The imperfect charm of Peter Kaplan

Peter Kaplan. ()
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Jim Windolf

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Peter Kaplan used to say that if you're having trouble with a story, write it "in takes." Look over your notes and translate your research and reporting into discrete paragraphs. When you have a dozen or so such paragraphs, you can begin to think about stringing them together. Or you might look at what you've got and see how nice it is, to have a series of beginnings. You can see this method, I think, in Janet Malcolm's 1994 profile of artist David Salle, "41 False Starts."...

I worked with Kaplan seven years. Six at The New York Observer, where he was editor in chief from 1994 to 2009, and a little more than a year at M, his last title, a men's quarterly magazine he launched while serving as editorial director of Fairchild Fashion Media, a division of Condé Nast Publications. As you may have read, Kaplan died the day after Thanksgiving at the age of 59. He had a habit, in conversation, of circling the main topic. Sometimes you never got there....

When I was a kid I found happy escape from the newspaper's heavier pages in the narrative voice of Liz Smith, the gossip columnist who wrote, back then, for the Daily News. Her column was welcoming. There was no clutter up top. The sentences were light. The boldface names carried you onward. Her work was not ruined for me later on, when I was a moody grad student besotted with Spy magazine, which gleefully exposed the pufferies and paybacks disguised by her swift paragraphs; and, a few years later, when I pointed out various Liz Smith infelicities in the media column I was writing for the Observer, she came through for me once again, with the charm, in funny, handwritten notes that she sent to me in an effort to get my column off her back....

Liz Smith used to end each paragraph with an ellipsis, which lent a pleasant stop-start quality to her column: If you don't like this graf, the punctuation seemed to say, maybe you'll like the next one. It made for series of beginnings, so the reader never got bored. Liz Smith also had affection and enthusiasm for the city and its people. She came to Manhattan from Texas, and you could detect in her words a breezy twang....

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Can a twang be breezy? I almost deleted that phrasing, almost rewrote it, but it occurs to me that it's the kind of thing that Kaplan might have come up with. He had a habit of making the rules of logic and syntax moot....

A few weeks ago he was on the phone from New York Presbyterian Hospital, going over a possible cover for the latest M. This time around our cover subject was Oscar Isaac, who plays the lead role in the new Coen brothers movie. In his hospital bed Kaplan was looking at an image of Isaac tucked into a corner of the East Village and smiling at the camera. The picture had atmosphere, and the actor appeared relaxed. Kaplan loved it. It was terrific. Except for one thing. It was terrible. It was the wrong cover. "He's got to look like John Barrymore," he said into the phone....

The M team searched through the photos from the shoot until we came upon a black-and-white portrait with a suggestion of bygone glamour and old-school masculinity to it. We sent it to Kaplan. He approved it. Almost wholeheartedly. Which was enough. Then things got worse. By the time the issue came out, he was almost out of options....

Where do you go for consolation? For me it has always been newspapers, magazines, movies, TV shows, and music. Media as religion? I don't know. On the Sunday after Kaplan died, feeling low to the ground, I checked the newspaper – no, I searched Fandango – to see what was playing. The only movies that seemed worth the $12 or $15 ticket price were 12 Years a Slave, Nebraska, and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire....

So: a necessary historical film made by a heretofore flashy British director on the subject of American slavery's brutalities, with Brad Pitt doing scruff-bearded penance for his Hollywood sins by assuming the role of a plantation owner (give me a break); an Alexander Payne character study of a possibly deluded old man, played by Bruce Dern, in the depressed Midwest, shot in black and white, as if to signal that this time around Payne was really going to let us have it; and the latest blockbuster, with the vivacious Jennifer Lawrence harnessed into its billion-dollar machinations, that looked to be a rerun of the first Hunger Games installment and seemed intended to feed a strange new desire among moviegoers to watch teenagers fight one another to the death in a postapocalyptic landscape. As Kaplan might have said, "That's a piece."...

I will eventually see these movies but on Sunday I was not in the mood. What happened to lightness? Where did charm go? When will it lift from the culture, the bleak mood that began with 9/11 and got its second wind with the 2008 collapse? When will the zombies retreat? When will the last impossibly well-coiffed television detective tweeze the final molecule of evidence from the last gruesomely murdered victim?....

