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Biography of Stuart Cummings Ripley

Stuart Cummings Ripley was born on March 3, 1892, in the small Ohio town of Cummings, founded and named by his illustrious ancestors, not the least of whom was the Reverend John C. Cummings, who was involved with the Underground Railroad during the Civil War, and who is mentioned twice in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. The Reverend Cumming's home has been restored and is maintained by the Ohio Historical Society. Except for the local college, the Cummings home is the community's singular attraction.

Ripley Ancestral Home (before restoration)

At the time of Ripley's birth, Cummings was, and is, a farming community, although Stuart's father, Horace John Ripley, practiced law and was one of only two attorneys in the county. Stuart's mother, Susannah Abigail Cummings, was a direct descendent of the town's founders and a founding trustee of the local college. One of young Stuart's proudest moments was winning his first-grade spelling bee during which he spelled correctly the word "antidisestablishmentarianism." Stuart attended the college for two years before withdrawing, against his parents' wishes, to first work for the local newspaper, and later as a foreign correspondent.

While Ripley's father was an amateur poet who encouraged his son's literary interests, his mother was an aggressive outdoorswoman, molding young Stuart into a self-reliant, sometimes heroic, persona. The influences of each parent played a role during Stuart's off and on career as a correspondent, most notably in Mexico, the Middle East and Europe during World War One, and the Spanish Civil War. Stuart's dispatches for the leftist New Masses Journal in New York about the war in Spain were instrumental in prompting Americans to enlist in the anti-fascist Lincoln Brigade.

Ripley's mother and father, Horace and Susannah

As a fledgling journalist for a far-left magazine, Ripley covered General John Pershing's fruitless incursion into Mexico in search of Pancho Villa. Three years later Ripley's eye-witness experiences led to his first book, a fictional account of the Battle of Carrizal, in which thirty-five Americans were killed or captured by the Mexican Army. Later, Ripley claimed he'd shot to death two Mexicans in order to escape. The novel, Catastrophe at Carrizal (1919), went virtually unnoticed. Edmund Wilson, in his collection of essays, The Triple Thinkers (1938), while dismissing Catastrophe at Carrizal as Ripley's fugitive work, also described him as "America's greatest forgotten author."

Pancho Villa

In 1917, Ripley went to Palestine to report on General Edmund Allenby's capture of Jerusalem from the Turks, and where Ripley became acquainted with T.E. Lawrence, the enigmatic British warrior who often dressed in Arab garb and who was often called Lawrence of Arabia. It was said that Ripley often rode with Lawrence, and that the two jointly abused a homosexual Arab male reputed to have been a spy. Ripley's experiences in the Holy Land led to three novels, now known as the "Desert Triad."

Lawrence of Arabia

The following year, Ripley was in Europe to cover the German siege of Paris. and after the armistice became part of an expatriate community that included Ernest Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson, Djuna Barnes, Kay Boyle, John Dos Passos, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ford Madox Ford, H. D. (Hilda Doolittle), Henry Miller, Ezra Pound, and Gertrude Stein. It was rumored, although he would neither confirm or deny it, that Ripley slept with both H.D. and Dos Passos.

Young Ripley with Hilda Doolittle (H.D.), rear,
Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, ca. 1924

In Marseille, he met and romanced the woman who would become his first wife, Fleur Beauvais, nineteen years old, and said to have been an upscale and exclusive prostitute. While their marriage was not to last, it inspired Ripley's most significant book of poetry, Fleur (1924). Although Ripley published a number of small, limited editions of his poetry, Fleur was his most influential and erotic work.

Fleur Beauvais

Weary of Europe, which he concluded was "decadent," his marriage over and recovering from STD, Ripley returned to Ohio, only to find the Midwestern experience stultifying, although it led to one of his most important works, My Town (1928), which focused on the hypocrisies of middleclass Americans.

Moving to a basement apartment on Jones Street in New York's Greenwich Village, Ripley helped to launch a small but influential monthly, Commonality. At the time, he was thought to have been involved with the Communist Party, although it was never established he was actually a member. He also met the woman who would become his second wife, Sally Beacon, herself an aspiring writer, poet, and admitted Communist Party member. Their marriage produced one son, Thaddeus, who in turn provided the couple with a grandson, Stuart Providence Ripley.

