LIV Michael Rips

Michael Rips, who graduated (barely) from Central, has written two books.

The most fascinating Omaha native you have never heard of came uncomfortably close to being expelled from Central High School for plagiarism.

Well, not plagiarism, exactly. It is a much weirder story when Michael Rips tells it, a “I’m laughing so hard I’m having trouble breathing” kind of story, a story that shuns a tidy conclusion and sloppily embraces the absurdity hiding just beneath the topsoil of middle-class, middle-American life.

It is also a story that seems darn near criminal to summarize, but here goes:

In the early 1970s, Omaha teenager Michael Rips, already accepted to Princeton, realizes he’s failing French class at Central and might not graduate. He enters a statewide foreign language contest because it’s the only way to get the extra credit needed to graduate. But, since he hasn’t learned any French, he goes to the Omaha Public Library, finds a dusty copy of what he believes to be an obscure American play already translated into French, retypes it in French and hands it in, pretending it’s his own translation.

Which would have worked just fine, except then his brother tells him that his obscure American play is actually a French play — and in fact one of the most famous plays ever written in French. And it still would have worked fine — except then his “translation” wins the school competition and qualifies for state, where a group of amateur actors will perform it for an audience of hundreds and three judges who are University of Nebraska-Lincoln professors ...

“There was no more thought about graduating from high school,” Rips told an audience at a storytelling event several years ago, during a talk that eventually was broadcast on “The Moth Radio Hour.” “No more thought about the embarrassment to my family. This was a felony!”

Rips did not get charged with a felony. He didn’t even get caught — helped, he says, by a professor who realized that the group of actors was performing a French play in French but let it slide. (If you want to listen to Rips’ telling of the story, check here: themoth.org/stories/lost-in-translation.

Instead, he graduated from Princeton, clerked for a Supreme Court justice, became a successful lawyer, largely abandoned a conventional law practice, married a well-known artist, moved to Italy, moved back to New York City, raised a child while living in the Chelsea Hotel, penned two well-reviewed nonfiction books (one about Omaha) and discovered and bought an insanely valuable painting for peanuts in a pawn shop. Now he runs a New York City art school that has educated many of this country’s renowned artists.

He has done a bunch of other impressive-yet-abnormal stuff, the kind of things that prompted his friend, fellow Omaha native and famed writer and radio host Kurt Andersen, to call him “a person from another era, if not from another planet.”

During a recent phone interview, I asked Rips if he thought his life would have turned out differently if his long-ago dishonesty would have been discovered.

“If I had been exposed at the time in engaging in this ridiculous project, this false translation? I would say so,” he answered.

In one way, Michael Rips needed to leave Omaha to become Michael Rips. In another way, Omaha created Michael Rips, especially the part of the city we call the Old Market.

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Rips, born in 1954 to a family with deep Omaha roots, attended Central High, just as his parents and grandparents had. After school, he would walk downtown, where his father, Norman Rips, ran Commercial Optical and where his older brother, Harlan, had an apartment at the corner of 11th and Howard Streets.

There he met Richard Flamer, an eccentric book dealer who regaled the teenager with stories about a group of 19th century Nebraskans who believed that God and the Devil entered Earth through peoples’ pubic hair. He also met the Mercer family, who developed the Old Market into their singular image.

He met artist and arts organizer Ree Schonlau, who later with her husband, the famed artist Jun Kaneko, co-founded the Bemis Center for the Contemporary Arts with the help of people like Rips’ parents. He met vegetable vendors, homeless people, artists, writers, architects, dreamers.

“The Market was sort of this place that was generating a different group of people who had different ideas about what an urban environment should be,” Rips says. “To this day, if somebody said to me, ‘I am going to drop you in one place for the next day, where do you pick?’ I would say, ‘the Old Market.’ ”

Rips has spent his life hunting for places like the Old Market of the early 1970s, searching for and finding an off-kilter cast of characters that he has written about, learned from, become one of. He wrote his first book after quitting as a successful trial lawyer and moving with his wife, artist Sheila Berger, and baby to the Italian village of Sutri. There, while hanging out in the town cafe, he met a cast of eccentrics who turned into Rips’ real-life characters.

His second nonfiction book, “The Face of a Naked Lady,” is set in Omaha, and was propelled by his discovery that his quiet, straight-laced late father had secretly painted a series of nude paintings of a black woman Michael had never met.

Andersen says that Rips attracts fascinating situations in part because he will engage any stranger who strikes him as fascinating. Andersen has spent a fair amount of time in New York City standing by Rips’ side as Rips strikes up meaningful conversations with CEOs, baristas, homeless people. Rips also attracts fascinating situations because he’s Michael Rips, Andersen thinks.

“I’m not a believer in magic in almost any sense,” Andersen told me. “But it is a kind of magic. He will buy some crappy painting and it turns out to be a famous artist. That kind of thing.”

The crappy painting of which Andersen speaks is an etching Rips found a few years ago in a pawn shop on 25th Street in Manhattan. He happened to notice that, in place of a signature, the etching was signed with a beautiful, hand-drawn butterfly. He happened to know that this is the way the famed artist Whistler signed some of his works.

He did not mention this to the proprietor of the pawn shop. He bought the Whistler at a pawn shop price.

Rips is now putting his deep knowledge of art to a pursuit that will not make him rich, but could make a difference in New York City. He’s now the executive director of the Art Students League, the wildly unconventional art school that trained Georgia O’Keefe, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Norman Rockwell and a bunch of other names you would recognize.

There is no real curriculum at the school, no required classes or graduation requirements. Instead, a student works with a teacher who often is a successful artist. The student might learn from the teacher for a month or a decade. It does not matter.

“It is without question the most important art academy of the past 150 years,” Rips says. “But it doesn’t really fit into the American educational system.”

Rips is working to reintroduce the Art Students League to the public, reopening the school’s gallery spaces and publicizing it to a city that has largely forgotten it exists.

He will keep sitting in cafes that remind him of the Old Market, and chatting up random guests of the Chelsea Hotel — he and his wife have lived there on and off for a quarter century. Their daughter, Nicolaia Rips, wrote her first book about the experience of growing up there.

He will continue to talk to strangers who become characters in his books and also sometimes friends. He’s writing his third book and continuing to collect art. Maybe he will practice law again at some point, he tells me. Maybe he will teach law.

It will probably figure itself out, because most of what Rips does ends up making sense, though you can’t necessarily tell exactly why.

“It’s how much of Michael’s life seems to work,” Andersen says. “You look at it and you go, how in the (expletive) did that happen?”