by Neal Thompson
As a boy growing up in Santa Rosa, California, LeRoy Ripley was skinny and awkward. The painfully shy young man had a talent for cartooning. When he was nineteen, he left his hometown to draw for newspapers in San Francisco, but everyone he met advised him to move on to New York City. In 1912, Ripley did, working as a sports journalist and cartoonist. As the years passed, he began introducing little bits of sports trivia into his cartoons: fastest runners, records set and broken, and suchlike. By the early 1920s, he was traveling the world and sending dispatches back to his New York papers featuring the strange and delightful wonders he saw on his adventures through Asia and Europe. His columns and illustrations grew in popularity exponentially, so that by the early 1930s the eccentric cartoonist was one of the wealthiest men in his industry. As he grew older, he continued to travel, collecting artifacts and unusual items from every corner of the globe. Ripley’s entertainment empire spread into books,“odditoriums” (a combination of museum of the weird and freak show), radio and even television. Often imitated, never duplicated, Robert L. Ripley’s life was as strange and unbelievable as the stories he collected. Neal Thompson’s biography of Ripley is the first written in over fifty years, and the only one written with access to the archives of Ripley Entertainment (including many of Ripley’s personal papers) and the Doug and Hazel Storer Collection (both Storers were employees of Ripley for many years; Doug was his business manager).
If you have ever had the experience of wandering through one of Ripley’s Odditoriums, it is impossible not to wonder about the man who helped amass the vast collections. The rooms are so incredibly random! In one chamber, medieval instruments of torture are displayed - some are even demonstrated on wax models. The next room might have the taxidermy remains of a pig with two heads, or the shoes of the world’s tallest man. Another room might have Noh masks from Japan or shrunken heads or bronze Yoruba sculptures. It’s utterly impossible to predict, especially since the collections continue to grow even now, sixty plus years after Ripley’s death.
Ripley is very much a man of his time, which is to say that things like political correctness wasn’t a priority. He was a very observant man, with great attention to detail when he drew historic costumes or portraits for the newspapers – but he was also a traveler who steadfastly refused to learn even a few words of the native tongue. He was a lifelong bachelor, although he seemed to like women (especially Asian women). Towards the end of his life, he was even a bit of a Hugh Hefner figure, always surrounded by beautiful women in his palatial homes and on his travels. Thompson makes no attempt to hide Ripley’s flaws, and it is perhaps because he has so many of them that he remains sympathetic.
As he grows older, Ripley surrounds himself with stuff and people, but he remains the lonely man unable to fill an inner void. He reminds me not of the great explorers like Mallory or Shackleton, but of Jay Gatsby, the flamboyantly wealthy party host that everybody knows but no one is close to. Ripley also reminds me a bit of Walt Disney – both men were artists who created media empires by pushing their way to the top of their mediums; for Ripley this was the newspaper comic, while Disney became the king of animation.
I really enjoyed reading learning more about Ripley, since I’ve been to a couple of the Ripley’s museums (in Los Angeles, CA and in Orlando, FL) and find it mind-boggling that someone would manage to accumulate so much stuff. The biography humanized Ripley without painting over his obvious eccentricity, and it made me want to visit another of his Odditoriums.
5 out of 5 stars
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Peeking into the archives...today in:
2012: Fashionista Piranha on hiatus until May 24th…
2011: In the Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunant
2010: Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife by Mary Roach
2009: News: Digital Piracy Affects Books, Too