Picks and Pans Review: Dear Mr. Ripley

updated 09/06/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/06/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Compiled and edited by Mark Sloan, Roger Manley and Michelle Van Parys

In 1935, "Buck" Fulford of Port Arthur, Tex., got himself" into Ripley's Believe It Or Not! by showing he could kill, pick clean, cut up, cook and eat a chicken in one minute and 50 seconds. Fast food is a lot easier to come by now, if not always more appetizing, and chicken plucking is a lost art.

Lost too is America's keen interest in the kind of freakish facts that Robert LeRoy Ripley peddled in his daily syndicated newspaper cartoon from 1918 until his death in 1949. The brief essays and striking photos (nearly 250) in Dear Mr. Ripley suggest how much has changed since the '30s and '40s, when Ripley was getting a million letters a year from Believe It Or Not! wannabes.

Most of these pictures were never published—Ripley used them as the basis for his cartoons. Where the cartoons were breathless, Barnum-esque, the photos are graphically simpler and stronger, emotionally more complex.

Long before Andy Warhol came along, Ripley was parceling out morsels of fame. Born in Santa Rosa, Calif., in 1893 (on Christmas Day, believe it or not), he was cranking out sports cartoons for the New York Globe when. anxious to make a deadline one day in 1918, he grabbed some clips he had saved about unusual athletic feats and illustrated them. When his editor questioned his original title, "Champs and Chumps," Ripley renamed the cartoon "Believe It Or Not!" He soon branched out to all forms of the extreme and became a celebrated traveler, collector and builder of "Odditoriums": a Great White Hunter for the prewar infancy of the media age, when irony was not yet the salt on our daily bread and places like Auschwitz had not yet made terms like Odditorium uncomfortable.

Today, Believe It Or Not! soldiers on, itself an oddity in a society sensitized to singling anyone out as different. Yet on daytime TV, Ripley's spirit lives: "A day in the life of a sex addict—on the next Maury!" "My husband slept with our baby-sitter—next Donahue!" Dear Mr. Ripley reminds us of a time when we were invited to gape at tattooed bodies and a man lifting an anvil with his ears. The new exhibitionism is about confession as catharsis and professing to help others in the same boat. But sometimes we're still watching people lift anvils with their ears. (Bulfinch, $19.95)

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