Most of us grew up with Ripley's "Believe It Or Not" in one form or another but the story of the man behind it all is far more interesting than expected.
Ripley grew up poor and isolated in Santa Rosa, California which at the time was the very definition of nowhere. His father, a rather dispirited carpenter, died when Robert was a teen and his mother was left the task of providing for and raising three children. Robert himself was a shy, awkward child with a prominent set of bad teeth and a pronounced stutter. However, he began to come into his own through athletics and drawing.
In the early part of the 20th century, newspapers were the dominant media and the cartoons within them became a vibrant part of the American culture. In 1918, Ripley sold his first cartoon to LIFE magazine and expected it would be Easy Street from there. It wasn't but it led to work at the San Francisco Chronicle and from there to the New York Globe in Manhattan. Originally, sports was his cartooning beat but he was able to convince the Globe to send him to Europe and the Middle East. There he began to flourish, turning out dispatches of oddities and what Ripley called "queeriosities". At the time, the world was a MUCH bigger place and Ripley was fascinated by the different cultures, customs, and histories and threw himself into his work. The result was a wildly popular cartoon that made him a superstar.
Even then, Ripley understood what we now call "branding" and he was wise enough to continue to build his brand. His cartoon became a syndication smash which led to his Odditoriums at World's Fairs and a succession of popular radio shows. While most Americans struggled through the Great Depression, Ripley became very wealthy, living a lavish life of first-class travel, beautiful women, and ever larger homes yet despite all his achievements and wealth, Ripley was plagued with self-doubt, loneliness, and the crushing pressures of staying on top to protect his brand and his fortune.
Author Thompson should be commended for continually making Ripley real. Ripley was especially fascinated by what some would call "freaks", a term he refused to use, that he encountered and eventually sought out in his travels. Here Thompson is especially successful at showing us throughout the book how much Ripley related to their disfigurements, their isolation within their own societies, and the pain of being an outsider, something he felt keenly. He also portrays Ripley as a capricious playboy with a petulant streak who, as he rose higher and higher, lost touch with the stuttering boy he once was. A highly readable, entertaining story.