The Unbelievable Life of Robert Ripley
Robert Ripley made a name for himself by asserting truth in the unbelievable. An icon for all things bizarre, Ripley aroused curiosity in American audiences by providing them with strange facts and oddities, and challenging them to "believe it or not." But some of the facts about Ripley's own life might be the oddest of all.
When Robert Ripley was a boy in Santa Rosa, CA, he bought five-cent postcard copies of a Russian painting called "The Boyar Wedding Feast" and tried to recreate it himself. According to a 1946 Liberty Magazine profile, "When his syndicated feature made him rich, he bought the original and has refused $75,000 for it."
Ripley and Call of the Wild author Jack London worked together briefly in 1910. Both men were sent to Reno, Nevada to cover the "Battle of the Century" between boxers Jim Jeffries and Jack Johnson for the San Francisco Chronicle.
Ripley's Favorite Pastime
During his time in California, Ripley played semi-professional baseball. He loved baseball and, in February 1912, The New York Globe sent Ripley on assignment to cover the New York Giants' spring training workouts. When the coaches learned of his semi-pro experience, they invited him to work out with the team, where, rumor has it, his curveball left a favorable impression on the coaches. But his baseball career was brought to a halt when he fractured his arm (some reports claim he merely broke a finger). Though the details have been muddled throughout the years, the end result was always positive in Ripley’s many retellings. "It ruined me as a baseball player," he said, "and made me a cartoonist."
Give That Man a Raise
When Ripley first started out at the Globe and Commercial Advertiser in 1912, he made $25 a week. At the peak of his popularity in the 1930s, his syndicated column was earning him $7,000 a week and was read by more than 60 million people daily.
Ripley vs. Cagney
Income from Ripley's syndicated column, books, and speaking engagements defied the norms of the mid-1930s, reaching half a million dollars in the midst of the Great Depression. His annual salary rivaled that of Hollywood stars James Cagney and Gary Cooper, who earned $368,333 and $328,000, respectively, in the 1930s.
While living at the New York Athletic Club beginning in 1919, Ripley found a new athletic passion and stress reliever -- handball. As the sport became increasingly popular in NYC, Ripley played in dozens of tournaments, and even earned a champion title in 1925.
When a Ripley's Believe It or Not! cartoon claimed that the United States had no national anthem -- and "The Star-Spangled Banner" was just "a vulgar old English drinking song" -- it triggered such outrage that Herbert Hoover signed a bill officially naming the song as the national anthem on March 3, 1931.
Ripley was one of the most well-traveled men of his time. He is credited with traveling to 201 of 235 recognized countries at the time, and, despite having a fear of flying, he logged 600,000 miles during his career.
In 1934, Ripley purchased his own personal island in Mamaroneck, New York for $85,000, complete with a 28-room mansion. He named it BION Island, in reference to "Believe It or Not," and the home overflowed with his treasured Chinese paraphernalia and strange artifacts.
A BION Menagerie
Ripley kept several pets at his home on BION Island, including a 28-foot boa constrictor named Gertie. He also raised Dalmatians and donated them to Mamaroneck’s fire department.
Sink or Swim
Despite having an island home and owning a variety of boats, including a giant Chinese junk named the Mon Lei, Ripley could not swim.
Ripley Circles the Globe
In 1934, Ripley broadcast a live radio program to "the entire world." To achieve this, Ripley gathered 10 translators at WINS studios in New York to translate his show into various languages. The different translations were simultaneously linked to networks and transmitters across the globe.
Ripley won the majority of votes in a 1936 poll taken by the Boys Club of New York that asked children whom they wanted to be when they grew up. In similar polls across the country, Ripley beat out President Franklin Roosevelt, boxer Jack Dempsey, and auto tycoon Henry Ford.
"Peanuts" cartoonist Charles Schulz's first published drawing appeared in a Believe It or Not! cartoon in 1937. The sketch featured a little dog that would later become famously known as "Snoopy."
When Ripley had dental surgery to fix his buckteeth in 1938, he instructed his dentist not to straighten them too much as they had become his trademark.
The Cartoonist Becomes a Cartoon
When Looney Tunes introduced the Egghead character in a late 1930s animated cartoon, many believed Ripley was their inspiration. This was largely due to Egghead’s accent, buckteeth, and role in a "Believe It or Else" sketch. (Egghead would eventually become Looney Tunes famous character Elmer Fudd.)
Goldwater in the Grand Canyon
In 1940, Ripley decided to broadcast a show from the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Ripley's Colorado River guide, Emery Kolb, couldn’t steer the boat and operate the shortwave radio at the same time, so he enlisted the services of an amateur radio operator named Barry Goldwater. Goldwater would later become a U.S. Senator and campaigned for President in 1964.
The Last Episode
Ripley collapsed during the broadcast of his 13th episode of his NBC television program on May 24, 1949. The episode featured a tribute to the military funeral song "Taps." He died three days later of a massive heart attack at age 59.
Robert Ripley is buried beside his parents in Odd Fellows cemetery in Santa Rosa, CA.