The generalist

For more than fifty years, Norbert Pearlroth sat in the reading room of the New York Public Library main branch every weekday from noon until 10pm. Unknown to almost everyone, he was researching one of the 20th century’s great sources of facts and trivia.

New York Public Library Main Branch entrance, with lions
User:PFHLai, CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

This is Post Number 1000 on this website. I’ve tried to have something new every day for nearly the last three years now, and I’m pretty proud of that consistency. Today, for my thousandth post, I wanted to write about a generalist of astonishing discipline, Norbert Pearlroth. His quiet dedication to the research of surprising facts was the powerhouse behind a newspaper panel (and, later, radio, television, books, and more) that defined trivia in the 20th century.

The New York Public Library is one of the largest in the world, and the Main Branch in Midtown Manhattan is its flagship building. I first saw it in the opening scene of the film Ghostbusters, and first visited it just a few years ago. The whole complex is a cornucopia of knowledge, if you know where to find it and have the patience to seek it out. And at least one man had the patience to do just that.

Pearlroth was born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and emigrated to the United States in 1920. He spoke fourteen languages and read in all of them, and he had an indefatigable passion for trivia. From 1924 until 1975, he more or less lived in the Main Branch reading room.

NYC Public Library main branch reading room
David Iliff, CC BY 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

Pearlroth typically got to the library at noon and stayed until the library closed (with a short break for dinner). He was typically there six days a week, sometimes seven days a week if he fell behind, for fifty-two years. Every Friday he would turn in a list of twenty-four strange facts gleaned from his research.

Pearlroth’s facts formed the basis of the famous newspaper panel Ripley’s Believe it or Not! He was the feature’s chief researcher, and at its peak more than eighty million people followed its unique collection of the baffling and the counterintuitive.

(My favourite fact from Ripley’s: George Washington was not technically the first president of the United States. One of the founding fathers, John Hanson, was elected President of the United States in Congress Assembled in 1781, after US independence but before the presidential election that elevated Washington.)

Pearlroth was keeper of the sources. Whenever someone wrote to Ripley to contradict one of the panel’s bold assertions, Pearlroth was the one who responded to explain just why he was right. And he was almost always right. Pearlroth was wrong just once:

In all the 52 years I did the columns … I made only one mistake. It was a suggestion one of the readers sent in, and we used it. We said a man named Seaborn had been born at sea. Seaborn wrote in that we were wrong; he was born in a harbor on a ship.

Norbert Pearlroth is a Fount of Knowledge – Believe It or Not; Chicago Tribune (1979, Nov 24).

Pearlroth researched for Ripley for twenty-six years, and after Ripley died he kept researching for the panel for another twenty-six. Even after his (forced) retirement in 1975 he continued to submit trivia freelance; he received hardly any credit for his stupendous discipline but did get a nice obituary in the New York Times.

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