Biography of legendary “Believe It Or Not” cartoonist, world traveler and eccentric millionaire Robert Ripley (1890–1949).
Although capturing every dimension of an oddly complex character like Ripley is no easy task, biographer Thompson (Hurricane Season, 2007, etc.) turns in an obsessively researched but somewhat workmanlike study of the Believe It Or Not founder, whose amazing American life itself plays out like an impossible fairy tale without the need for any particular showy literary finesse. Ripley was born in the 1890s into a lower-middle-class family in California and grew into both a formidable athlete and cartoonist, two interests he would later combine and pursue as a sports cartoonist. But after a few failed stints as a cartoonist for small-time San Francisco newspapers, he moved to New York to try his luck. But it wasn’t until he took his first overseas journey to Egypt and across Europe that he began to cultivate an interest in human oddities and exotic cultures that would eventually make his fortune. He jumped from cartoons to radio and then took the Believe It or Not franchise to books and TV. By the 1930s, while most of America was reeling from the Depression, Ripley was one of the highest-paid and most well-traveled men in the world (he visited around 150 countries in all). Unfortunately, once World War II commenced, he found the world was no longer his playground, with hostilities breaking out in all his favorite countries: China’s submission to communism in the late 1940s was particularly heartbreaking for Ripley. Overall, Thompson’s book only skims the surface of Ripley’s psyche without delving too deeply into what drove his odd wanderlust and exotic tastes. The author’s competent bricks-and-mortar prose is nothing special, but it does adequately convey a detailed fly-on-the-wall–style narrative from the (often unbelievable) facts of Ripley’s own life.
A nuts-and-bolts, mostly nonextraordinary rendering of an extraordinary American life.