Home  Intro   Bio  Historical Perspectives  Ripley the Man  Ripley's Works  Gallery Credits

Stuart Cummings Ripley
The Paris Review Interview

[EDITOR'S NOTE: George Plimpton's interview with Stuart Cummings Ripley was scheduled to be published in the summer 1954 issue of The Paris Review, No. 6. Somehow, the transcript became lost. In its place the editors ran an interview with Alberto Moravia. The Ripley interview was rediscovered among Plimpton's papers shortly after the editor's death in 2003, and is published here for the first time.]

George Plimpton

INTERVIEWER: You entered the literary scene through journalism. Like Hemingway.

RIPLEY: I dropped out of college to become a reporter for the local newspaper, The Cummings Courier. That was back in -- what? -- nineteen-thirteen. Not a lot going on in that corner of rural Ohio. County fairs, barn raisings, that sort of thing, although I did cover a lynching, which was sanctioned by the county sheriff, so no one was punished. One local resident was arrested for pig-sticking in an unusual way, which was part of my sex education. My newspaper experience helped me to develop an inquisitive mind, despite my publisher who would tell me, "Dammit, Ripley, you're thinking too much." The only writers who are any good are those with a natural curiosity. Dull minds make dull writers.

INTERVIEWER: Who were your influences as a writer?

RIPLEY: My parents. Dad was an amateur poet who had some of his verse published in the local paper. My mother had been a school teacher. Both objected when I left Cummings College before graduation to work for the local newspaper. But I was impatient to become a writer, and being a reporter seemed to be the fastest way to accomplish that goal. Besides, the college was insistent that I leave.


RIPLEY: Some rubbish having to do with nudity and hot oil. Fraternity stuff.

INTERVIEWER: Your first important newspaper work was in Mexico.

RIPLEY: I was hired by the Cleveland Plain-Dealer as a free-lance correspondent covering the American incursion into Mexico after Pancho Villa's raid on the border town of Columbus. I also wrote for the New Masses Journal in New York.

INTERVIEWER: You got caught up in the fighting.

RIPLEY: Pershing's chase was a disaster. It soon became obvious we weren't going to find Pancho Villa. What's more, the U.S. troops were often confronted by hostile Mexicans who objected to our being on their soil. When a company of Americans led by an impetuous captain named Boyd entered the town of Carrizal without permission they were slaughtered. Boyd and ten of his men were killed and twenty-three were taken prisoner. I was almost captured when my horse was shot dead, which was all right as I was about to shoot the nag myself. I escaped after gunning down two Mexicans. Hated to do it, since the Americans were clearly in the wrong, but I had a deadline. That's the nature of newspaper work. Always a deadline. Sometimes you have to kill to make it.

INTERVIEWER: You wrote a book about your experiences.

RIPLEY: My first, Catastrophe at Carrizal. It was first published in London by Allen and Unwin in 1919, and a year later in this country by Sirois Publishing.

INTERVIEWER: You went on to cover the war in Europe.

RIPLEY: But first to the Holy Land. I was with Allenby when he liberated Palestine from the Turks.

INTERVIEWER: Where you met Lawrence of Arabia.

RIPLEY: Yes, I encountered Larry in an enchanting little cafe illuminated by candles, and where the ouzo was intoxicating.

INTERVIEWER: There have been long standing rumors that you had, well, one might say, a relationship with T.E. Lawrence.

RIPLEY: Larry and I became extremely close, and that's all I have to say about the matter. However, he had very soft hands and clean teeth.

INTERVIEWER: You went to Paris.

RIPLEY: To cover the siege by the Hun. I stayed after the armistice, and palled around with most of the local ex-pats. Ernie Hemingway, John Dos Passos -- we called him Johnny D -- Gertie Stein, Ali Toklas, Scotty Fitzgerald, Ez Pound, H.D. You name them, I knew them.

INTERVIEWER: So many distinguished writers. They must have influenced your own work.

RIPLEY: The fact is, we stayed drunk most of the time. In the mornings I'd often wake up in one bed or another, not knowing whose bed it was or who was sharing it with me. Once, I woke up feeling good and a Cocker Spaniel was licking my genitals. I adopted that dog.

