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?”
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Water covers a road near Valley, Nebraska, on Friday, March 15, 2019.
Heavy machinery stacks up concrete chunks on the shore of the Elkhorn River at the Q Street bridge as part of an effort to stabilize the bank on the recently flooded river.
Sarpy County Sheriff's Deputy Darin Morrissey rides an ATV through floodwaters in Hawaiian Village.
Omaha Roncalli's Shane Orr celebrates their double overtime win over Aurora during a semifinal game in the Class B Nebraska state basketball tournament at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
The Auburn bench and crowd react to Auburn's Cameron Binder hitting what would be the game winning shot against North Bend Central during the championship game in the Class C1 Nebraska state basketball tournament at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
Creighton's Jordan Hovey (5), right, celebrates hitting a home run with his teammates in the 2nd inning.
Nebraskaâ€™s Adrian Martinez runs out of the end zone after a play during spring football practice at the Hawks Championship Center in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Treyton Gubser, left, and his uncle Daniel Gubser paddle using shovels through the floodwaters after they rescued Daniel's kid's cat, Bob, in Hamburg, Iowa.
Highway 81 is covered in floodwaters south of Columbus, Nebraska.
A Nebraska National Guard helicopter flies over a flooded Waterloo, Nebraska, in March.
Cars drive drive across a flooded Platte River on Highway 50 just north of Louisville, Nebraska.
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Floodwaters closed Ave I at North 26th Street in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
A truck drives through a flooded road near the Platte River in April.
Lincoln Pius X's Austin Jablonski holds up the net after his team defeated Omaha Roncalli in the championship game in the Class B Nebraska state basketball tournament at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
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Robert Jones looks around his flood damaged house north of Highway 50, near Louisville,Nebraska. The floor, which is normally a white tile, is covered in mud.
Aurora's Nicholas Hutsell, left, fouls Omaha Roncalli's Alexander Rodgers during a semifinal game in the Class B Nebraska state basketball tournament at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
Lincoln Pius X's Charlie Easley, left, and and Omaha Roncalli's Alexander Rodgers stretch for a loose ball during the championship game in the Class B Nebraska state basketball tournament at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
Humphrey/Lindsay Holy Family's Trent Reardon, left and Jason Sjuts celebrate their victory over Fremont Bergan during the championship game in the Class D1 Nebraska state basketball tournament at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
Aurora's Kaleb Moural wipes the sweat from his face during the second half against Omaha Roncalli during a semifinal game in the Class B Nebraska state basketball tournament at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
Bob the cat looks on from a basket in a boat after being rescued from floodwaters in Hamburg, Iowa.
A vehicle is stuck in floodwaters near 1st Street and Pierce Street in Fremont, Nebraska.
Tim Rockford, left, and David Bauer, tour the Bellwood Lakes neighborhood which was destroyed by the flooding days prior along the Platte River in Bellwood, Nebraska.
Lincoln East's Charlotte Bovaird practices her shot and she and her teammates warm up in the hallways before the start of the game. Lincoln East played Millard South in a Class A first-round basketball game during the girls state basketball tournament at the Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Elkhorn South's Ryee Gray (40) fights for a rebound with Sidney's Meaghan Ross (0).Sidney played Elkhorn South in a Class B first-round basketball game during the girls state basketball tournament at the Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln, Nebraska. Elkhorn South defeated Sidney 51-37.
Westside poses with the championship plaque with the winning score on the wall behind them after Omaha Westside defeated Millard North 54-53 at Omaha Westside in Omaha, Nebraska.
Chris Saenz of Bellevue works out at FIT IN THE CITY in Papillion, Nebraska.
Dymond Meeks leaps across the snow pile in the center of Farnam Street near its intersection with 14th Street in Omaha, Nebraska, as she makes her way to work. Meeks said the snow was terrible. She said it took her 15 minutes to get down the hill her home is located on.
Hazley Eulberg, 10, of Kennard, Nebraska, takes in the trophy display in the Whitetail Kings Collection booth at the Omaha International Boat Sports and Travel Show at the CHI Health Center in Omaha, Nebraska.
The house-made carrot cake is one of the many desserts on the menu at J. Gilbertâ€™s Wood-Fired Steaks & Seafood in Omahaâ€™s Capitol District.
UNO's Mitch Hahn (44), right, grabs a rebound over the top of teammate JT Gibson (0). UNO played South Dakota State in a men's basketball game at Baxter Arena in Omaha, Nebraska.
Norfolk's Annika Harthoorn dives backwards at the start of heat 4 of the girls 100 yard backstroke at the Bob Devaney Sports Center on Friday, Feb. 22, 2019, in Lincoln, Nebraska, during the state swimming prelims.
UNO's Mitch Hahn (44) hugs his mom Kim Hahn following UNO's 85-84 win over South Dakota State. UNO played South Dakota State in a men's basketball game at Baxter Arena in Omaha, Nebraska.
Lincoln Pius X's Katie Stonehocker competes in the girls 200 yard freestyle at the Bob Devaney Sports Center on Friday, Feb. 22, 2019, in Lincoln, Nebraska, during the state swimming prelims.
Jen Freeman, who is training for a 100 mile race, jogs through the snow in Millard, Nebraska. Freeman said that she has to train no matter what the weather.
Mesquite grilled eight-ounce filet with heirloom carrots and burnt end mac and cheese. J. Gilbertâ€™s Wood-Fired Steaks & Seafood serves dinner seven nights a week in Omahaâ€™s Capitol District.
UNO's Matt Pile (40) gets tangled with Western Illinois' Zion Young (1), left and Brandon Gilbeck (52) in the first half as the University of Nebraska at Omaha hosts Western Illinois at the Baxter Arena in Omaha, Nebraska.