Ripley's brownstone, Greenwich Village, ca 1933

The 1930s resulted in Ripley's most prodigious literary output. Moving with Sally to a rented cottage in Sag Harbor, Long Island, he published no fewer than four novels, two books of essays, and a memoir about his expatriate days in Paris. None of the books created interest, and Ripley's financial situation was dire, saved only by the small inheritance he received following the deaths of his parents and the sale of their home in Cummings, Ohio. Ripley's connection with the photographer Walker Evans produced a notable nude portrait of Sally.

Sally Beacon, second wife, ca 1936
photo by Walker Evans

Ripley, on assignment by the Ashtabula, Ohio, Star Beacon, covered the Spanish Civil War in the company of Ernest Hemingway, who introduced him to playwright Lillian Hellman, with whom it is believed Ripley had an affair. It was during this period that Ripley had a falling out with Hemingway, although the circumstances aren't completely clear. Ripley's association with the Lincoln Brigade captured the attention of right-wing communist witch hunters in the 1950s.

In 1939, Ripley's wife Sally committed suicide by drowning in Long Island Sound. The tragedy resulted in a long period of depression during which Ripley was unable to write. He emerged from his depressed state only after the start of World War Two, when he resumed his career as a foreign correspondent, filing dispatches from both Europe and the Pacific for the Hartford Courant. While not mentioned in any of his reports, it's said that Ripley personally killed two Japanese soldiers at Leyte. Ripley's best reportage was collected in In Time of War (1946). After Hiroshima, Ripley went to Japan, where rumors circulated that he had a "relationship" with the woman known as Tokyo Rose, who was being held prisoner on war crimes charges.

Tokyo Rose

Leaving Japan, Ripley returned to New York City to act as an English instructor at City College of New York. His three stage plays, all produced off-Broadway by the East Side Experimental Theatre Company, were well-received. He met a young actress, Jill Castenberry, with whom he maintained an intimate relationship for the rest of his life, although they never married.

In 1952, Ripley was summoned by the House Un-American Activities Committee to testify about his alleged links to the Communist Party dating to the early 1930s. Ripley, denying he was a party member, nevertheless named some of his associates of the period, which produced enmity on the part of many of his friends who accused him of betrayal. It also led to his dismissal from CCNY. His screenplay of his 1938 novel Angel in the Clouds was abruptly pulled without explanation. Dramatically, he found himself more and more isolated.

Ripley's disquinished inquisitors on the HUAC

Ripley and Castenberry moved to a small grape-growing farm in Uhlerstown, Pennsylvania, a tiny community on the Delaware River. Drinking and smoking heavily, and deeply depressed, Ripley's literary output decreased, although it still included two novels, unpublished in his lifetime, and an unfinished biography of his mother. Unable to write, he turned to cooking and became an accomplished amateur chef and vintner. His only published book during this period, Recipes by Ripley, was printed by the nearby Bethany Baptist-Methodist Church as part of a fund-raising drive.

Ripley, Bucks County, 1964

A chain-smoker and heavy drinker, Ripley died in a Philadelphia hospital following a heart attack on February 2, 1964. He was seventy-two. He left no known will. Just prior to her death in 1988, Jill Castenberry donated Ripley's papers and manuscripts to Cummings College.


Two Helpful Ripley Pages on this Site

Ripley Timeline. Detailed look at Ripley over the years.
Ripley bibliography and checklist of first and limited editions, and manuscripts.

Works Cited

Bloom, Harold. "Out of Obscurity," New York Review of Books, 2006
Castenberry, Jill. unpublished memoir (undated)
Matthews, Jack. "Ohio's Unknown Genius," Ohio Magazine, 2001
Weinstein, Allen. Literary Dynamics in the Cornfields, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1989
Wyler, Herman B. "Believe it or Not," University of Michigan Review, 1999

Selected bibliography, Stuart Cummings Ripley

Catastrophe at Carrizal (1919) novel
Fleur (1924) poems
Desert Sand (1924) novel
Desert Bloom (1926) novel
My Town (1928) novel
Desert Dogs (1929) novel
At Length (1931) essays
Time of Darkness (1933) novel
Climbing the Hill (1934) novel
Always at Night (1935) novel
My Time in Merlini (1935) essays
Paris in My Youth (1936) memoir
Angel in the Clouds (1938) novel
Anatomy of Rebellion (1939) nonfiction, Spanish Civil War
In Time of War (1946) essays
Sweet Sweat (1948) play
Window on Work (1949) play
Art of Carmen (1951) play
The Raw End (1957) unpublished novel
Lost in the Stacks (1958) unpublished novel
Recipes by Ripley (1959) privately printed
Up from Ohio (1961) unpublished memoir

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