Philip Weiss, the proprietor of Mondoweiss, knew legendary former New York Observer editor Peter Kaplan for four decades and worked with him, on and off, for 20 years. Kaplan died on Friday at 59. The following remembrance is republished with permission from Mondoweiss, which was originally founded with Kaplan's help as an Observer blog.
Peter loved stories more than anything. His favorite stories were in old movies, but even more than that he loved the stories of public life. He said to me there was a big guy somewhere up in the clouds tapping a cigar and coming up with names that Spielberg could never dream of—names like Monica Lewinsky and Barack Obama and Anthony Weiner—and Peter loved to watch their destinies unfold. The best moment in any drama was what he called the Reveal, that moment when something was revealed about the main character that explained every little incident that had happened before, like the famous moment in Spellbound when Hitchcock shows us the brother's death. Do you see Al Gore has gotten fat? Peter said. That's about how angry he is.
Now that Peter is gone and all I can do is think about him, one way to allay the grief is to consider what his story was about.
Peter was extremely intuitive; no one ever told him he was missing the forest for the trees. He had editors to do that, pay attention to the trees. In college nearly 40 years ago, I wrote a long article about the privatization of medical research that Peter illustrated with a cartoon. I remember nothing about the article, only the cartoon. A grinning professor was holding up a smoking beaker and saying, "I've just discovered the cure for cancer. And I'm going to sell it to everyone–for just $5!"
Peter understood the stories better than the writers did, and he tried to help them understand what they were working on. In 2005, this website got delayed, endlessly, because Peter had to come up with the right name. That big guy with the cigar in the clouds is probably as maddening a procrastinator as Peter. "An American in New York," I said.
"No," he said, "you're a Jew, you're not an American." He thought I was putting on airs.
"The Luftmensch," I said.
"No, people already think of you as a flake."
Another day I said, "I know, The Needle!"
"No no no! That sounds like you have a needle dick."
Mondoweiss was his idea; he said I had to write about whatever was on my mind. He thereby granted me freedom to obsess. Before long that became Jewish identity and neoconservatism and Zionism, and six months after the site started, Peter sent me out to Israel and Palestine for the first time in my life.
Peter believed in collaboration. He'd point to Seinfeld and David or McCartney and Lennon and say that the whole was greater than the sum of its parts, that 2+2=5. The feeling he cultivated in everyone he worked with was that we needed him, that he saw the very best inside us. He would close the door and make you feel like the most important person in the world, that he saw your soul's secret, and the challenge when you left was, Can you live up to that belief? He always insisted on walking me out to the elevator. It made me feel special. And I was. But he walked many others out to the elevator too.
He was old-fashioned that way. He wanted writers to have the glory, he was going to be the svengali who brought it out of them. If it was a con, it worked in countless instances. He could listen—for a minute anyway—and he could read people instantly. It is his wicked psychological insights I'll remember more than anything else.
"You have the most adolescent relationship with your parents of anyone I know," he said.
When the late A.M. Rosenthal of the New York Times blew up at me during an interview and said, "Fuck you, I know all the tricks!", Peter said, "Yes he's a bastard, but he's on to you; don't you see, you are tricky."
He said, "Let me tell you what your father said to me at your book party, no wonder you've got so much anger…."
He said, "You couldn't write a novel about Eric Breindel because you can't write a character who's smarter than you are."
For 15 years Peter worked at the New York Observer, then he started a new men's magazine at Conde Nast, and people always wondered why he didn't go for the big deal jobs that came up at the big news sites or glossies. I say, Peter was wise. He knew those jobs were harrowing and he'd never have the control or autonomy he needed. He was a throwback to idiosyncratic tyrannical bosses like William Shawn; he thought an editor got to shape a publication all by himself. He was shocked and amazed and a little offended by celebrity editors. We were at a fancy cocktail party for some big editor's book a few years back when he pointed out to me who was sucking up to the editor, and marveled, "Do you see, he's more powerful than a U.S. senator." That wasn't the kind of power Peter wanted. He wanted the power of observing the dirty game, not playing it. He was an introvert with a sensitive temperament. He was reflective and cared about deeper things than success. He thought about what made him happy. He enjoyed simple pleasures. He loved grabbing a turkey leg in the middle of the night and watching Preston Sturges. He loved a cigar, he loved certain East Side diners. He was proper. His father was a West Point graduate, and Peter wore an editor's uniform of a blue oxford shirt and Navy jacket.
No doubt, his good looks and charm and precocious confidence got him places few of us have been, but he was not impressed. Once, when we were walking up Fifth Avenue he spotted Phyllis George and Governor John Y. Brown of Kentucky coming the other way, and he said, "Watch this." He put on a booming voice and said, "Phyllis!! How are you!?" And he hugged her. Then we went on as she stood there cocking her head, thinking, Where do I know him from? He was a fake extrovert. He didn't want that world. He was sensitive and his gifts were creative. When he got sick he said to me, "Charles Dickens died when he was 58, can you believe that? Dickens had a lot of rage, don't you think? Boy did he know what to do with it."
This website was gone after a year at the Observer. A right-wing Zionist bought the paper and Peter tried to protect me but he couldn't. It ended with another of our closed door meetings. "We're going to have a grown-up conversation," Peter said. As if all the others were conversations in which he played the paternalist editor. But that was the role I liked him in, and our relationship survived the break and grew. We needed to talk about people and politics and the great book ideas he'd given me that I'd failed to write. A novel about a Jewish medic in the Civil war. The sex book about my father. Would They Hide You?– about me and my wife's family.
Or, his hobbyhorse: The Lamest Generation. That was us. We'd had more privilege than anyone before us and had nothing to show for ourselves but a bunch of bratty brands with goofy names. He closed the door in anguish and said, "I can't believe this war. Why did we lie down for it?"
"I didn't," I said.
"I'm not talking about you," he said, with a take-your-head-out-of-your-ass groan. "I mean all the big editors and writers and politicians. They lived through Vietnam and they lay down for Iraq? They were supposed to know better. How did that happen? Explain that!"
Peter was a moralist, another reason he wasn't built to be a power editor. He thought of the people ground to nothing by the war on terror, he was proud of this piece we did together saving a good man from a false accusation, he was proud of fathering this website. Schooled by neoconservative Breindel, he didn't agree with me much, but he came around some. He thought I was crazy, he once asked if I was a Holocaust denier (Peter didn't always read his writers), but he thought I was working out deep personal issues in a serious way. And that was all a writer was supposed to do.
He taught me how to be a writer. Even in the hospital in his robe with tubes in him, he wanted to nurture me. That was the reveal in Peter's life: He loved the role of nurturing people's gifts. All his creativity and glamour and insight he poured into others, and yes that gave him power. A lot of the celebration of Peter now is a reflection of that power; and the widespread grief includes many people like me, people who lost someone who so believed in them that he got them to believe in themselves, now what will we do? That's the way we'll honor his spirit, to live up to what he thought of us, to show him, tapping his cigar in the clouds, that he wasn't wrong.