At the end of Taylors Lane in Mamaroneck, an exotic mansion once towered over a small island in Long Island Sound. It was Believe It or Not! (“BION”) Island, legendary bachelor pad of entertainer Robert Ripley.
LeRoy Robert Ripley was born in 1890 in California. When a promising sports career ended in injury, Ripley shifted his focus to illustrating game-day promotions. After early success, he changed his first name to what he thought was the more commercially palatable “Robert” and headed east to draw cartoons for The Globe and later the New York Evening Post.
To prolong his rapid rise, Ripley needed something new. He started Champs and Chumps, highlighting peculiar and rare athletic feats. The popular column quickly expanded to feature all sorts of curiosities and oddities, acquiring a new name: Believe It or Not!
William Randolph Hearst caught wind of the series and syndicated Ripley’s work across his worldwide newspaper network. The audience went global, which helped transform the traveling Ripley into a “modern Marco Polo,” as he was often called, uncovering the world’s hidden treasures. Having amassed fame and fortune, Ripley invested in a grand 28-room estate in Mamaroneck to house the curiosities he had brought back from a host of countries, ranging from Norway to New Zealand. Like all things Ripley, BION Island boasted entertainment to its core. Celebrities from Babe Ruth to Mae West would come to see the room with the Buddhist prayer wheel, the Aztec masks, the replica of the Taj Mahal, and, of course, the skeletons. Ripley would wear his favorite embroidered mandarin robe and, attended by a fleet of servants, take guests around Long Island Sound on Mon Lei, his Chinese junk (vessel).
In many ways, the show made the man. Wild dress and loud bravado became the vehicle through which the quiet and stroppy boy became “Ripley!” Behind the spectacle, authentic curiosity captivated devoted fans. A skilled interviewer, Ripley tapped into a natural fascination with frontiers and the unknown.
This passion belied a strong work ethic and knack for entrepreneurship that propelled his celebrity. In 1930, Ripley’s cartoons took to the airwaves with a weekly live radio show, supported by a full-time fact-checking researcher. Ripley launched contests that dispensed regular prizes and showcased his collections at world’s fairs. News and oddities could now travel across the globe at speeds only imagined years earlier. He broadcast his radio program from underwater one time and from a falling parachute another.
Ripley took his act a step further by launching Ripley’s Odditorium, which brought exotic eccentricities live to cities across America. A few dozen 15-minute movie documentaries made the entertainer into a movie star. By the late 1940s, Ripley, who had been voted the Most Popular Man in America, dove headfirst into the new entertainment medium called television.
In some respects, Ripley’s widespread popularity helped this new technology take center stage in American living rooms. His travels to exotic locations laid the foundation for America’s Funniest Home Videos, reality shows, and YouTube. “I have traveled in 201 countries, and the strangest thing I saw was man,” Ripley once remarked.
When in Westchester, Ripley focused on his neighborhood, supporting local causes and community organizations from the Mamaroneck Parent Teacher Association to the local Red Cross. During World War II, Ripley drew well-heeled friends to the village for fundraisers.
When Ripley died in 1949, a famous opera singer purchased the mansion on BION Island, which was later replaced with residential developments. However, nearly a century after launching his first Believe It or Not! cartoon, the Ripley name lives on in cultures around the world.
Dan Robbins majored in history and American studies at Cornell University and remains an unabashed history buff, particularly when it comes to his own backyard.