Peter Kaplan’s best material

Peter Kaplan. (AP Photo/New York Times, Chester Higgins)
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"For a master of words, well crafted and conceived, for the artful literary visionary, the ultimate life editor, what else do we owe but words?"

So began the Rabbi Jeffrey J. Sirkman on Tuesday morning at Larchmont Temple in the quaint town 37 minutes' ride from Grand Central Station, where he was giving the opening remarks at the funeral of Peter W. Kaplan, the legendary former editor of The New York Observer who leaves behind a wife, four children and an unmeasurable influence on the journalism of this city.

The hour-plus service made tangible the elegies that have resonated so loudly in certain corners of the Internet since Friday, when Kaplan, aged 59, died among family and friends at New York Presbyterian Hospital following a battle with lymphoma.

Hundreds had gathered at the temple, including dozens of the journalists Kaplan mentored over the years (eight of us from Capital), and the many prominent media figures who knew him. 

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Later, the crowd walked about 10 minutes down Larchmont Avenue and gathered in a small waterfront park that was a regular destination for Kaplan, who lived nearby and would often walk there himself to take in the views of Long Island Sound.

Sirkman described Kaplan as "an American cultural savant" and an "F.D.R. Democrat to the core," improving on previous accounts that painted Kaplan as a Kennedy obsessive. He provided the types of anecdotes that would have made Kaplan's eyes light up were they delivered by one of his own reporters: "[gaming] the press pass system at Yankee stadium" and ending up in the 1977 World Series championship locker room (footage of a young Kaplan standing Zelig-like over Thurman Munson's champagne-soaked left shoulder can be had on YouTube) ; self-sabotaging his New Yorker interview because "he understood quality family time would be out the window"; introducing Sirkman to "Uncle Bobby" at one of his children's naming ceremonies—"Uncle Bobby," to Sirkman's surprise, was Robert Kennedy Jr., Kaplan's roommate in their Harvard days, who was among the various luminaries who'd come to pay their final respects.

Others included New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson, also a classmate of Kaplan's at Harvard; former Time managing editor Rick Stengel and former Newsweek editor Mark Whitaker, among many more. New York editor-in-chief Adam Moss spent the service posted up along a wall beside Lynn Hirschberg. Actress Glenn Close went largely unremarked in the crowd behind sunglasses. As the crowd meandered toward the waterfront, Candace Bushnell, still the ur-Carrie, could be seen bumming a cigarette from a younger writer, a regular routine at functions that have brought her back into the old Observer fold over the years.

Even the most heartwrenching scenes were relayed with a dose of Kaplan's effusive wit. Recalling the moment 10 days ago when Kaplan learned there was nothing more his doctors could do for him, his older brother, Jimmy, described the way Peter, a storyteller until his final breath, grinned and said: "Feel free to use this as material."

Jimmy likewise comforted the crowd with tales of a young Peter Kaplan rescued from the darkness at the summit of Mount Fuji by a procession of torch-bearing monks during a high school year abroad in Japan; a "reverse sex-discrimination lawsuit" he filed against legendary Livingston, N.J. burger joint Don's Drive-In, which wouldn't allow him to wait tables (he won); and Peter's ingenious plan to get himself and Jimmy flown out to Hollywood to cover the 1974 Oscars by wrangling an assignment from Harper's editor Lewis Lapham, never having written a word for a magazine in either of their lives.

Peter's love for old Hollywood has been well documented over the past several days, but nowhere as perfectly as when Jimmy recalled their chance run-in with Gene Kelly one day on Sixth Avenue just below Central Park South during a post-lunch walk years ago: "It is exactly as if Gene Kelly has been materialized out of the ether, specifically for Peter Kaplan's benefit. ... Things like this have a way of happening around Peter."

"When we got something of Peter, we always wanted more," said Paul Friedland, a friend since grade school. "[He] always made us believe that we were part of a storyline that was artistic, funny and glamorous."

Kaplan had four children, three from his first marriage to Audrey Walker, and one with  Lisa Chase, his widow.

Peter Walker Kaplan told a story about the Saturday afternoon "mystery rides" he and his siblings would take with their father in his 1997 blue CRV, "accompanied by the essentials of my dad's music collection: George and Ira, Meredith Willson's 'The Music Man,' Bob Dylan." Then, mimicking his old man: "You know boys, his real name is Bobby Zimmerman. He's one of us!"

But perhaps the most touching moment of the proceedings came from Kaplan's daughter, Caroline, a singer who has waited tables at Blue Smoke to support her Kaplanesque vocation, and who performed a tune "we both agreed was the best song ever written"—"What'll I Do," by Irving Berlin.

Sobs broke out as Caroline's voice filled the room.

"What'll I do with just a photograph to tell my troubles to? When I'm alone, with only dreams of you that won't come true, what'll I do?"

Matthew Lynch contributed reporting to this article.