A way out once seemed to lie in the campaign rhetoric of Barack Obama, 2007 edition, but even that has fizzled out, now that his executive aloofness, powered, I am guessing, by a depression he cannot quite shake, has become, with the bungling of www.healthcare.gov, less a matter of interest for pundits given to psychoanalysing presidents and more a matter of import for the citizenry at large....

There was once a crummy Observer reporter. After stewing a long time, Kaplan decided he had to do it. He had to fire him. He called the reporter into his office and closed the door. They were in there a long time. At the end of it the reporter emerged with a happy expression. In a little while we learned what had happened: Kaplan had given him a raise....

Just as often he was able to face what he called "the tough conversation." We had one at the Viand, the subway-car-like restaurant on Madison Avenue. It was a deadline day, and I was writing a story on Tina Brown, a reported assessment of her first two years as editor of The New Yorker. I can now say cogently what I wasn't quite able to drag out of myself back then: It was annoying that she got credit as an innovator when her main accomplishment was making The New Yorker more like other publications. My first draft was a mess, and Kaplan told me, in a booth for two, over 3 p.m. turkey sandwiches, that I had to stop looking at the world as an adolescent. I had to shed my indie-rock distaste for the minor corruptions that allow the city to function. I had to put down the pea-shooter and look Tina Brown in the eye. I had to grow up. And I had to do it by 10 p.m.....

The column got better, and for two weeks in 1994 or 1995 I was Jimmy Breslin's best pal. O.K., so I wasn't his best pal, but Breslin had a habit, back then, of making a series of morning phone calls, bang, bang, bang, one after another. It's how he got column ideas. The first was to a judge in the Bronx, the late Burton Roberts. And somewhere in his telephone rounds, for those two weeks in '94 or '95, he hit me up. In my column I had been having fun at the expense of city columnist Mike McAlary, who, Breslin suggested to me, should have been locked up in an insane asylum for living his life under the impression that he was Jimmy Breslin. And in one of our calls, Breslin asked me, "What is the most important thing in a column?" I said I had no idea. He paused and then he screamed into the phone: "CHARM!"....

People have this notion of Breslin as the ultimate tabloid tough guy. They think his column was all grit, when it was all heart. In his rather imaginative biography of Damon Runyon, Breslin laid out his credo: "Many of [Runyon's] people and their actions in real life were frightening to temporal authorities," he wrote, "but what does this have to do with the most important work on earth, placing merriment in the hearts of people?"....

Liz Smith's column also had charm. So did McAlary's, for a while there, at least. And so did nearly every piece of writing by the late Nora Ephron, a friend of Kaplan's who wrote the recent play about McAlary, which, to my surprise, rather than making him too much of a hero, dealt frankly with McAlary's anxiety of influence – his debt to Breslin and his fear, his knowledge, that he would never live up to his role model....

In an interview McAlary told me he once called Breslin to congratulate him on winning a Pulitzer. Breslin said, "You're not good enough to call me!", and slammed down the phone....

McAlary certainly revered Breslin, but I believe he got his jabbing prose style from Mike Lupica, who himself stole from Breslin. So McAlary was like a musician learning the blues from Led Zeppelin rather than from Charley Patton....

McAlary had gone to the same New Hampshire high school as Lupica, and he was proud to have finished dead last in his class. That is, he took pride in being a person marked for failure who went on to success. All of us who suspect that we are stupid (and that our stupidity is our secret strength) understand that peculiar sense of pride....

Jean-Paul Sartre called Flaubert "the idiot of the family," and isn't that the endearing thing about him? Isn't it what sets Flaubert apart from those who followed in his wake, like the haughty Nabokov, a virtuoso who probably had more in the way of raw intelligence than Flaubert and was, perhaps as a result, coldblooded? This was a man who hunted butterflies! Genius can make you inhuman....

One of the most wonderful endings is that of Flaubert's A Sentimental Education. That book is a beautifully constructed edifice about a young man's cashing in his bumpkin's innocence for urban experience – he learns to look Paris in the eye – but it ends with a throwaway anecdote concerning his memory of having lost his virginity at a country brothel. It's as if Flaubert said the hell with it on the final page....

Flaubert came up in a conversation one time between me and Kaplan. Kaplan said he had once tried to read Madame Bovary, only to put it down, heartbroken, because it was perfect. He meant some things are too exquisite to be looked at too closely....

