Early in the morning a few weeks ago, a tall, 61-year-old man in crisp khakis, carrying a 16-gauge Greener shotgun, stepped from a bungalow in the Indian forest of Orissa and went bird stalking. At his side were a soignée American woman and a short, bearded Hindu, similarly khaki-clad and armed. A little while out on their morning’s march and the party halted. A bird call. Field glasses are raised toward the dense foliage. A hand points. Yes. There. The tall man raises his gun, a practiced ease in the gesture. One shot. A small bird falls through the green bamboo. S. Dillon Ripley II, accompanied by his wife, Mary, and Dr. Sálim AN, his fellow author of the ten-volume Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan, has taken another important study specimen.
S. Dillon Ripley II is secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. The union of the name and the place seems right. As keeper of the “nation’s attic,” one of the most extensive collections of arrested time and life anywhere, S. (for Sidney) Dillon Ripley is everything his resounding name implies—wellborn, cultured and erudite. But he is a lot more, too. And so is the Smithsonian as a result of his stewardship. Over the past 11 years—despite opposition from within the Institution, detractions from conservative scientists and cultural arbiters, and congressional gainsaying—Ripley has altered the stuffed-specimen image of the Smithsonian and brought the arts and artifacts of man’s heritage home to the people. “Museums are temples of the people supported by public funds,” said Ripley last year. “They must reach out to people, interest them, serve them.”
The venerable and once-sacrosanct Mall, a grassy sweep from the Capitol to the Washington Monument, has become the setting for annual Folklife festivals, replete with Appalachian hoedowns, weavers, carvers, bakers of bread and makers of jelly. The long-insular attitudes of the Smithsonian, the world’s largest museum-research complex, have given way to jazz concerts, kite-flying contests, road shows and a “storefront museum” in the D.C. black ghetto. During his tenure as the eighth secretary of the Institution (its chief executive), Ripley has promoted and helped establish for public use the Cooper-Hewitt Museum of Decorative Arts and Design, the Archives of American Art, the Wood-row Wilson International Center for Scholars, the Renwick Gallery (a Washington center for decorative arts), the Fort Pierce Bureau for Oceanographic Research, the Chesapeake Bay Center for Environmental Studies, Mrs. Marjorie Merriweather Post’s Hillwood Estate, the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum, the National Collection of Fine Arts, the National Portrait Gallery, the National Air and Space Museum and the Hirshhorn Museum.
The extent of his domain has earned Ripley the title “Monarch of the Mall.” It is a term which he dismisses with a withering look rather than a word, as an example of the carping that is invariably occasioned by change. A renowned bird watcher, Ripley has also proven himself a master observer—and manipulator—of the subtle art of power in the nation’s capital. Twenty-one million people visited the Smithsonian last year (it is partially financed by private subscriptions and donations), and the Bicentennial celebration he has planned will likely break all the records. The Ripley recipe for persuasion is charm, political astuteness, a sense of mission, expertise and an abiding penchant for the elegant. When Ripley—6’3½” tall, articulate, sartorially splendid—confronts a would-be benefactor his hauteur is tempered by an almost imperceptible tongue-in-cheek pose. Should his fabled persuasiveness fail, he is not above bringing up heavy artillery.
Shortly after Ripley’s arrival at the Smithsonian in 1964, it was noisily whispered that mining magnate Joseph H. Hirshhorn’s 6,000-piece collection of sculptures and paintings would be offered to museum petitioners. When Ripley’s overtures failed to impress Hirshhorn, Lady Bird Johnson—a rara avis not neglected by Ripley and indeed a Smithsonian patroness—was dispatched to Greenwich, Conn. to admire the collection and deliver a White House dinner invitation. In time Ripley got the collection and an additional $1 million from Hirshhorn, then cajoled a $15 million appropriation from Congress to house it.
A great grandson of Sidney Dillon, first chairman of the Union Pacific Railroad (and son of Louis A. Ripley, a Manhattan stockbroker), Ripley received his early education at Madame Maria Montessori’s school on Park Avenue, New York and at St. Paul’s School in Concord, N.H. At age 10 he was holidaying regularly in the Tuileries Garden in Paris—the 19th century carousel later installed on the Mall is similar to the one he played on there. When he was 13, the incipient ornithologist took a walking tour of Tibet. And at 22, following graduation from Yale, he declared in a characteristic tone of erudition and élan that he would like “to abandon all thoughts of a prosperous and worthy future and devote myself to birds.” Prosperity was, of course, his birthright. A testament to his worthiness is his present international reputation as an authority on birds of Southeast Asia.
