Considering the age gap between Mr. Ripley and myself, I don’t know if you’d consider a surprise that until recently I wasn’t even sure he was real. Even after touring the Odditorium in Panama City Beach years ago, he remained something of a mythical figure in my mind—a caricature created to represent a collection of the strange and super strange.
A Curious Man, by Neal Thompson, set me straight. In this clever, engaging book, Thompson reveals the real Ripley, arguably as odd a man as any of his bizarre collections. I’ll venture to say that I’m not the only person who had a faulty perception of LeRoy Ripley, making this a fun, informative read for many Americans.
After a quick dip in the deep end, introducing Ripley in his element on one of his several international adventures, Thompson rewinds to the very beginning of Ripley’s life, a very unpretentious genesis.
Born in Santa Rosa, California, Ripley was a reserved child mostly due to embarrassment over his deformed smile—he had very obtrusive buck teeth. Perhaps it was this shyness that endeared him to a high school teacher who recognized Ripley’s artistic talent. After several miserable attempts at oral reports, this teacher, Ms. O’Meara, allowed him to present his papers as drawings. And perhaps it was this vote of confidence that inspired Ripley to submit his first comic to LIFE magazine in 1907.
Ripley’s career began there, as a newspaper comic and through a series of unfortunate events, punctuated by a handful of lucky breaks, Ripley found his niche—“an uneasy fascination with the ‘demented, delusioned, diseased and devout’ of the world,”.
Thompson does an excellent job of unraveling the real LeRoy Ripley. He frequently steps away from the close up of Ripley’s career to discuss his athletic talent, propensity for womanizing and often chauvinistic tendencies. He also provides an easy-to-understand chronology of journalism post WWI.
A Curious Man, is a fun read and informative almost by accident; the reader hardly notices the history lesson as he marvels at the main character. There is very little dialogue in the book, making for a fairly passive read, but that is easily overlooked as one is swept up in the confounding.