a celebrity known for throwing lavish parties at his palatial estate and, despite his less than handsome looks and sometimes awkward demeanor, for having beautiful girlfriends. Ripley travelled the world for his material, but he also relied on Norbert Pearlroth, an unsung assistant who supplied much of the material for “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” Pearlroth spent most of his time at the New York Public Library searching through stacks of books for odd facts. I kept waiting for a feud to develop between the two men, but Pearlroth was apparently happy to do his research and live in obscurity. Ripley, on the other hand, would attempt publicity stunts such as trying to buy a volcano.
A Curious Man couldn’t be more entertaining. The book is well researched, the writing is stellar, and I challenge anyone to find Robert Ripley’s oversized life a bore.