INTERVIEWER: But while in Paris you wrote the three books that make up your "Desert Triad," all based on your experiences in the Middle East.

RIPLEY: I'd write between two and four in the afternoon before retiring for cocktails. I'm a fast writer. Ernie and Johnny D were terrific editors, and Ali Toklas typed my manuscripts.

INTERVIEWER: It appears most of your significant books were based on your personal experiences.

RIPLEY: Good writing is always based on personal experience. To write vicariously is no substitute. Over the years one builds enough memories to last a writer indefinitely. By the age of forty I compiled sufficient memories to last me for the remainder of my writing life. Imagine never leaving your room, your house, your yard and trying to be a writer. Can't be done. But now, with all my memories, I never have to leave my room, my house, my yard.

INTERVIEWER: You abandoned Paris. Once, you described it as decadent.

RIPLEY: It wasn't the decadence that led me to return to Ohio. To be candid, I had a falling out with Gertie Stein and Ali Toklas. An American writer couldn't live in Paris in those days while being on the outs with Gertie and Ali.

INTERVIEWER: What caused the falling out?

RIPLEY: I won't say directly, but I can tell you that it had to do with an untidy relationship among Gertie, Ali, my then-wife Fleur, and myself. I'll also say some embarrassing photographs of the four of us together were circulated, and that the gendarmes became involved.

INTERVIEWER: You tired of Ohio.

RIPLEY: Returning to Ohio was one of the best things I ever did. There, I wrote what I believe to be my most significant work, My Town, which was published in 1928.

INTERVIEWER: And which focused on small-town life in Ohio, its people and hypocrisies.

RIPLEY: And made me so notorious in my hometown of Cummings I was forced to flee. I thought I'd disguised in the novel rather well the true identities of the people and town, which I identified as Monacatoothatootha, Ohio. I supposed wrongly. I heard rumors a lynch mob was forming to get me. Needless to say I left Cummings for New York under cover of darkness. To this day I've not been back to Cummings, not even for my father's funeral. Of course, after My Town, even my father turned against me, and reputedly was one of the would-be lynch mob.

INTERVIEWER: In New York you founded a magazine.

RIPLEY: Commonality. The magazine was highly influential among certain circles. But, like many well meaning publications of its type, it was difficult to keep it afloat financially. The woman who became my second wife, Sally Beacon, worked on the magazine. In fact, she used part of a small inheritance from her grandfather to keep it afloat.

INTERVIEWER: Which prompts me to ask about your politics during that period. Commonality was often described as a Communist publication, and your late wife Sally a confirmed member of the Communist Party.

RIPLEY: We were all leftists in the twenties and thirties. Every creative person who was any good, that is. Even Johnny D, although he later turned and became a supporter of the McCarthyites. I was never a Communist. That's what I told the House Un-American Activities Committee two years ago when I was dragged before it, and that's what I'm telling you now.

INTERVIEWER: But you knew many Communists and even named names when you testified before HUAC.

RIPLEY: The committee already had the names. I didn't tell them anything they never knew before.

INTERVIEWER: You lost many friends and associates because of your testimony, not to mention your teaching post at the City College of New York.

RIPLEY: It was a painful period. Many of my friends will never forgive me. I felt the rejection and isolation so much that I left Manhattan and bought a little farm near the Delaware River in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. If I'm going to be rejected and isolated I might as well do it there as here.

INTERVIEWER: You met up with Hemingway again during the Spanish Civil War, and I understand you had a special relationship with Lillian Hellman, the playwright, during this time.

RIPLEY: I went to Spain to cover the Lincoln Brigade's involvement in the Spanish conflict. Hemingway introduced me to Lil, Miss Hellman. I shall say no more about the relationship, other than the fact that Dashiell Hammett never knew about it. All you need to know about Lil and me is in my book Anatomy of Rebellion, which I published in 1939. Sadly, it's long out of print, as are most of my books.

INTERVIEWER: Do you consider yourself a political writer?

RIPLEY: I'm an all-purpose writer. Fiction, journalism, poetry, plays, non-fiction. I refused to be categorized.

INTERVIEWER: Who is your target reader?

