Robert L. Ripley was the most famous man born in Santa Rosa, and the town really should apologize for that.

The first-ever biography of Mr. Believe It Or Not! is out (A Curious Man: The Strange and Brilliant Life of Robert “Believe It or Not!” Ripley by Neal Thompson, Crown Archetype 2013) and our hometown boy is revealed to be quite a piece of work. He was a roly-poly (yet athletic) bundle of wild contradictions; he repeatedly said he abhorred “freaks” yet made his fortune exploiting what he called “oddities,” such as the baby with a cyclops eye and the man who smoked cigarettes through a hole in his back. He was probably the most well-traveled man of his day to exotic lands, yet refused to utter a single word in a local language, presuming that everyone could understand English if he only spoke loud enough. For a man in his racket, he was curiously incurious; he didn’t seem to care what caused a weird medical peculiarity or why someone would inflict tortuous pain or mutilation upon themselves (“their folly is my fortune,” he said, “I’ll get rich off the ridiculous yet”). He was a real-life Charles Foster Kane mixed with eccentric Howard Hughes, employing a team to search out priceless objects for his mansion as he obsessively kept redecorating it, spending part of each day personally moving furniture, objets d’art, deformed skeletons and whatnot from room to room in the quest for the perfect spot.

With such rich material available, you’d think this bio would be impossible to put down. You would be wrong. Much of this book is a slog and sometimes hagiography. (“Ripley was becoming the country’s know-it-all professor of history, geography, science and anthropology. His offbeat lessons gave people hope.”)

(RIGHT: Image courtesy, A Curious Man: The Strange and Brilliant Life of Robert “Believe It or Not!” Ripley)

Leroy Robert Ripley was born in 1890 on Glenn street, the family moving three years later into a house on Orchard street (no longer existing) built by his father. The characteristic that defined him was his appearance – his upper teeth flipped outward in a disturbing manner; biographer Thompson references him looking like “Dracula,” but it was more like a kid wearing a pair of absurdly comic wax teeth. His buck teeth were so bad that you can enter variations of “worst example overbite” into a Google images search and not see anything nearly so extreme, even in Photoshopped pictures that are supposed to be horrible. As a result of his disability he was unable to form certain sounds. Being insecure because of that and stuttering made his childhood even more miserable. He escaped his problems by drawing.

In high school he gained a measure of popularity through his caricatures and skill at baseball, even playing for the local semi-pro team and dreaming of a career with the New York Giants. His education lagged because he was a poor writer and turned into a stammering train wreck when required to speak before the class. His salvation was English teacher “Fanny” O’Meara, who allowed him to turn in drawings for homework instead of written reports, even posting his sketches in the classroom and using them as teaching aids. Still, he dropped out of school in the middle of his senior year. Later he floated the excuse that he had to go to work to support his family, but it appears he mainly played ball. (Much more below about this book’s problems concerning his Santa Rosa years.)

Five days after the rest of his class of 1908 graduated, his first cartoon was published, LIFE magazine paying him eight dollars, which was nearly a week’s pay for most Santa Rosans. Also that summer, in a true believe-it-or-not coincidence, the Ripley family rented a room to a journalist writing a feature on Luther Burbank. Impressed with the drawings of her landlady’s son, she took his portfolio back to San Francisco and by early 1909 he was hired by the San Francisco Bulletin as a cartoonist for the sporting page. He was fired after four months but quickly found a new position at the Chronicle (see item below) while taking art classes for the first time in his life.

Ripley’s talent blossomed at the Chronicle, and a year later he was given the coveted assignment to cover the Jim Jeffries-Jack Johnson “fight of the century,” where he rubbed elbows with Jack London and top newspaper writers and cartoonists from New York. Emboldened to ask for a raise, he was fired instead.

