Peter Kaplan Is Irreplaceable

Peter Kaplan. (Photo by Patrick McMullan)

Peter Kaplan. (Photo by Patrick McMullan)

He would have loathed the obituaries—most of them, anyway.

The ones that associated his name with mere snark, a quality that was far beneath his intelligence and integrity. The ones that described him as a pied piper of dewy-eyed ingénues, as if he had not given new life and new freedom to veteran journalists who turned down offers elsewhere mostly because of him. The ones that portrayed the newspaper he edited as an in-house newsletter for the city’s media elites, as though the paper’s coverage of politics, finance, real estate and culture were mere add-ons.

Oh, how Peter Kaplan would have hated all that. And it would have affirmed his belief in the need for other voices beyond the mainstream, voices filled with passion for sure, but informed by the hard and necessary work of reporting.

Peter Kaplan edited this newspaper from 1994 to 2009. They were memorable years in the life of the city he loved, and under his leadership, The New York Observer chronicled the triumphs and tragedies of New York with verve, insight and, yes, strong points of view.

Peter changed both the look and the content of the paper so that it was well placed to tell a story he yearned to share with readers: the story of power in New York at the close of one century and the beginning of another. Peter encouraged his reporters, young and not-so-young alike, to look upon mayors, CEOs, real estate moguls, Condé Nast editors, novelists, film directors and baseball managers as characters in an ongoing, rollicking, endlessly interesting real-life novel that was and is New York.

He understood that he was not editing a newspaper of record. That’s what made it all so much fun—and so intensely readable. And if a piece were not intensely readable, it had no place in The New York Observer. Peter knew that a weekly newspaper, back in the days when the term “website” sounded like something from science fiction, had to be necessary in order to survive. “If people don’t feel the need to read us, they won’t, and then we’re finished,” he once said. In his wonderfully counterintuitive view, the best way to become necessary was to produce vivid, insightful prose week after week. Smart readers, he believed, would respond to smart writing.

And so The Observer embarked on a journey that has taken us into the digital age, an age of multiple platforms, daily postings and Twitter feeds. But even now, in a media universe that Peter could hardly have imagined in 1994, we do our best to remember our old friend’s insistence that well-told stories with memorable characters can and must have a place in the cultural life of a great city. 

Peter Kaplan died on Nov. 29 of cancer, leaving behind his wife, our former colleague Lisa Chase; his children, Caroline, Charles, Peter and David; and his two brothers, James and Robert. By day, Peter traveled in the highest circles of Manhattan media, but at night and on weekends, he was a suburban father from Westchester, reveling in the achievements of his Caroline, Charlie, Peter and Davey. Peter was more than a media legend, an icon of New York journalism. He was a dad, a proud and loving dad, and we can only imagine how much his children will miss him.

Peter Kaplan touched the lives of hundreds of writers over the years, and so many of them could not help but fall in love with this irrepressible, charming, brilliant and elusive man. He was their advocate, their defender and their savior, an editor who cast a cold eye on thoughtless attitude and vapid cant.  

The Observer’s founding publisher, Arthur Carter, hired Peter just as the city was emerging from the dispiriting early 1990s, a time when a return to the even-worse 1970s seemed not only possible but even likely. The renaissance of the mid-1980s had been reduced to ashes, and the era’s big New York novel, Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, portrayed a city that seemed nearly beyond redemption.

But Peter, who came of age reading Mr. Wolfe and other purveyors of the New Journalism of the 1960s, did not become editor of The New York Observer to chronicle the dismantling of his beloved Emerald City. 

He set up shop in his closet-size office on East 64th Street just as new characters were emerging—in politics, in the media, in the city’s cultural life and in finance. The city rediscovered its stride, and big ideas and big egos once again took center stage. Planners began to reimagine that most iconic of New York spaces, Times Square. A swaggering new police commissioner brought his posse to Elaine’s seemingly every night following a day of deploying statistics as a new weapon against crime. A new cast of real estate developers, smelling revival, dreamed up plans to transform Manhattan’s skyline. Two film-producing brothers from Queens were about to create a slice of Hollywood on the Hudson. A brilliant young woman was on the verge of cracking the glass ceiling at Saturday Night Live

This renewed New York demanded its Boswell, and Peter Kaplan was taking notes. Soon, these pages were telling the stories of Bill Bratton, the Weinstein Brothers, Tina Fey, Douglas Durst, and, of course, Carrie Bradshaw and Mr. Big.

The Observer became a canvas on which Peter created the city he imagined, a place filled with big characters whose ambitions and foibles were the raw material of big stories—stories that demanded exhaustive reporting and critical insight. Writers who preferred to engage readers with look-at-me snark either learned how to report or floundered.

New York changed on Sept. 11, 2001, and it fell to Peter to adjust the narrative. The Emerald City became the resilient city, the defiant city, grief-stricken and shocked but unbowed. That story, too, found its way into The Observer’s pages, rendered with affection and grace. 

He brought The Observer into the digital age in the years following 9/11, still insisting that there was no substitute for hard reporting and sublime writing. He sought to strike a balance between this new form of storytelling and the old-school certainties on which he was raised. By all accounts, he succeeded.

Peter Kaplan was our guiding light, our counselor, our teacher, our inspiration. More than anything else, though, he was our dear, irreplaceable friend. And we miss him so.