Coursey: An unbelievable life

Believe it or not, there may be a few things you haven't heard about Santa Rosa native Robert Ripley.

For instance, the man who became known as "the biggest liar in the world" was, in many ways, as odd as the many curiosities on display in his "Odditorium." He was a strange-looking guy with a harem of girlfriends, a bookish kid who became a champion athlete, a bon vivant with a streak of melancholy.

Such are the observations of Neal Thompson in his book, "A Curious Man: The Strange and Brilliant Life of Robert 'Believe It or Not!' Ripley," which was published this spring.

Born in Santa Rosa on Christmas Day in 1893 (maybe), Ripley became the biggest media celebrity of the first half of the 20th Century. He parlayed his curiosity for the odd, weird and freaky into a publishing and broadcasting empire that made him rich and made his catchphrase – Believe It or Not! – known around the world.

He, too, traveled the world, searching for the offbeat and scratching his itch to explore. But when he died in 1949 at the age of 55 (or maybe, as Thompson claims, 59), his remains returned home to Santa Rosa. They lie next to his parents' a stone's throw from Franklin Avenue at Santa Rosa Memorial Park, under a gravestone that issues a final challenge to any doubters: "Believe It or Not!"

Today, more than a century since his childhood on Orchard Street, his Believe It or Not empire operates museums and aquariums at popular tourist attractions, including Pier 39 in San Francisco.

Thompson, who credits the Press Democrat and historian Gaye LeBaron in his list of sources, said Ripley was a shy outsider with buck teeth and ragged clothes. "Everyone at school picked on him because he was so different…. Not one of the guys."

That outsider status germinated an interest in the unusual. He was fascinated by the novelty acts that came through town for stops at the Athenaeum and Novelty theaters, by the "midgets" and "giants" who visited with the circus and "Wild West Show." He gravitated toward Santa Rosa's small but vibrant Chinatown, and began a life-long love of the Chinese culture.

He also took refuge inside the pages of his sketchbook.

At Santa Rosa High School, he became known as much for his funny caricatures as for his funny looks. An English teacher, Frances "Fanny" O'Meara, nurtured his talent, allowing him to submit drawings instead of essays in her class. After the death of his father, Ripley's family needed him to work to help support the household, but he kept dreaming about making money with his art.

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