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In 1929, Robert Ripley was receiving nearly 3,000 letters a day. As Neal Thompson writes in A Curious Man: The Strange & Brilliant Life of Robert “Believe it or Not!” Ripley (Crown Archetype, $26), one fan sent

an envelope with a drawing of a bird in place of an address. It took a magnifying glass to reveal the words “Robert Ripley” repeated thousands of times in the shape of the bird. Others sent letters addressed in Confederate Army code, in Boy Scout semaphore, or simply addressed to “the damnedest liar in the world.”

Even without proper addresses, the post office knew to deliver Ripley’s mail to the New York Athletic Club, where the cartoonist kept a small apartment and avidly played handball. Thompson’s spirited but uneven biography charts Ripley’s rise as a popular phenomenon, a deeply idiosyncratic personality who — through newspapers, radio, film, and, at the very end, television — wedded his restless obsessions to the rise of mass culture. Thompson tries to make the case that Ripley was a pop-culture game changer, and though his argument is never quite persuasive, his portrait of the man behind the franchise is.

Born in Santa Rosa, California, in 1890, Ripley grew up in a volatile and impoverished family. He was profoundly shy, a trait exacerbated by a famished physique, buckteeth, and a stutter. In 1905, when he was fifteen, his father died; seven months later, the 1906 earthquake destroyed most of Santa Rosa. But Ripley was just the sort of talented, appealing boy to be taken on by a kindly mentor — his English teacher let him turn in drawings about assigned readings rather than reports and soon got into the habit of hanging these drawings above the blackboard. At the end of high school, Ripley launched himself onto the tip of the business that was altering newspapers: comics.

Ripley was awkward but enterprising. At eighteen he sold his first comic to Life magazine; at nineteen he moved to San Francisco, where he haunted Chinatown, in part out of fascination with the exotic world he found there, but also, as he later said, because “when I was hungry, they fed me.” He went to work for the Chronicle, most often illustrating high-profile sports contests, and in 1912 he moved to New York City. “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” began as a drawing for the New York Globe called “Champs and Chumps,” which debuted in December 1918 and consisted of nine depictions of oddball athletic feats, including one of a man who had walked backward across America.

In 1919, Ripley married a young woman who worked in the Ziegfeld Follies, though the relationship quickly broke down. According to Thompson, the phenomena portrayed in Ripley’s cartoons in these years shifted from sports (a billiards player sinking 23,000 balls) to “a sketch of a man who never shaved, a man who ate glass and nails, a man who crossed the English Channel on a mattress, a man who stood on one leg for twelve hours.” At the end of 1922, Ripley literally took off, sent by the Globe on “Ripley’s Ramble ’Round the World.” He posted months of dispatches from Hawaii, Singapore, China, India, Jerusalem, Italy. Apart from his talent for drawing, Ripley was a regular guy, and his work was filled with the sort of naïve, gawking prejudice that his fans shared: he found Benares, where he saw cremation ghats, fakirs, and corpses floating in the Ganges, more interesting than Paris because more extreme things happened there. He went to Rome but preferred Pompeii because it was “the deadest town I was ever in — and I am not excluding Philadelphia.” When, in 1936, the Boys Club of New York surveyed thousands of boys about who had the best job in America, Ripley topped Henry Ford, James Cagney, and J. Edgar Hoover. “He gets ’round a lot,” said one of the interviewees.

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