Robert Ripley may be best remembered as a connoisseur of two-headed calves and man-eating clams, but the “Believe It or Not!” man’s greatest animal affinity was clearly with dogs.
With an income that reached $1 million a year during his Depression-era heyday, the bachelor (he married only briefly) was able to indulge every fantasy his impoverished boyhood had denied him. That included dogs, and lots of them.
Bob Considine, a Ripley acquaintance and later his biographer, recalled that the shy cartoonist often seemed to relate better to dogs than to his own species. “Ripley had a consuming affection for animals, far beyond what he showed in his personal relationships with people,” he wrote. Indeed, photos of Ripley with his dogs invariably show a man in a state of absolute bliss.
Much of the Ripley legend is retold at the 30 Ripley museums (also called “odditoriums”) around the world, including one that opened with great hoopla this summer on Times Square in New York City. Ripley’s unlikely life may also reach the big screen before long in a fictionalized version set to star Jim Carrey.
Until his death in 1949, the real-life Ripley roamed the planet in search of oddities to feed his voracious cartoon, radio and early-TV empire, visiting some 200 countries by his own count. Between trips, he spent much of his time at a 28-room mansion on his private island off Long Island Sound, in Mamaroneck, N.Y. Ripley’s island, named BION after the initials of his cartoon, became home to innumerable Spaniels, Collies, Sheepdogs and Dalmatians.
Ripley’s Dalmatians were something of a legend around his home base of Westchester County, N.Y. According to a housekeeper, there was hardly a firehouse in all of Westchester that didn’t have one of their offspring. In fact, Ripley’s dogs became such a hot commodity that he was reputed to buy additional Dalmatian puppies so as not to disappoint any friend who wanted one.
Douglas Ripley, whose father was the cartoonist’s younger brother, says that when his parents were married, Uncle Robert’s wedding present to them was a Chihuahua. Later, Ripley gave the family a Spaniel they called Spunky. Spunky was the offspring of a beloved Ripley Spaniel named Sin because the dog was black as, well, sin. Perhaps to counterbalance Sin, Ripley had yet another black Spaniel named Virtue.
Dogs were not Ripley’s only animal friends. He liked to leave cracked corn on an upstairs windowsill so squirrels would drop by to visit when he was busy at the drawing board. He also owned a 28-foot boa constrictor named Gertie, who had the good sense not to chow down on any of the master’s dogs.
Canine antics were a regular theme in Ripley’s work. One cartoon depicted Rudy, “the money-mad dog,” who had found more than $100 in coins and bills and brought them all home to his owner. Another featured a Cocker Spaniel who chose Father’s Day to deliver a litter of seven male pups. Still another offered a Great Dane who ate 800 square feet of gauze in a single year “without ill effects.” And there were many, many more.
On one relatively rare occasion in 1937, Ripley allowed another cartoonist to contribute a dog drawing. The guest artist, identified as “Sparky,” was a 14-year-old from St. Paul, Minn. The animal in question was a hunting dog said to eat pins, tacks, screws and razor blades. Sparky grew up to be “Peanuts” cartoonist Charles M. Schulz, and the omnivorous dog became the inspiration for Snoopy.
Radio, too, was a fertile field for Ripley’s dog obsession. One show featured a visit from Bozo the Mind-Reading Dog, said to be a Scotch Collie and Chow mix, who barked out answers to math problems, and then, after being properly blindfolded, performed card tricks for Ripley, bandleader Ozzie Nelson and two befuddled college professors brought on to lend some gravitas to the occasion.
Ripley’s dog oddities have continued in the “Believe It or Not!” cartoons he prepared before his death and in those drawn by his several successors. Days after he was laid to rest beside his parents in Santa Rosa, Calif.’s, appropriately named Oddfellows Cemetery, Ripley’s cartoon told of a Connecticut canine who not only liked to gather nuts but also enjoyed cracking them open.
Believe it or not!