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S.C. Ripley and T.E. Lawrence
by Mary Jane Aklonis
Two events, three years apart, indicate that the obscure writer Stuart C. Ripley and the flamboyant T.E. Lawrence engaged in a liaison that Lawrence himself would describe as "paederistic."
The first occurred during World War I shortly after "Lawrence of Arabia" assisted the Arab forces in capturing Aqaba from the Turks in 1917. In an interview with a London reporter in 1920, a young Arab male described a scene he'd actually witnessed between two English speaking men shortly after the siege. As part of his duties, he'd been charged with bringing tea to the men's tents at night. Apparently, his commanding officer had neglected to tell him that Lawrence wanted no visitations this particular evening, and so he pulled open the tent flap and entered what he described as "Shame to Allah." His description of the man holding a whip closely resembles the features of Stuart Ripley and it's known that Ripley was with Lawrence during the 1917 battle against the Turks. The adolescent also showed scars on his abdomen that he said resulted from the American beating him in a fit of rage. The boy refused to comment on Lawrence's behavior except to say that he heard whimpering emanating from the darkest corner of the structure.
In a later interview with a London newspaper, a former British army private admitted that he carried out "ritual floggings" at Lawrence's request from 1925 through 1934. It's well known that prior to the war, Lawrence befriended a young Egyptian boy and taught him to read and write. He even dedicated his book, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom
to him. The unusual friendship raised eyebrows at the time, but Lawrence's brother claimed years later that T.E. hated sex and admired the saints who quelled their sexual longings. Many of these exalted martyrs, of course, were known to flagellate on a regular basis.
Ripley and Lawrence (foolin' around)
Some of Ripley's Communist Party affiliates recall Ripley bragging about his exploits in the desert sands with an unknown British gentleman. His descriptions suggested strong sadomasochistic tendencies. Notes found among the effects from some of these colleagues hint that his second wife Sally suffered depression partly from her husband's recurring physical abuse.
From a psychological perspective, Ripley and T.E. Lawrence shared interesting backgrounds. Both were raised in comfortable circumstances, which they rejected as young men. Lawrence sought adventure and travel, and considered the life of a country gentleman to be a "death sentence."
Ripley dropped out of the college that one of his ancestors help to found, and sought his own adventures as a newspaper correspondent. His mother helped shape his "heroic persona" according to one unauthorized account, but she was also known to be cold and punitive in her personal relationships.
The second reported connection between Ripley and Lawrence of Arabia occurred at the famous Shakespeare and Co. book store in Paris, sometime in early 1920. Lawrence had arrived in France as part of the Arab delegation to the peace conference, and Ripley was sent to cover the talks as a reporter.
Shakespeare & Co.
Sylvia Beach, a thirty year old expatriate had just opened her store at 8 Rue d'Odeon, and it quickly became a Mecca for the famous and infamous of post-war France. Although she was multilingual herself, Sylvia's collection of English and American works drew a large share of wealthy, educated foreigners to her haven.
One evening, T.E. Lawrence arrived for coffee, but within minutes he began confronting a dark haired American reporter who had a highly painted French woman hanging on his arm. Gossip ensued among the onlookers as the two men engaged in an increasingly heated argument. The mademoiselle near Ripley began pulling on his sleeve in an apparent effort to calm him, while T.E.'s color grew redder by the minute. Another American reporter, present at the time, claimed that the scene was "akin to a lover's quarrel." The flamboyant Lawrence stormed out of the store at the request of an agitated Miss Beach, and entered an awaiting cab. The French woman issued soothing phrases to the sputtering Ripley as she lightly massaged his shoulder. Speculation grew that Lawrence was looking to rekindle his flame with Ripley, and hadn't heard of his marriage to the prostitute "Fleur" until that night.
Even the life endings of both men seem similar in a way. Lawrence rode his motorcycle recklessly into two bicycles in May of 1935. He died days later without ever regaining consciousness. Although not overtly suicidal, he often said he preferred death to stagnation.
Lawrence and fatal motorcycle
Ripley's drinking and chronic depression contributed to a slow suicide on his part. Reduced to writing cookbooks and sampling too much of his own wine that he made while living in upper Bucks County, he seemed like a caricature of his younger self. Both men needed to flirt with death in order to feel alive, and once their worlds grew safe, they each seemed to lose motivation.
Although Ripley never wrote directly of his feelings for T.E. Lawrence, there's a peculiar recipe in his cookbook inserted between one for Bucks County beef stew and one for macaroni and cheese. In mid-twentieth century Pennsylvania, demand for mid-eastern cuisine was unheard of, yet he included a recipe for TEL bread, an Arab confection. Directions called for extensive dough whipping, and several yeast risings in order to experience the TEL, Tender flavor, Ethereal aroma, and Lecherous craving this hot concoction evokes." T.E.L. himself would approve.
[Editor's note: Ripley fictionalizes T.E. Lawrence in his novel Desert Sand (1924). Desert Sand was the first of Ripley's so-called "Desert Triade," the others being Desert Bloom (1926) and Desert Dogs (1929).]