Illustration by Lars Leetaru
The first time I met Peter Kaplan, he was sitting behind his desk reading Civilization and Its Discontents by Sigmund Freud. “Ever read this?” he asked. Eager to please, I told him I hadn’t but that I wanted to. He paused—the first of many pregnant pauses I would witness over the years. He peered at me through his tortoise-shell glasses, his eyes squinting in a merry way. I had the good sense to remain silent.
“It’s not bad,” he finally said, in a way that made you think he’d come up with a new take on Freud, a new take that could change not just your life but Sigmund’s too.
That was in 1990. Peter was editing a men’s magazine called Smart and I was 23, desperately seeking a job in the midst of a recession. Even though I was totally green to the New York media scene, I’d been through enough interviews to immediately grok that this guy was different. I had no idea how different. To paraphrase Humphrey Bogart at the end of Casablanca, it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship—and of my education as an editor.
In the offices of The New York Observer, where I later worked for him for four years, Peter hummed with energy—a human Tesla coil!—throwing off ideas, observations, aphorisms, and challenges like sparks. The Observer was his laboratory, a journalistic clubhouse that operated like a Preston Sturges film come to life—simultaneously screwball and serious—from which he directed the staff to write a great novel in weekly installments on the power circles of the city he adored, a document of high comedy and lowdown Machiavellian machinations, sewer gas and perfume. Most of all, he believed in the transformative power of a great story. He called what we did “reporting with a point of view.” Don’t make people read between the lines, he’d say; give it to them straight, and don’t pull your punches. I always got the feeling Peter understood that very little is on the level in this world. And yet everything about him—his wisdom, decency, compassion, intense curiosity, infectious joie de vivre, cockeyed grin, enormous capacity for fun and laughs, and occasional crankiness and gnomic obsessions with Hollywood, the Yankees, gossip, and politics—was calibrated to tip the scales back in place.
Peter died on November 29, at 59, after a 17-month battle with lymphoma. If he were reading this now, over my shoulder, he’d say, “That’s nice, Jay, but you buried the lede.” I think he’d understand why.