Editor's Note: In A Curious Man, Neal Thompson's much-anticipated biography of Robert "Believe It or Not!" Ripley, we are introduced to the quirky trivia-fanatic behind the "Believe it Or Not!" franchise. Charting his life from comic strip beginnings to globetrotting adventures on The New York Globe's dime, Thompson takes us on a 'round-the-globe voyage as we follow Ripley's footsteps, exploring worlds then deemed bizarre and exotic. In honor of the eccentric and enterprising Ripley, Neal Thompson has given us six strange biographical stories to chew on below. The catch? One of them is completely and utterly untrue.
Read these stories and decide for yourself which one defies belief.
1. Ripley was the model for Elmer Fudd, who was initially introduced by Looney Tunes in the late 1930s as a speech-impeded and stuttering character named Egghead. One cartoon, “Believe It or Else,” featured a bucktoothed Egghead wearing a loud suit and spats. The narrator introduces the world's loudest hog caller, the human basketball, and the world's fastest woodcutter. “I don’t believe it!” says Egghead/Fudd, who also made a cameo appearance in a faux South Seas travelogue entitled "The Isle of Pingo Pongo."
2. Ripley was earning half a million dollars a year at the low-point of the Depression, and that income -- from his wildly popular cartoon, his bestselling books, his radio shows, and lectures -- allowed him in 1934 to move out of the tiny apartment at the New York Athletic Club that had been his home for 15 years and to buy himself a mansion and a private island which he dubbed BION Island (Believe It or Not Island). There, he’d host daylong Hefneresque parties.
3. After his brief marriage to a Ziegfeld Follies dancer ended in divorce, Ripley became one of the more successful -- and least likely, due to his strange looks and buck teeth -- ladies men of his era. He dated Hollywood starlets, Broadway dancers, sports stars, and opera singers. He collected girlfriends that others referred to as his harem. Among his proudest conquests: a one-night tryst in Hell, Norway; an on-and-off relationship with actress Ann Sheridan; and a secret affair with famed stripper Gypsy Rose Lee.
4. As a radio pioneer, Ripley once broadcast a show from the bottom of the Grand Canyon, an event that helped launch the political career of Barry Goldwater, who was a rafting guide at the time. Months after Ripley’s show, Goldwater and another river-runner completed the first-ever commercial paddling trip through the Grand Canyon. Goldwater wrote to tell Ripley about it, and Ripley invited him to New York, then encouraged Goldwater to use his rafting photographs to create a slide show and lecture. While delivering his travelogue presentation to packed audiences, Goldwater discovered a knack for public speaking and, after serving as a pilot in World War II, entered politics, eventually vying for the presidency.
5. After the success of his newspaper cartoons, radio shows, lectures, and films, Ripley created a Believe It or Not museum at the 1933-34 Chicago Worlds Fair, calling it his Odditorium. In addition to displaying curios that Ripley had collected from around the world, the Odditorium would feature live performances by the "Armless, Legless Girl Wonder" and "The Girl with Four Legs and Three Arms." The most infamous performer was the terminally ill man who vowed to kill himself on stage -- for a $5,000 payment from Ripley, who called it "a helluva show."
6. During one of his extended adventures, Ripley traveled from Jerusalem to Damascus to Baghdad -- bumping into Will Rogers in the Syrian desert -- to Tehran, then onto the Soviet Union. After an hours-long wait at the Azerbaijan border, he crossed into Georgia and rashly decided to get off his slow-moving, fetid train and drive by car into Russia -- up and over the snow-packed Caucasus Mountains. He became stranded in thigh-high snow until the unlikely arrival of two farmers and a team of oxen, which dragged Ripley’s car up and over the peak.
UPDATE/SPOILER: Of the six stories above, the faker among them is number five! For those of you who joined the sweepstakes, five lucky winners who guessed story number five will be contacted via email for your home address. That way, we can ship you a brand new copy of A Curious Man!Page 2