Robert L. Ripley 1893 – 1949: Born on Christmas Day, Believe it or Not

He was one of those journalists who learned the craft on the job, and never mind about some fancy degree.  He was a jock more than a scholar, a high school drop-out (there was a time when a high school diploma meant rather more in America than it does now), and despite his lack of credentials, managed to segue from minor league baseball into writing sports for the New York papers.

He also liked to draw.  On a whim on a slow day, he did a nine panel cartoon showing some oddball sports (backward running contest) which hit a chord.  It also hit the attentio0n of William Randolph Hearst who knew a good thing when he saw it. Thus was born Ripley’s Believe it or Not!.

It mushroomed, of course, both nationally and internationally.  Fortunately, human nature being what it is,  the supply of the weird is virtually inexhaustible and soon he had to hire a full time fact checker who effectively lived in the New York Public Library.  He was accused of excess of imagination, rarely caught out.

And the money rolled in.  Excessively.  After divorcing the first wife, it was time to indulge.  The mansion had enough rooms to accommodate up to five women, which should have been enough for any one man.

Whether by inclination or sharp business sense, he knew enough to make himself the story.  He allowed himself to be photographed in exotic “native” gear, he kept a boa constrictor as a pet before that became fashionable, traveled widely and claimed to have traveled wider still.  (The Garden of Eden is not, for the record, a recognized country.)

From the syndicated column to radio (preferably from a suitably bizarre location) to movie shorts that theaters showed in more civilized times, to the Odditorium, a sort of updated P.T. Barnum arrangement, which of course still exist.  Even television. It was after shooting an episode of his eponymous show that he died.  The thirteenth episode, in fact.  Even in death he had a knack for the attention getting.

The franchise still goes on, of course, churning out useless novelties for mass diversion for the easily bored, and good on him.  Not exactly Isaac Newton, but in his own way, suitable for a Christmas baby.


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