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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.

Ripley had no formal art training. When asked who he had studied under, he liked to say, "I studied under the stars in Santa Rosa." He was fired from his first job at the San Francisco Bulletin after four months. He latched on at the Chronicle, and started taking art classes. But it wasn't long before he was hearing the siren call of New York, where a cartoonist could not only make a good salary, but also a name for himself.

He was 21 when he arrived in Manhattan with $15 in his pocket.

Ripley viewed cartooning as a difficult way to make a living and he sometimes chafed under the "grind" of daily deadlines. But he enjoyed life in New York, reveled in its lively night life, basked in the admiration of its legions of young single women. For a man with what Thompson calls a "catastrophe" of teeth, he was apparently an attraction with an athlete's build, a wealthier man's wardrobe and an adventurous attitude.

He lived for years in a small room at the New York Athletic Club, where he excelled at handball during the day and decamped for the glitter of restaurants and nightclubs most evenings. At age 30, he married an 18-year-old dancer from the Ziegfeld Follies. It didn't last.

Ripley was a collector of many things. In addition to the fantastic and the weird and the odd, he collected countries (he visited more than 200 and was called a "modern Marco Polo") and he collected women. His only marriage ended after his wife caught him in a hotel room with another woman, and he spent the rest of his life as a bachelor who was rarely without the companionship of at least one – and often more – exotic and beautiful girlfriends and "assistants."

Even so, he developed a temper and a streak of melancholy late in his life. Where once a trip to far-off lands would invigorate him, his visits to Japan and China after the ravages of World War II just made him nostalgic and sad. While radio had helped make him and his cartoons world-famous, he struggled to make the transition to television.

In May 1949, after he had some kind of medical emergency on live TV – perhaps a stroke or a heart attack – he was encouraged to see a doctor, but instead threw a party. The next day he checked into a New York hospital, and the day after that he was dead of a heart attack.

Later, his long-time assistant told a group of friends that, 10 years earlier, Ripley had predicted he would die in 1949.

Believe it or not.

<i>Chris Coursey's blog offers a community commentary and forum, from issues of the day to the ingredients of life in Sonoma County.</i>