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Ripley's Believe It or Not

Ripley's Believe It or Not

Truths stranger than fiction have captivated writers ever since there have been books. But for most twentieth-century Americans, the phrase "Believe it or not!" is indissolubly wedded to the name of Robert Le Roy Ripley, whose illustrated panel of wonders and curiosities was published in hundreds of newspapers across the United States. Although Ripley himself died in 1949, his famous brainchild continued to be produced by his successors throughout the twentieth century.

Ripley's career might have been very different but for several strokes of luck. In 1907, as a boy of 14 in Santa Rosa, California, he sold his first cartoon to the humor magazine Life. Later, while he was still a teenager, his talent was recognized by a neighbor, Carol Ennis, who steered him to his first newspaper job with the San Francisco Bulletin.

But Ripley's biggest break came after he moved to Manhattan and got hired as a sports cartoonist for the New York Globe. Casting about for ideas in a slow week, he hit on the idea of drawing up a panel of surprising sports facts, heading it "Believe It or Not." Reader response was overwhelmingly enthusiastic, and his editors urged him to do more in the same vein.

Ripley soon branched out beyond sports oddities to all of the world's wonders, and "Believe It or Not" was in limited syndication, earning him a modest but respectable $10,000 annually by the end of 1927, the year he moved to the New York Post. (It was also the year of one of his most famous cartoons, in which he pointed out that "The Star-Spangled Banner" was not the national anthem because America had never officially designated one. As a result Congress was flooded with letters, resulting in the statutory adoption of the song in 931.) In 1929, Ripley was sought out by the head of King Features Syndicate, Joseph V. Connolly, who had been sent a laconic telegram from William Randolph Hearst saying "SIGN RIPLEY." Ripley signed, and his income immediately jumped tenfold; by the mid-1930s he was making $500,000 a year, enabling him to travel worldwide and to buy expensive properties on Long Island and in Florida.

Ripley's staff grew until he had dozens of paid assistants. One of his most loyal researchers was Norbert Pearlroth, who had been hired in the 1920s because he knew 14 languages. Pearlroth became legendary at the New York Public Library reading room, where he could be seen nearly every day for over 50 years, combing foreign journals for the unusual facts that were the feature's stock in trade. (Although Ripley left Pearlroth a surprisingly modest bequest when he died—only $5000—the cartoonist had also put Pearlroth's son through school at his own expense.)

Facts were true to Ripley so long as they were in print somewhere. Hearing of a president of Mexico whose term had set a record for brevity (37 minutes from inauguration to assassination), Ripley set his research team scouring sources, until, in the 9832nd book checked, the desired documentation was found. Some of Ripley's eye-openers were simply matters of deduction: Based on a growth rate extrapolated from two fourteenth-century censuses of China plus the standard day's march for U.S. Army infantry units, Ripley came up with one of his most famous panels, the "Marching Chinese," which purported to demonstrate that if all the inhabitants of China were to begin marching four abreast past a given point, their numbers and birth rate were such that the column would never end.

Ripley's exoticism and ethnocentrism were comfortable bedfellows, and his account of a visit to India in the late 1920s, published in his first book for Simon and Schuster in 1929, is rife with contempt for Hinduism. On the other hand, he had great respect for Chinese civilization and artifacts, collecting the latter avidly, including a motorized junk, the pride of a motley flotilla whose home port was Bion, his Long Island estate. (Like many self-made men of his era, Ripley tended to flout his wealth.)

In addition to his newspaper feature and the books that anthologized it, Ripley went on radio in the 1930s, first as a feature on the Collier Hour in 1930 and then with his own show, whose succession of sponsors included Standard Oil, Hudson Motors, General Foods, and Royal Crown Cola. Outmaneuvred for a World's Fair concession in 1939 by a rival, John Hix, who produced the panel "Strange As It Seems," Ripley simply opened up nearby with his "Odditorium;" and though it lost money its first year, he returned in 1940 to turn a healthy profit.

After World War II, Ripley also tried his hand at television, being featured on the show Truth or Consequences in the winter of 1948 and in his own show beginning on March 1, 1949. Three months later, he was dead, having blacked out on the set on May 24 and died of heart failure in a hospital bed several days later.

The Ripley organization, however, carried on almost seamlessly. The research team, including Pearlroth, continued to ferret out marvels, which were drawn in the Ripley style by Paul Frehm, who Ripley had hired as an understudy when Frehm was illustrating ads for Borg-Warner. Paul Frehm ran the organization until 1977, when his brother Walter, who had begun his career doing Paul's lettering, took control. In 1989 Walter Frehm retired and was succeeded by Don Wimmer, formerly a freelance artist with United Features Syndicate, which had acquired the rights to Believe It or Not and was still distributing it to newspapers nationwide at the end of the 1990s.

Ripley's Believe It or Not continued to be operated under license in a number of U.S. cities, including Chicago, Illinois, and Orlando, Florida. His feature gave rise to numerous parodies as well, from a 1950s Mad Magazine spoof titled "Ripup's Believe It or Don't" to the National Lampoon's True Facts: The Book, a photo archive of funny roadside signs, and Kevin Goldstein's The Leslie Frewin Book of Ridiculous Facts.

—Nick Humez

Further Reading:

Bendel, John. National Lampoon Presents True Facts: The Book. Chicago, Contemporary Books, 1991.

Goldstein-Jackson, Kevin. The Leslie Frewin Book of Ridiculous Facts. London, Frewin, 1974.

Hansen, William, translator. Phlegon of Tralles' Book of Marvels. Exeter, University of Exeter Press, 1996.

Priest, Josiah. Wonders of Nature and Providence, Displayed. Albany, J. Priest, 1825.

Ripley, Robert Le Roy. Ripley's Believe It or Not! New York, Simon& Schuster, 1929.

——. Ripley's 35th-Anniversary Believe It or Not! New York, Simon & Schuster, 1954.

Ripley's Believe It or Not! Book of Chance. New York, Coward, McCann & Geoghehan, 1982.

Sloan, Mark, Roger Manley, and Michelle Van Pargs, editors. Dear Mr. Ripley: A Compendium of Curiosities from the Believe It or Not Archives. Boston, Little, Brown & Co., 1993.

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