ARUN RATH, HOST:
Now, the story of a man you've probably heard of, but let's introduce him anyway.
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RATH: Robert Ripley was a cartoonist who became an international celebrity and media superstar. His pioneering mix of the strange, the shocking and the barely believable shaped the way Americans saw the world beyond its borders. Neal Thompson explores the man behind the character in a book called "A Curious Man: The Strange and Brilliant Life of Robert 'Believe It or Not!' Ripley." He joins us now. Neal Thompson, welcome to the program.
NEAL THOMPSON: Thanks, Arun. Thanks for your interest in the book. Happy to be here.
RATH: So Robert Ripley ended up going down as one of the most well-traveled men in history. But he didn't exactly grow up in a very cosmopolitan, worldly setting. Can you talk a little bit about his childhood, his modest childhood in Santa Rosa, Calif.?
THOMPSON: Sure. He had a pretty difficult childhood; grew up poor in Santa Rosa, about an hour north of San Francisco. He was really an outcast growing up. He had these terrible buckteeth, these disfiguring buckteeth. He was a skinny kid, a shy kid, an awkward kid. He was alone quite often, either doodling in his notebook. He was a drawer and a doodler from a very young age, but he didn't have many friends.
RATH: Do you think that led to an attraction to sort of oddball, peculiar, bizarre characters?
THOMPSON: I really do. And I make that case in the book; that as someone who was shunned and mocked as a kid, who really - and he talks about how goofy and backward he felt. He felt like this rude, this country, you know, yokel. And I think ultimately, the message of his body of work is that he was someone who celebrated the underdog, championed the oddball, who celebrated the weirdness of the world.
RATH: You talked about his obsessive doodling and eventually his cartooning skills, which are pretty impressive, take him to New York, where you describe a really fascinating scene in the newspaper world there, in the early part of the 20th century. Can you talk about the important role that cartoonists played in that world?
THOMPSON: Yeah. Cartoons played a hugely important role in the newspaper in that era before photography was commonplace in the newspaper. He started out as a sports cartoonist. And so his job was to go to the game or the boxing match and render that event in pen and ink for the next day's paper. And some of his artwork was just fantastic. He was really a talented artist.
RATH: Let's talk about Ripley's major life-changing experience. This was his first trip around the world in 1921. What did it even mean to travel around the world in 1921?
THOMPSON: You know, at that time, it was not common at all for people to travel extensively. But Ripley, early on in his career, was very curious about other parts of the world and very passionate about exploring those places. So he had this unique opportunity to circumnavigate the globe, and he did it in a pretty impressive way. I mean, he traveled by boat, by camelback, by donkey, by rickshaw, because he really wanted to see some of the places that he had always heard about.
RATH: Can you talk about his reaction on his trip to the city of Benares in India? This is one of the oldest, continuously inhabited cities on Earth on the banks of the Ganges, and it was kind of intense for Ripley.
THOMPSON: Yeah. I think that was a highlight. It was the first time he really experienced people doing things that were so extreme, so bizarre, so - I mean, he witnessed people torturing themselves, self-mutilation, these religious fanatics, fakirs, who were trying to prove their devotion to their god by staring at the sun until they went blind, by holding their arms aloft for 20 years until they became fused into place - all this extremely bizarre stuff. And he was just fascinated by it.
And I think it really, it not only changed his cartoon, the tone and look and feel of his cartoon, it changed his whole career. Within the next few years, he became this guy who presented the weirdness of the world in the daily newspaper each day. And that eventually led to a bestselling book and then another life-changing event in 1929 when William Randolph Hearst hired him for King Features Syndicate and put him on this huge, global stage.
RATH: And then on top of that, he then goes on to conquer radio and then television.
THOMPSON: He was really a multimedia pioneer. And he developed this "Believe It or Not!" empire - radio, TV, films, museums, lectures. He was everywhere. So, you know, by the mid-1930s, here's a guy who's making half million dollars a year. He's one of the wealthiest and best-known entertainers of his day, eventually became sort of this Hugh Hefner-esque-type character. He was just fun to be around. He was good company.
Here's somebody who just loved life. He loved to throw parties. He liked to drink a lot, sometimes too much. But he's described in some of the newspaper articles of the day as always having some beautiful woman on his arm and always squiring around some pretty young thing.
RATH: Well, you know what's funny, Neal, is that this character is described, you know, this Playboy character, multimillionaire, toast of Manhattan, loves to party. But if you listen to or watch one of these broadcasts, he's not really what you might expect. I want to listen to a little bit of some of Robert Ripley on the air.
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RATH: So in spite of his audaciousness and pioneering broadcast work, he was really painfully awkward as a speaker and presenter. But you seem to think that worked to his advantage.
THOMPSON: I think it did. I mean, clearly from that clip, he wasn't the most dynamic of on-air performers. He would often lean on a cup of whiskey or gin before he went on the air, and it seemed to take the edge off. Early on in his career, he was very nervous on stage. And on the air, he would fumble his papers, he would drop things, he would stutter.
But I think people appreciated that. I think they appreciated that he was sort of one of them. He understood some of the people that he interviewed on air and had compassion for them. And I think his fans really responded to that and related to him in a unique way.
RATH: You know, I was born decades after Ripley died, but he was still such a huge figure in my childhood. I remember the museums, the books, the shrunken heads and all that stuff. What do you think accounts for the cultural potency of Robert Ripley, even in the age of the Internet, Internet fact-checking, that he still has the ability to shock and fascinate?
THOMPSON: I think what's great about his sort of staying power is that he tapped into something during his day that was there. People were hungry for what he gave them. People were curious like he was. He was the first person to really, in a mass media sort of way, titillate us and provoke us.
And you see his influence, I'd argue, on today's viral videos on YouTube. You see it in some shows like "The Amazing Race" or "MythBusters." I think Ripley was, in a sense, the godfather of some of the reality TV shows that are part of pop culture today.
RATH: Neal Thompson is the author of "A Curious Man: The Strange and Brilliant Life of Robert 'Believe It or Not!' Ripley." Neal, thank you so much. This was fascinating.
THOMPSON: Really enjoyed it, Arun. Thank you.