In 1943, after receiving a Ph.D. in zoology from Harvard, Ripley—who speaks Hindustani and Malay—joined the OSS as an intelligence bureau chief, helping direct undercover operations in Southeast Asia. He considered the position a necessary hiatus in his real work. (While awaiting orders in Ceylon and attached to the staff of Lord Louis Mountbatten, then Supreme Allied Commander in Southeast Asia, Ripley managed to discover a new species of bird.) On one mission, Ripley and an army colonel were ordered to parachute behind the lines in Thailand. In anticipation of the Japanese surrender, they were told to pack their full dress uniforms. Ripley made the drop wearing a set of tails under his parachute harness and carrying a Thompson sub-machine gun.
Following the war, Ripley joined Yale’s zoology department; in 1959, after promoting the first courses in ecology given at the university, he was named director of its Peabody Museum of Natural History. By 1964, when he was named secretary of the Smithsonian, Ripley had already published some half dozen books, over 208 articles in scientific journals and popular magazines and was well along on his great work on the birds of India and Pakistan. With seven major field expeditions behind him, he was considered a first-rate scientist and teacher. Among his colleagues at Yale and the regents who hired him to head up the Smithsonian, Ripley was mainly recognized as a remarkable popularizer. At Yale he had opened one Peabody exhibit with an Egyptian belly dancer entertaining a black-tie, cocktail party group. The Smithsonian regents took on Ripley for the expressed purpose of transforming the Institution from a dull repository for historical objects into a modern center of learning. His assigned role was to reestablish “the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.”
Whether or not the regents realized they were loosing a Duke of Bedford sort of showman into the musty corridors of history is debatable. His detractors say that Ripley has expanded the Smithsonian’s offerings too quickly, that he is remote and formal, too often on the Washington party scene and seldom in town. Some of the staff have complained that Ripley’s focus on exhibits and community participation has sapped their time and hampered their research, a cry that may have some validity. But Ripley has expanded the Institution’s research program, too. For years it was directed toward anthropology, astrophysics, biology and oceanography. While continuing to support those disciplines, Ripley has introduced and nurtured sophisticated programs in history, ecology and the arts, and has added more staff to shoulder the increased load. Still, there are some indications that Ripley isn’t holding all the tethers tightly.
According to a Ripley memorandum obtained by the Washington Post last November, he was personally opposed to a scheduled lecture by sexy novelist-poet Erica Jong (Fear of Flying) and ordered that no more programs featuring “contemporary novelists or poets” be planned. Ripley’s ire had first been stirred two years earlier when poet Allen Ginsberg, reading and speaking under the banner of the Smithsonian, had attacked the CIA. Then, last September, invited poet Nikki Giovanni picked up the liberal cudgel and hit President Ford with it. Ripley, of course, was held responsible. Jong’s withdrawal under protest was followed by the cancellation of a scheduled appearance by Christopher Bird, co-author of The Secret Life of Plants, and the revocation of an invitation to film critic Pauline Kael. Proposed courses in yoga, astrology and consciousness-raising disappeared from the Institution’s curriculum. And Ripley was threatened by the American Civil Liberties Union with reprisals. The irony is that the cancelled programs had been conceived by the Resident Associates, a Ripley brainchild designed to involve District area citizens in the Smithsonian’s public projects.
According to some of his critics, Ripley avoids a great deal of flak by frequently leaving the country on such expeditions as this month’s bird stalking in India. (The Smithsonian has some 2,500 bird skins he has collected in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific.) In November of 1970, he was chided by columnist Jack Anderson for chartering a 110-ft. luxury yacht, at $480 a day, and sailing the Aegean Sea in search of Audouin’s gull. Anderson accused Ripley of squandering $2,800 of the taxpayers’ money on “fine drink” and Palaiokastritsa lobsters. Ripley insisted that the trip was financed by a private donation and that not only had he found an Audouin’s gull, he had spotted an Eleonora’s falcon as well. In August of last year, Anderson snared Ripley again, this time for enjoying 28 weeks and $15,000 worth of expeditions during 1973. In a footnote, Anderson did acknowledge Ripley’s innovative management of the Smithsonian.
While maintaining a town house on Washington’s Embassy Row, Ripley regards a 180-year-old farmhouse on 200 acres in Litchfield, Conn. as the family home. There he spends holidays and weekends with his wife, Mary, and their three daughters, Julie, 23, Rosemary, 20, and Sylvia, 18. While watching or writing about the 60-65 species of waterfowl on the five ponds there, or stalking the halls of the Smithsonian Castle where he maintains a suite of Victorian offices as elegant as himself, or tottering on the edge of a Himalayan fissure in search of a bird, S. Dillon Ripley II appears unfazed by the persiflage he must endure.
“I have a plan,” said Ripley not long ago, “perhaps more of a dream, to create a Museum of Man, complete with an outdoor area for growing food grains. A presentation of all the things we as humans are dependent upon and what the future holds in store. Dismal? Well, perhaps we should say…educational!”