Friday, July 19, 2013

New Ripley Bio Is a Curiosity

Robert Ripley: The modern Marco Polo?


Midway through Robert Ripley's career, he felt he'd gone too far into the world of grotesques. He'd started as a sports cartoonist, after all. Now he was showcasing people who drove nails into their heads. One of his associates  suggested Ripley increase the freakish part of his show, explaining that "the public likes to suffer."
Ripley understood. The rest, as we learn in  Neal Thompson's exhausting new book 'A Curious Man,' was history.

Ripley's Believe it or Not! was a newspaper staple for decades. I remember those beautiful renderings of strange people, odd facts, and strange tics of nature. I remember the monks with 29-inch fingernails, the men with horns growing from their skuls, and the swamis who hadn't spoken in decades.  This illustrated feature became part of the public lexicon and made its creator a wealthy man. During the Depression of the 1930s, when Americans didn't have a dime to go to the movies, they could open a newspaper and see Ripley's oddities. Through Ripley's cartoons, people saw the unusual, and were able to visit, if only for a few seconds, mysterious, far-flung places. Several Ripley museums have been established around the world in recent years, including one in New York's Times Square. The emphasis is less on the exotic, more on the grotesque. Apparently, people still like to suffer.

Ripley was a world traveler, and a collector of the weird, the wacky, the hard to explain. His newspaper success lead to his own programs on  radio, and then, briefly before his death in 1948, a weekly television series. Ripley was also a rowdy drunk who partied with some of the biggest names of the Roaring Twenties, from Jack Dempsey to Babe Ruth. Between his partying, his extensive traveling schedule, and his 24/7 dedication to drawing his daily cartoons, Ripley burned himself out. He was dead at 59.

The author  jams home the fact that Ripley did enough living for 20 men, recounting his every trip, every purchase, every exploration, every fit of anger, every drunken binge. Unfortunately, as busy as Ripley was during his life, there wasn't much drama to report.  Of course, there are wars and earthquakes and various other events that effected Ripley's business and travel plans, but he's always at the edge of these things, never directly involved. The most we hear about is some bad weather, some problems at customs, and a certain rascality that came with being a wealthy man who could have any woman he wanted, usually two at a time.  But while Ripley may have thought of himself as an Indiana Jones type, in actuality he was a bit of a doofus. That, as much as anything else, seems to be what attracted  Thompson  to the subject.

The author spends an awful lot of time writing about Ripley's clumsiness as a young man. Thompson tries to present Ripley's story as an old-fashioned, All-American tale of an impoverished   kid who used his talents to became a superstar in his field. Thompson is particularly fascinated by Ripley's "unfortunate set of protruding and misaligned front teeth, a crooked jumble that practically tumbled from his mouth." Thompson plays amateur psychologist, suggesting Ripley's ugly mouth made him sympathize with underdogs and people who were different. There may be something to that, but it doesn't quite explain Ripley's fascination with shrunken heads and Asian women.

Thompson  also points out, with nauseating consistency,  Ripley's  canny understanding of what the public wanted. He credits Ripley with foreshadowing such "pop-culture phenomena" as YouTube, reality TV, Fear Factor, Jerry Springer, Oprah, The Amazing Race, River Monsters, and Jackass. Granted, I'd like to go back in time and kill Ripley to prevent him from inspiring those shows, but Thompson has a point: Ripley foreshadowed the ridiculous world we live in today.  

Unfortunately, Thompson doesn't  expand on the book's underlying theme, which is the public's vicarious interest in masochism and suffering. Why, exactly, does anyone  want to watch people drive rusty nails into their eyeballs, or set their earlobes on fire? Is it just wonderment at how much punishment the human body can take? Or is it the same impulse that causes us to stare at highway accidents?  

Like most biographies, 'A Curious Man' is at its best at the beginning and the end. I liked the young Ripley, the awkward kid struggling to establish himself in the new world of cartooning before stumbling onto his million dollar gimmick. I also liked the young Ripley as he struggled in San Francisco, wandering through Chinatown where restaurant owners kept him alive by feeding him scraps. It was during these hard times that Ripley developed his love for the Chinese culture.

Late period Ripley is interesting, too. Overweight and sickly, his temper out of control, Ripley suffered a series of strokes during his last year. That he produced 13 episodes of his television show while his heart was failing is a testament to his determination. He was so ill he nearly died during his final NBC broadcast, which might have been a fitting way out for him.
But in between his poor boy's rise and the bloated excess of his later days, there wasn't much to Ripley's story.  He traveled.  He bought stuff. He slept with his secretaries.  His favorite female companion died young, and this apparently sent Ripley into a long, downward spiral. Still, Thompson can't quite create empathy for Ripley. The man tended to solve problems by throwing money at them, and when people needed him, he was likely to sail off to Shanghai to buy some masks.

Ripley with cannibal friend

Ripley played his part to the hilt, often dressing in the clothes of an explorer, and telling interviewers that he was probably a reincarnated Chinese warlord. Thompson does a good job capturing Ripley's evolution from shy cartoonist to grandstanding, slightly drunken showman.  But Thompson spends  too much time apologizing for what he interprets as Ripley's chauvinism and political incorrectness. Most readers are smart enough to know that a man in 1920 might say something that wouldn't ring right today. Then again, if  Thompson  didn't spend so much time on Ripley's bad teeth and political incorrectness, the book would've been 40 pages long.

Thompson obviously reveres Ripley. He researched every inch of the man's life. In a way, Thompson has become Ripley, and Ripley has become the freak on display.   As Thompson says at the book's conclusion, Ripley "may have been the most unbelievable oddity of all."
Perhaps, but reading about Ripley is a bit like staring at a shrunken head. It's fun for a while, but ultimately there's not much to it.

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