A Santa Rosa native (December 25,1890- May 27,1949) Ripley was an American cartoonist, entrepreneur and amateur anthropologist, who created the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! newspaper panel series, radio show, and television show which feature odd facts from around the world.
His cartoons uncovered everything from physical feats to inside peeks at extraordinary locations. He also shared bits of small town American trivia his readers told him about.
A new book about his life, A Curious Man: The Strange and Brilliant Life of Robert “Believe It or Not!” Ripley was released this year by Random House. We recently had an opportunity to author, Neal Thomspon a few questions.
For Part I of the interview, click here.
Here is Part II :
Q: How did you begin researching for A Curious Man?
A: Initially I launched into a frenzied internet session, scouring the web for details of Ripley’s life. I quickly learned, to my surprise and relief, that no one had ever written a full-fledged biography of Ripley. I felt I’d discovered some hidden treasure, some forgotten slice of Americana. My next step was to reach out to the Ripley Entertainment company, which generously gave me access to their amazing archive of Ripley materials. I also found a trove of valuable research at the University of North Carolina – Ripley’s business manager’s wife had donated all of his papers. Eventually I collected enough material to fill two tall file cabinets and dozens of three ring binders. I spent a lot of time with those binders.
Getting those intimate, first-hand details was invaluable when it came to the writing.
Q: What similar characteristic traits do you see between you and Ripley if any?
A: Great question! I don’t think I’ve been asked that before. Though I like to travel and I worked in newspapers, there aren’t too many shared traits. Instead, my main connection to Ripley is one of admiration, especially related to his underdog quality. Having grown up with a sister who had a disability (Down syndrome), I’ve always been drawn to those who overcome some hardship or setback, who challenge themselves and achieve something remarkable. I also admire – and aspire to – Ripley’s apparent obsession with living a full life, with pushing himself to physical and emotional extremes in order to achieve something extraordinary. I’m awed by the people I write about (just as I was awed by my sister), and all of my books are efforts to share that awe. In Ripley’s case, he enjoyed life to the extreme and was constantly amazed by it.
Q: What were some of the challenges you came across while researching/writing Ripley’s biography?
A: The greatest challenge was not having access to people who knew Ripley when he was alive. He didn’t have any children and his brother and sister died not long after he did. So the bulk of my research was document based. It helped enormously, however, to be able to see and hear Ripley in the home movies, travel films, and radio and TV shows I had access to. He was such an odd duck, not at all a natural performer — a goofy looking dude, and not entirely comfortable as a public figure — which makes it amazing that he became such a celebrity and so popular
Q: What is the most important component of Robert Ripley’s life that you want your readers to take away from the book?
A: One thing I love about Ripley’s life story is that this strange and restless guy turned his curiosity about the world into an empire: a syndicated cartoon, best-selling books, top-rated radio shows, lectures, museums, and some of the first episodic TV shows. And for most of his prime years, the rest of the nation was suffering the effects of the Depression. But it turned out that Ripley’s dispatches from all corners of the globe were exactly what America needed at the time. And, I’d argue: today, we still do.