RIPLEY: My target reader is a thirty-nine-year-old woman named Nancy, with two and-a-half children and a husband name Earl. She was a majorette in high school, has two years of college, and drives a three-year-old red Pontiac with a dent in the rear left fender. She lives outside of Buffalo in a three bedroom home with a den and a thirty-year mortgage, and owns one dog, a Fox Terrier named Ralph, and two cats, Peaches and Fluffy. Her favorite movie stars are Farley Granger and Esther Williams. Her favorite comedian is Red Skelton, and her favorite singer is Mario Lanza. Her preferred color is blue and the food she likes best is macaroni and cheese. She plays the piano, but not well, and her favorite song is "Besame Mucho." Unlike Earl, Nancy hates to fish but she loves riding her bicycle on family vacations in Asbury Park, New Jersey. She has an active sex life, but not with Earl, is a registered Democrat, and voted for Stevenson in the last election. She reads four-point-two books a year and subscribes to Life Magazine, Time, and The Saturday Evening Post. She reads the Buffalo Courier-Express, but doesn't think much of its comics page, except for "Blondie." Shall I go on?

INTERVIEWER: Please, no. You covered it well. What is your philosophy toward writing fiction?

RIPLEY: It's got to have a plot, even if you have to sneak it in. The author's characters have to want something, even if it's only a beer. When I was teaching at CCNY, one of my students wrote a piece about nun who got a piece of spinach stuck between two molars and who couldn't get it out for two days. Not a big issue, you say? It kept up the reader's interest, anxiety even, by wondering when the poor nun was going to extract the spinach. I was so moved by the story that I titled one of my lectures, "Extracting the Spinach."

INTERVIEWER: You've written in many forms. Which is your favorite?

RIPLEY: The novel. You can create a whole world in a novel and give it the sort of depth unavailable in any other form. The trouble with the novel is that it takes so damned long to write, and then when you're finished you're so exhausted you want to go out and kill someone in an alley.

INTERVIEWER: Kill someone?

RIPLEY: I only did it twice. Four if you count the two Nips I got on Leyte.

INTERVIEWER: What do you think about some of your contemporary writers? Hemingway, for example.

RIPLEY: Ernie and I had a falling out in Spain and I haven't spoke to him in years. His vanity was astronomical. He insulted everyone he knew. Sneered at people. When he edited my work he'd say, "Stupid, stupid." He and I got into a slugfest once and I beat him senseless. After his first two books he went down hill. When you're a bad novelist and a fool the combination makes for great popularity in this country.


RIPLEY: I only met him once. I think I met him. In the urinal of the Plaza Hotel. Either I was drunk or he was. If Faulkner's a good writer then shrimps whistle "My Old Kentucky Home." He should have gone into advertising to write ads for Maytag electric ranges. Then he should have turned on the range and sat on it.

INTERVIEWER: Any others?

RIPLEY: I prefer dead writers because you don't run into them at parties.

INTERVIEWER: The critic Edmund Wilson once described you as America's greatest forgotten author. Do you think your book critics had anything to do with your lack of recognition?

RIPLEY: Book critics are drooling, driveling, doleful, depressing, dropsical drips. Sucker fishes who live with vicariousness on other men's work. Haunters of unquiet graves. Pigs at the pastry cart. In common with harlots. I often invite critics to my Bucks County farm, from which they never return. In fact, you're invited this weekend. Let me give you the tranportation schedule to New Hope.

INTERVIEWER: Have you any advice for young writers?

RIPLEY: Don't do it unless you have to. But if you do, speak as the common man does and think as wise men do. There's only one place to write: at your typewriter, alone. Don't violate the rules until you understand them. Read as many of the great books you can before the age of six. If you want to be true to life, start lying about it. If you think you can get rich as a writer, write the sort of stuff read by people whose lips move while they're reading. Be obscure clearly. Remember that you write a successful book the same way you write a failure. And, when it comes to writing, never take advice.


NOTE: At this point the interview breaks off. It's thought there are additional pages to the transcript, and if they're found they'll be added here.

Home     Intro      Bio     Historical Perspectives     Ripley the Man     Ripley's Works     Gallery    Credits