Maybe Flaubert's mot-juste perfectionism caused him to revise Madame Bovary one time too many. On the other hand, as flawless as the novel seems to be, its heroine's eye-color changes from chapter to chapter, as Julian Barnes notes in Flaubert's Parrot. Meaning that, for all his obsessiveness, even Flaubert had fallen so deeply under his own spell that he couldn't keep his fictional facts straight. I kept meaning to mention that to Peter....

If you have nightmares, they may include your boss as the villain. Kaplan was always on the good-guy team in my dreams. When I left the Observer, he gave me a Magnavox DVD player as a parting gift. Everybody was drunk. I tossed it into the crowd....

Breslin told me once, during those phone calls, that he woke up in the morning and looked in the mirror and said to himself, "J.B. is the best!" J.B. being Jimmy Breslin. He had a tough childhood and had found a way to keep himself aloft....

Peter and I had in common fathers with military backgrounds. Mine served in the Marines, and Peter's father, Robert Kaplan (1925-1992), attended West Point, class of '46, and was later posted in South Korea. He is buried at West Point, as is Peter's mother, Roberta Wennik Kaplan (1930 - 2010)....

On Tuesday mornings at the Observer I would write a draft of the front-page headlines and copy them onto a floppy disk. Then I would take the disk into Kaplan's office. He would slide it into a chassis, and the green words would appear on the brown-black screen. That's when the headline work would start in earnest, with him staring into his big fat desktop computer, hands at the keyboard, and me in the leather chair with the hole in it. The door was closed. It was my favorite part of the work week....

This headline job became all the more consuming once Kaplan's redesign of the paper created even more room for subheds and deks in his effort to revive the conversational voice of the display copy that rolled endlessly across the front pages of New York broadsheets of a hundred years ago and more. I suppose this mad jumble is what the paper's eventual owner, Jared Kushner, objected to in his recent tribute to Kaplan, when he compared the newspaper he had purchased to its editor's unkempt office. You either like it or you don't....

After Kaplan and I were through with the headline job, I would get on the phone with the paper's then-owner, Arthur Carter, who, like other plutocrats who enter journalism, has suffered the lampoonings of the wastrels who attempt to make a living in the field. But Carter himself is a genius, as far as I can tell. He attended Julliard as a young man and made a few hundred million on Wall Street. He is self-made and self-possessed. While listening to me read off the headlines, Carter would chuckle here and there, especially if Kaplan had thrown in some Yiddish. Then he would take the owner's liberty of doing his own edit. I would then go back to Kaplan with the floppy disk. He would slide it into the chassis to see the revisions and he would say something like, "A little bad taste is not such a bad thing."...

Good editors understand the value of sending something into the world that seems tacky. It's probably the same with humor. A precise, tasteful joke makes you chuckle only inside your head, whereas a pratfall can make you laugh out loud. Critics love the chuckle, but the hard laugh probably requires more talent and skill....

One Monday afternoon, on the East 64th Street sidewalk near the Observer's townhouse office, Kaplan was giddy as he told me about having taken his young sons to see Ace Ventura: Pet Detective over the weekend. When Jim Carrey did the bit where he made his butt talk, one of Kaplan's sons, age five or so at the time, stood tall on his seat and let out a cathartic scream of happiness, his eyes fixed on the screen. A grown man pretending to talk with his ass is the lowest joke in the world but nobody can argue with a five-year-old's scream. The boy couldn't believe his luck....

Kaplan loved beginnings: he knew the long obscure preludes to old standards; he liked headlines and titles; he slaved over ledes; he liked the germ of an idea as much as the idea itself; he liked story meetings more than the stories that resulted from them. Once he was locked in, once he was commited to a particular story or illustration, there might follow a period in which he sat forlorn at his desk....

It has been nice to read the many appreciations of Kaplan's work that have appeared in recent days, but he seemed to feel the actual Observer on newsstands each Wednesday was a reminder of how far he was from reaching the ideal he had entertained for it. "We got away with it," he might say. Or: "It's plausible."...

Kaplan had a big tent. He liked ambitious social climbers and depressed writers who couldn't get their acts together. Those who struck me as possibly insane or perhaps dangerous became wonderful creatures when I learned to see them through his cockeyed lens. He must have been a genius but he didn't let that stop him from being human. He was enthusiastic and affectionate. Even as the comic '90s gave way to darker years that had him overseeing the coverage of tragic stuff, I believe he was always trying to do the most important work on earth: placing merriment in the hearts of people.

Drawings on this page are by Drew Friedman.