Omaha Burke assistant wrestling coach Jesse Peters takes a rest before the start of the semifinals at the CHI Health Center in Omaha, Nebraska, during the Nebraska State Wrestling Tournament. Peters said the nap helps him get through the long tournament days.
South Dakota State's Mike Daum (24) scores a basket against UNO. UNO played South Dakota State in a men's basketball game at Baxter Arena in Omaha, Nebraska.
UNO's Ayo Akinwole (10) drives past Western Illinois' Keshon Montague (22) in the first half as the University of Nebraska at Omaha hosts Western Illinois at the Baxter Arena in Omaha, Nebraska.
Creamed corn with bacon is among many side items on the menu at J. Gilbertâ€™s Wood-Fired Steaks & Seafood in Omahaâ€™s Capitol District.
The UNO basketball team celebrates their 85-84 win over South Dakota State. UNO played South Dakota State in a men's basketball game at Baxter Arena in Omaha, Nebraska.
UNO's KJ Robinson (5) reacts after missing a shot. UNO played South Dakota State in a men's basketball game at Baxter Arena in Omaha, Nebraska.
Omaha Bryan's Ladamien Sturdivant, left, tries to keep a hold on Fremont's Cody Carlson during their Class A 126 pound semifinals wrestling match at the CHI Health Center in Omaha, Nebraska, during the Nebraska State Wrestling Tournament.
Lincoln Pius X's Kara Owens rises from the water as she competes in heat 2 of the girls 100 yard backstroke at the Bob Devaney Sports Center on Friday, Feb. 22, 2019, in Lincoln, Nebraska, during the state swimming prelims.
Hilary Sehring punches the speed bag during an exercise round at 9Round Fitness in Omaha, Nebraska.
Gothenburg's wrestling coach Tom Scott cheers on Gothenburg's Wyatt Hotz as he takes on Lexington's Brady Fago during their 132 pound semifinals wrestling match at the CHI Health Center in Omaha, Nebraska, during the Nebraska State Wrestling Tournament.
Seventh-grade students from Nathan Hale Middle School are reflected in a â€œThe New Negro Escapist Social and Athletic Club,â€ a portrait by Rashid Johnson while touring 30 Americans, an exhibition from the Rubell Family Collection at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Nebraska. The traveling exhibit of 30 African American artists includes art with themes of slavery, the KKK and an emphasis on the beauty of black lives.
A man clears the snow from the top of a parking garage located near 10th and Jackson Streets in Omaha, Nebraska, after heavy snowfall.
UNO's Zach Jackson (21) delivers a slam dunk as teammate Ayo Akinwole (10) expresses his approval in the second half as the University of Nebraska at Omaha beats Western Illinois 77-63 at the Baxter Arena in Omaha, Nebraska.
Fremont assistant coach Cydney Granger cheers on Fremont swimmer Lauren Gifford in the girls 500 yard freestyle at the Bob Devaney Sports Center on Friday, Feb. 22, 2019, in Lincoln, Nebraska, during the state swimming prelims.
A pedestrian cruises past a sign of seasons to come in the window of Palm Beach Tan, 5417 S. 96th Street in Omaha, Nebraska.
UNO's Ayo Akinwole (10), left, drives around South Dakota State's David Jenkins (5). UNO played South Dakota State in a men's basketball game at Baxter Arena in Omaha, Nebraska.
Jim Stotts, of Glenwood, Iowa, walks a few laps around Stinson Park while passing time before going to see a movie at Aksarben Cinema, in Omaha, Nebraska.
Chris Kotulak, who is the Chief Operating Officer at Fonner Park, demonstrates how to play a PariMAX's historical horse racing game at the Fonner Park executive offices in Grand Island, Nebraska.
Western Michigan's Ethen Frank (26), Lawton Courtnall (10), and Hugh McGing (16) celebrate a goal during the second period of a college hockey game at Baxter Arena in Omaha, Nebraska.
People jog through the snow at Lake Zorinsky in Omaha, Nebraska.
Gage Beins, right, dumps snow on his friend Jeremy Boyd as they goof around in the snow at Lake Zorinsky in Omaha, Nebraska.
Jamie Kotera, 59, of Springfield, Nebraska, who works out five times a week is seen during her strength training workout with personal trainer Tyler Kottas at Better Bodies Fitness in Omaha, Nebraska.
A deer forages for food at Chalco Hills Recreation Area in Omaha, Nebraska, as snow falls.
A red-tailed hawk stands in the grass near 144th Steet and Giles Road in Omaha, Nebraska. He soon took off again as the light changed and traffic began to move.
Intern Daniel Holm, left, works with stage manager Amy Thomas backstage. The two were keeping track of the play as it progressed to know when they needed to make scene changes. Cast members were rehearsing "The Hobbit" at the Circle Theatre in Omaha, Nebraska.
The kimchi ramen at Ika San, new in the Old Market, includes the restaurant's signature crispy pork belly and rich pork broth, plus house-made kimchi, which is fermented cabbage.
Tom Dahir clears the snow from his driveway in Omaha, Nebraska, near the intersection of 97th Street and W. Center Road after a heavy snowfall.
UNO's Zach Jordan (27) and Western Michigan's Cam Lee (28) battle for the puck during the first period of a college hockey game at Baxter Arena in Omaha, Nebraska.
Actor Patrick Brusnahan does his makeup before the start of rehearsal. Brusnahan played the dwarf Bombur. Cast members were rehearsing "The Hobbit" at the Circle Theatre in Omaha, Nebraska.
Diederick Dillon, an Omaha Burke junior, clears snow from his car in the school's parking lot in Omaha, Nebraska. Omaha Public Schools were let out early because of the weather. Dillion said he was headed straight to work, despite being let out of school early.
A woman makes her way to a store as snow falls at Village Pointe in Omaha, Nebraska.