(RIGHT: Ripley illustration from “Joe Taylor, Barnstormer”)

Hoping to parlay his connections into a position with one of the big New York papers, “Rip” prepared to leave the West Coast for the first time. His last work here was a freelance assignment illustrating an autobiography, “Joe Taylor, Barnstormer.” Ripley’s biographer passes over that event quickly dismissing it as a job to earn a much-needed $100 for the cross-country trip, which makes it doubtful he ever saw the book. As an artist, the Robert L. Ripley we knew from the Believe It Or Not! columns was a very skilled draughtsman, but nothing more; as illustrator of that book, Ripley demonstrated his originality and depth of talent for caricature. The drawings remind of the brilliant Edward W. Kemble illustrations for the first edition of Huckleberry Finn (which received mixed critical reviews for the story, but universal praise for the art). A better biographer – one less determined to shoehorn Ripley’s life into a simple rags-to-riches story – would have recognized this work as Ripley’s moment at the crossroads. He was 21 years old, unmarried with no obligations and about to depart for the publishing capitol of the world. Had he considered a career in book and magazine illustration, we might well be speaking today of Ripley as a memorable artist of the early 20th century. Or, he could have arrived in New York City and sought another gig drawing fearsome boxers and baseball sluggers. Guess which path he chose.

At the prestigious New York Globe, Ripley’s star was ascendant. His cartoons were featured several times a month and his paychecks grew fatter as the paper began promoting his name. His was the life of a minor celebrity; evenings spent salooning with pals, dinner dates at nightclubs. He lived at the New York Athletic Club in a closet-sized room large enough for him to change his clothes and sleep, at least when he had no better offers for the night.

He married a chorus girl in 1919 but the relationship quickly fell apart. Ripley refused to move out of his lodgings at the Club, the couple spending increasingly fewer evenings together at nice midtown hotels. Ripley was always off on assignment somewhere, chasing baseball teams or boxers in training camps. He went to Europe without her to cover the 1920 Olympics. He was also producing the very first cartoons with the Believe It or Not! title, most of them about sports history, with a particular interest into the quirky and odd events. By their first wedding anniversary they had been apart more often than not. She filed for divorce about a year later citing cruelty, excessive drinking, and “fondness for other young women.” Ripley did not contest the charges – she had caught him in a hotel room with a woman.

From the 1920s onward, Ripley’s name and fame became legend. The Globe made him a globetrotter with the popular syndicated series, “Ripley’s Ramble ‘Round the World.” William Randolph Hearst made him one of the highest paid journalists in the world when he lured Ripley to his newspapers for $100,000 a year. Book collections of his Believe It Or Not! columns made him richer still. Newsreel and radio appearances further established the Ripley brand. He became a millionaire many times over. He bought an island north of New York City with a 28-room mansion.

The wildly successful years from 1929 to his death in 1949 are densely covered in the book, thanks in part to that era of his life being so thoroughly documented as one of the most well-known men in the world. What emerges from those years is a private portrait of a man that is less one of Horatio Alger’s plucky heroes and closer to a villain in a Dickens novel, such as Mr. Quilp of The Old Curiosity Shop – a creepy, manipulative jerk that seemed to fundamentally dislike people, probably himself most of all.

Hearst-like, he was unable to control his passion for collecting. “Friends assumed there was something chemical at work,” biographer Thompson writes. “Ripley was neurotic and compulsive, perpetually sophomoric and impetuous, that he simply couldn’t help himself or control his urges. Empty floor or wall space? It seemed to make him uncomfortable and needed to be filled with a stature or a weapon or a chair or a painting.”

(RIGHT: Ripley and Frances O’Meara during his 1936 visit to Santa Rosa. Image courtesy Sonoma County Library)

More disturbing was that he also collected women. In the island mansion were always found a few models, starlets, and other pretty young things who were titularly his “secretary” or “research assistant,” signing a waiver acknowledging they were staying there voluntarily. “One writer speculated that Ripley stocked his life with women so he wouldn’t have to choose just one,” writes his biographer. A member of his inner circle commented the mansion “looked just like a harem,” and later said Ripley “lived in open concubinage.”

