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Film and Music: Interviews


Robert L Ripley

The Believe-It-Or-Not life of Mister Robert L Ripley, millionaire freak fanatic

Frank Foss of St Petersburg, Florida, played banjos made from frying pans at the ripe old age of 92. Ostrich eggs will support the weight of a 280lb man. And, in case you weren't aware, a guy from St Louis, Missouri, known as 'Smoky', could exhale cigarette smoke through a hole in his back. For these fantastically random and wondrous facts, which may or may not be true, we have to thank Robert L Ripley.

Ever since Believe It Or Not! debuted on 19 Dec 1918 in the New York Globe, Ripley's relentless pursuit of anything strange, extraordinary and downright freaky has captured the curiosity of the world. His search led him around the planet to more than 200 countries. One trip alone covered two continents and 39,000km - 1,600 of which were by camel, horse and donkey. No nook or cranny was left unscoured in his constant quest for oddities. How else could he introduce housewives and schoolkids to fascinating folk like Wang the Chinese farmer, who exhibited a 13in horn growing out of his head, and the Monkey Man of India, who vowed never to walk upright?

The globetrotting cartoonist became known as the Modern Day Marco Polo. But this was never the life Ripley expected to lead. As a boy, all he ever wanted to do was play baseball.

LeRoy Ripley was born on Christmas Day 1893 in the small town of Santa Rosa, California. The bucktoothed and lanky little boy had two passions: sports and art. By the age of 13, he brought both interests together by pitching for a semi-professional baseball team and designing its posters.

Though a future in baseball was looking bright, Ripley's destiny would soon be shaped more by the stroke of his pencil than the swing of his bat. At 14, Life magazine gave him his first big break in the art world when it bought one of his cartoons featuring three young women washing clothes, accompanied by the caption: "The Village Belles Were Slowly Wringing." It scored him eight dollars, and he was soon making a living as a cartoonist for local San Francisco newspapers. But in 1913, seeking better-paying opportunities, Ripley packed his sketchpad and headed east to the world's greatest metropolis - New York City.

The new New Yorker established himself quickly. He added the more sophisticated-sounding Robert to his name and found the raise he was looking for at the New York Globe, raking in 0 a job as a sports cartoonist. Towards the end of 1918, Ripley was struck with a bout of writer's block and a deadline fast approaching. Desperate, he turned to a file of bizarre sports facts he'd been compiling and illustrated a few of them, including one about a Canadian fellow named A Forrester, who ran 100 yards backwards in 14 seconds. He called it Champs And Chumps, but while his editor loved the concept, he hated the name. Ripley crossed out the title and scribbled down Believe It Or Not! It was an instant sensation, and the cartoon quickly expanded from sports oddities to a celebration of curiosities from all walks of life.

Ripley's many exotic expeditions spawned thousands of Believe It Or Not!s, but blessed with an uncanny knack for twisting the ordinary into the extraordinary, he found fodder just as easily at home. A friend of his described how his mind worked: "You go into a restaurant with Rip and you both order steaks. If you think about the steak at all, you wonder whether it will be properly cooked. Not so with Ripley. He's probably figuring how many steaks there are in a full-grown steer, how many steers there are in the state of Texas. Then he'll come up with a statement that there are enough steaks in Texas to feed the entire population of the Gaspé Peninsula for 18-and-a-half years, three times a day." When he wasn't developing a convoluted calculation, he was creating shocking statements using simple semantics, such as the time he wrote: "Buffalo Bill never shot a buffalo in his life." Those who disagreed would have been reminded that the 'buffalo' were technically bison.

As the cartoon's popularity grew, it went from weekly to daily to syndication. But this was only the beginning. In 1929, after much reluctance, Ripley accepted an offer from Max Schuster - of Simon & Schuster - to collect his work in a book. It sold millions, and even the Great Depression couldn't slow the Ripley phenomenon. Publishing giant William Randolph Hearst Sr soon took notice and wanted in on the act, dispatching his head of King Features Syndicate with a two-word telegram: Sign Ripley. The hiring swelled Ripley's salary to 0,000 a year and boosted his syndication to 300 publications in 17 different languages. The book also led to a series of movies and a career in radio broadcasting.

Sticking with the theme, many of his radio programmes were aired from unusual locations. One show was live from a Florida snakepit, where Ripley carried his microphone into a pit of 500 poisonous serpents. It was the best way to give his listeners an accurate account of a snake handler extracting venom from a rattler. Another live broadcast starred a skydiver describing his 10,000ft, 160mph freefall. When he finally pulled his ripcord there was a malfunction, and he slammed into the ground and nearly died. But it made for great radio.

In 1933, Ripley brought his cartoons to life on stage at his first Believe It Or Not! Odditorium show at the Chicago World's Fair. The museum, reminiscent of PT Barnum's beloved American Museum of the mid-19th century, featured numerous live acts that were guaranteed to shock and amaze. Audiences witnessed Martin Laurello, who painlessly turned his head completely backwards on his shoulders. They squirmed watching Leo Kongee, The Human Pincushion whose "skin never bleeds and seems to be immune to torture". And they marvelled at young Frieda Pushnik, The Little Half Girl Born Without Arms or Legs, who used her mouth and dextrous stumps to write, thread needles and complete jigsaw puzzles. Contortionists, eye-poppers, sword-swallowers and more added to the entertainment, along with a display of shrunken heads, medieval torture devices and other wondrous artifacts. Odditoriums soon opened across the country.

While Believe It Or Not! had become a household name, Ripley had been living a believe-it-or-not life himself. After a brief marriage in 1919, he shunned monogamy and indulged in women of all kinds - Chinese, Japanese, German, Russian, French and Greek. He even kept his own harem, sometimes stocked with as many as 12 girls. As the world's first millionaire cartoonist, he blew money on expensive foreign cars, but was afraid to drive them. He wouldn't use a telephone, fearing he might be electrocuted. He drank heavily, but considered smoking evil. And between the hours of 7am and 11pm, wearing little more than an old robe and slippers, Ripley drew his cartoons upside down - unless he was hungover, in which case assistants handled the inking over his outlines. But perhaps all that was to be expected of the world's foremost purveyor of the bizarre.

Ripley's home was equally eccentric, and his New York mansion served as a shrine to his peculiar tastes and treasures - a model of the Eiffel Tower made from 30,000 matchsticks, chastity belts from the Crusades era, and an Iron Maiden from Nuremberg to name a few. He called this live-in museum Bion (for Believe It Or Not! ). One of his personal favourite possessions was a Chinese Foochow riverboat called the Mon Lei, which the Japanese had confiscated during their 1930s invasion of China. Ripley used it to entertain guests in trips along the nearby Long Island Sound estuary.

Despite his colossal collection, Bion amazingly still had room for Ripley's mail - which was pouring in at the rate of 3,500 letters a day during the '30s and '40s. People everywhere inundated his mailbox with claims of the astounding and, in some cases, ridiculous things they could do. Eli Vicellio of Hurley, Wisconsin, wrote of his ability to lift a table and chair weighing 70lb with nothing more than his teeth. Then there was Bill Wausman of Detroit, who boasted about his unique talent for holding a pencil under his ear, instead of above it. Other times the letters merely concerned a strange coincidence, like in 1937 when Mr EE East of West Virginia met Mr EE West of East Virginia at the National Business College in Roanoke, Virginia. The accompanying photo captured the two men shaking hands.

Some of Ripley's mail was worthy of a Believe It Or Not! just for finding its way to him. Fans challenged the postal system by seeing how obscure an address could get to the cartoonist, but addresses made out in Braille, Morse code and rebuses always got delivered. Even mail that was simply ripped - for Rip - found its way. However, the postal puzzles were put to a stop in 1930 when the US Postmaster General declared that mail with incomplete or unclear addresses would not be delivered because postal clerks were spending too much time "deciphering freak letters intended for Ripley".

Not all of the mail involved frivolous feats and enigmatic envelopes, and the reaction to a 1929 edition of Believe It Or Not! still resonates in America today. The illustration bemoaned the fact that the US did not have a national anthem, and Ripley received so many letters on the subject he urged readers to flood Congress' mailbox instead. More than 5million wrote to their Representatives and, as a result, 'The Star-Spangled Banner' was adopted as the national anthem. If not for that little cartoon, who knows what song would bring Americans to their feet before the start of every major sporting event?

As beloved as Ripley was, many referred to him as the World's Biggest Liar. He claimed he felt flattered by this: "It means my cartoon that day contained some strange fact that was unbelievable - and therefore most interesting." The 'liar' took pride in his ability to provide documentation for all his fantastic facts - however, his standard of proof was not particularly high. Ripley convinced himself that any printed word was true, and if he could dig up even one article supporting a story, he claimed his tale was validated. A research team was always on hand, ready to search the New York Public Library to unearth some piece of documentation (though lesser sources must have sometimes sufficed, since Ripley once wrote about a surgeon who lived to be 140 and drank heavily every day since he was 25). He'd read about the drunk in a little-known German publication in 1916. But then, maybe that's why he always gave his fans the option to believe it or not.

Ripley's pursuit of the weird and wonderful lasted until the very end. In true Believe It Or Not! fashion, the subject of his 13th - and final - television show was the story behind the writing of 'Taps', the bugle call for the dead. Shortly after, Ripley suffered a heart attack. He died on 27 May 1949 at the age of 55. More than 400 people paid tribute at the cartoonist's funeral. Among his pallbearers were publishing giant William Randolph Hearst Jr, former world heavyweight boxing champion Gene Tunney, and president of Eastern Airlines, Edward Rickenbacker. Ripley was fittingly buried back home in Santa Rosa, in Odd Fellows Cemetery, so it would seem his final resting place was amongst good company.

Death hasn't hurt Ripley's popularity in the least. Today, Believe It Or Not! illustrations are still produced daily, and it is the world's longest-running syndicated cartoon. A TV show and museums across the globe continue to capture the imagination of millions, and in 2007 Ripley is set to be reincarnated as Jim Carrey in a film directed by Tim Burton, with a script written by the men who gave us Ed Wood. Somewhere above, Ripley, along with the horned Chinese farmer, the armless and legless girl, and a human pincushion or two, will be watching proudly with the world's largest tub of popcorn.


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