Robert Ripley Biography

Cartoonist, Adventurer(c. 1890–1949)
Cartoonist and adventurer Robert Ripley built his 'Believe It or Not!' empire by curating unbelievable oddities from around the world.

Synopsis

Robert Ripley was born in Santa Rosa, California, in 1890. He moved to San Francisco in 1908 and worked as a sports cartoonist until 1913, when he moved to New York to work for The Globe. It was there that he created a feature titled "Believe It or Not!" which showcased bizarre and interesting facts from around the world. Ripley's rising popularity led to international travel and a weekly "Believe It or Not!" column in the Evening Post. In 1929 he was hired at Hearst's King Features Syndicate and Simon & Schuster published a book of his popular cartoon. Believe It or Not! radio and TV programs followed, and by the mid-1930s Ripley had amassed a huge fortune. He died on May 27, 1949 from heart problems, only days after falling unconscious during the filming of his television program.  

Adventure in His Blood

In Santa Rosa, California, sometime in 1890 (the exact date remains a point of debate), LeRoy Robert Ripley was born to Isaac and Lillie Ripley, a carpenter and his wife who had both traveled west earlier in the century in search of their fortunes. Although they passed that spirit of adventure on to their firstborn son, as a child Ripley was a shy and awkward-looking boy. He was also notably talented, and during high school he divided his energies between his two greatest passions—baseball and art. However, when his father died in 1905, Ripley was forced to quit school and go to work delivering newspapers and polishing headstones to help his mother make ends meet.

Despite these challenges, Ripley would not stray far from his artistic ambitions for long. After selling his first cartoon to Life magazine in 1908, he left Santa Rosa for San Francisco, working briefly as the sports cartoonist for the Bulletin before moving on to the more prestigious Chronicle, where he worked for the next few years. In 1913, at the encouragement of a friend, writer Jack London, Ripley picked up his roots and headed east, finding work as the sports cartoonist for The Globe. Though not among the city’s premier newspapers, The Globe was a recently syndicated publication and brought Ripley’s column to a much wider audience. In turn, his popular column soon won The Globe a greater readership, and Ripley (who by this time had dropped his first name in favor of his middle) was rewarded by the paper with trips to cover events both around the United States and abroad.

'Believe It or Not!'

One slow day in the office, Ripley set to work on a sketch that featured various odd achievements in sports. Published on December 19, 1918, “Champs and Chumps” was the seed from which Ripley’s future fortunes would spring. A similarly themed Ripley cartoon, this one bearing the title “Believe It or Not!” was published 10 months later, and another was published the year after that. As Ripley’s popularity continued to swell, in 1922 The Globe sent Ripley on a trip around the world, which he covered in a series of cartoons and essays that featured unusual and bizarre facts from exotic cultures and locales.

Soon after returning from his adventures, Ripley hired an assistant to help him conduct his research of interesting and incredible facts, and in 1926 his good fortune continued when he was hired by the Evening Post, where he quickly set to work reviving his “Believe It or Not!” feature. With the Jazz Age rise of the tabloids, Ripley was fast on his way to becoming a household name, and each week he was bombarded by hundreds of angry and admiring letters. When not traveling the globe in search of new subject matter for his column, Ripley spent his time out on the town, patronizing New York City’s speakeasies and rubbing elbows with the likes of Rube Goldberg, the Marx Brothers and Gershwin. But early success and rising fame were just the tip of the iceberg. Ripley’s greatest achievements were still to come.

Modern-Day Marco Polo

In 1929, at the urging of William Randolph Hearst, Ripley was hired by King Features Syndicate for what was at the time a massive salary. The move would get Ripley’s column into hundreds of papers. That same year, a Believe It or Not! book collecting Ripley’s columns was published by Simon & Schuster and was both a commercial and critical hit, selling more than 500,000 copies within the first six months and leading to ever more opportunities.

Ripley soon found himself on top of the world. In 1930 he signed a contract with NBC to host a weekly Believe It or Not! radio show, and before long he was making film shorts for Twentieth Century Fox as well. He would also renegotiate his salary with King Features Syndicate for more than double what it had been, giving him the income to continue his explorations abroad as well as to explore new projects at home. One of these was unveiled at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933, where Ripley built the first “Odditorium,” the physical manifestation of one of his columns, featuring strange and unbelievable exhibits collected during his wanderings.

Ripley’s mounting fortune eventually allowed him to buy a small island north of New York City, which he named BION and where he constructed a 28-room mansion. The estate became something of a museum, where he housed much of his collection of artifacts, and also a social hub where he hosted lavish parties and dinners. But as conditions in Europe deteriorated in the years leading up to World War II, Ripley was not able to travel as he wished, and guests to his home eventually noticed a decline in his appearance, demeanor and health.

Sudden Death and Lasting Legacy

On March 1, 1949, NBC premiered the first installment of a new Believe It or Not! television program, hosted by Ripley. Then on May 24, in the middle of taping the 13th episode of the show, focusing on the funeral song “Taps,” Ripley fell unconscious at his desk. He later checked into a hospital, where he died from a heart attack on May 27, 1949. His body was buried beside his parents in a family grave in his hometown of Santa Rosa.

After his death, Ripley’s estate was sold at auction, and the bulk of his collection was purchased by an entrepreneur name John Arthur, who in 1955 used it to open the first permanent Odditorium in the country, in St. Augustine, Florida. Others soon followed, and were the predecessors of the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! museums that are now in existence around the world. The new millennium saw the release of the acclaimed biography A Curious Man: The Strange and Brilliant Life of Robert "Believe It or Not!" Ripley (2013), by Neal Thompson.

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