Ripley himself told interviewers, “women are wonderful, simply wonderful–in their place” and “the only time women are happy is when they are completely under the domination of men.” Yet at the same time Ripley had women buddies, apparently fell deeply in love at least three times, and was utterly devoted to his high school teacher, Frances O’Meara, whom he called “mother.”

Which brings us back to the deeper problems with “A Curious Man” – its portrayal of Ripley’s years in Santa Rosa.

“A few years past its cowboy-and-Indian days, Santa Rosa and nearby Sonoma and Napa could be dangerous and deadly,” the book exclaims, quoting an incident reported in the Sonoma Democrat about drunk Indians on a “wild debauch.” Huh? When was Santa Rosa ever mistaken for a Wild West cowtown like Dodge City? What does the Indian story – which the author concedes dated back to “when Ripley was a toddler” – have anything to do with him? The misportrayal continues:

Also full of debauch were the newspapers. LeRoy learned to read in a lively two-paper town whose editors practiced what would soon be called yellow journalism. The Democrat and its rival, the Santa Rosa Republican, cackled with stories of murderous deeds and accidental deaths, divorces, suicides, and all variety of lunacy, a daily ‘news of the weird.’ People plunged off railroad trestles, lost limbs beneath train wheels, became mangled by farm machines. They shot each other over card games, stole horses, robbed banks. The Democrat was especially poetic in its depictions of death, offering vivid descriptions of ‘putrescent’ bodies ‘lying in pools of blood.’

Boy, I’d like to go back and read them excitin’ papers! Wait a sec – I have read every single page of those newspapers on microfilm starting from 1904, when Leroy was fourteen, and I can assure you that the debauch was far and few. Yes, odd and horrible things sometimes happened, but it’s a gross fabrication to call the Santa Rosa papers “a daily ‘news of the weird,'” or even “yellow journalism,” for that matter. The author is confusing the Press Democrat and Republican with the more lurid big city papers such as the San Francisco Examiner and Oakland Tribune (although it’s quite possible Leroy did see those sensationalist newspapers, which were always for sale at the newsstand in town).

Ripley had a lifelong fascination with all things Chinese, which author Thompson traces back to his childhood explorations of Santa Rosa’s Chinatown, “where he’d peek into the laundries, restaurants, and shops.” Well, when Ripley was growing up, the maps show the town’s Chinese district on Second street was a half block long, with two laundries, a single restaurant and a building used as a temple. Unless he was barging into their residences (and presumably speaking loudly so they would understand his English), there wasn’t much at which to peek, but if Ripley claimed otherwise, it would be interesting to know what he really experienced.

But next to the Chinatown that Ripley supposedly prowled was another neighborhood that the book doesn’t mention at all: The red light district. When Ripley was growing up, there were eleven bordellos in Santa Rosa and when he was seventeen, the town legalized Nevada-style prostitution. If you’re writing about a guy whose personality is greatly defined by seriously conflicted views about women, it seems important to ponder what influence the proximity of dozens of local prostitutes might have had on the teenage boy.

But my teeth-grinding gripe with this author is that there are no notes, so Gentle Reader has no idea where he’s pulling some of this stuff from. Yes, there are endnotes, but they are generalized by chapter and not connected to specific assertions on specific pages. The promise that “more information on sources” is available at the author’s web site yields only reviews (the favorable ones) of his book and a short Ripley bio with pictures.

The endnotes do show, however, that too much of the book is drawn from newspapers and magazines, and much of the details specific to his early years comes from secondary sources published decades later. This is particularly maddening because the author had unrestricted access to Ripley’s extensive archive with his journals and diaries, as well the papers of his long-time agent and others confidantes.

As a result of these failings, the book tells us much about where Ripley went and what he did, with precious little insight into why he was how he was. It would have been better if author Neal Thompson had stuck to writing about NASCAR and high school football and spared us this poorly researched, sketchy biography.


Ripley With the Chronicle

Leroy Ripley of this city, who has been doing some creditable work as cartoonist for the Bulletin, has severed his connection with that paper to secure a much better one with the Chronicle. He has been here this week visiting his mother and enjoying his home.

– Press Democrat, June 25, 1909

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *