A loving remembrance of Peter Kaplan

Peter Kaplan

Peter Kaplan

Peter Kaplan, a widely-beloved NY editor who was my longtime friend and launched this website in 2006, died on Friday at 59. A remembrance. 

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 when Hitchcock shows us the brother’s death in Spellbound. 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; and 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.

Mondoweiss logo at the New York Observer

Mondoweiss logo at the New York Observer

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 AM 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 told me I 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 then marveled, Do you see, he’s more powerful than a US 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, and 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. 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 rightwing 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 imagination 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.

About Philip Weiss

Philip Weiss is Founder and Co-Editor of Mondoweiss.net.
Posted in Beyondoweiss | Tagged

{ 42 comments... read them below or add one }

  1. Krauss says:

    He sounds like a man you want to be working for, at least when you’re young.
    It also raises the question: was the influence of the New York Observer mainly due to the intelligent and giftedness of Kaplan?

    I know little of the newspaper industry, but as great as Kaplan seems to have been, isn’t it better these days, with a more de-centralized structure and easier pathways into journalistic influence. Editors still matter for prestige publications like the NYT.

    However, as you describe it, it doesn’t sound like the newspaper world was that healthy before, it seemed to revert around personalities less than what you had to write about. Today, metrics and data are becomming more important. Gone are the plush jobs for elite newspaper journalists, and their salaries and revenue with it.

    Maybe not a bad development. If Kaplan had been young again, I’d like to believe he’d be on our side, pissing into the tent from the outside with a gleeful smile on his face.
    Knowing that time and influence is on his side over the long run, and given to him by authenticity rather than connections.

  2. Krauss says:

    P.S. a bit sad to see he was so molded by Breindel. Breindel probably remains the archtype of the editor Kaplan seemed to have loathed.

    From a 1998 NY Mag profile:

    As a writer, Breindel was unexceptional, producing mostly the joyless prose of an ideologue. And as an ideologue, he was more effective working the back channels than he was at publicly taking issues and ideas into new territory. But Breindel understood power in a way few people do. He recognized early in his life that personality is more important than ideology. It’s all about proximity and access. If you have someone’s ear, you can make things happen.

    That sounds like the antithesis of what Kaplan stood for, at least the sense you get in the article. A bit curious, contrasting the way you portrayed him.

    • Pamela Olson says:

      “It’s all about proximity and access. If you have someone’s ear, you can make things happen.”

      Ah, but how do you get that proximity and access?

      I’ll tell you: By telling those in power what they want to hear. They love listening to that sh**.

  3. Citizen says:

    Clearly Kaplan knew which way the crass world worked. And he wanted it to be different. Sounds like he wanted a meritocracy of morality, ethics, and ideas, agenda ideals. So why did he distinguish between you, Phil as an American and a Jew? I guess I mean, but I could be corrected, that he meant the Jewish Americans were either less than American or more than American? Oh, I see, you are still working on that…I hope both you do, and he desired, the most universal good. That’s why I am a MW regular.

  4. just says:

    I am so sorry that you have lost a dear friend and mentor, Phil.

    He won’t be forgotten. Mondoweiss is a testament to Peter and to you. Truth-telling at its best. I never “knew” him, but I do now, thanks to you.

    L’chaim!

    (PS– I’m thoroughly enchanted that you had a conversation about Charles Dickens… a favorite human of mine, who died so young but whose fire burns so very brightly)

  5. Ellen says:

    Thank you Phil for sharing this. It is important.

  6. bintbiba says:

    Beautiful tribute, Mr. Weiss. The man tapping the cigar in the cloud must be proud!

  7. W.Jones says:

    Memory eternal.

  8. David Samel says:

    Phil, sorry for your loss. He sounds like quite a guy who played a big part in your life. You reveal at the end that he was schooled by Eric Breindel and disagreed with you a lot and even suspected you of Holocaust denial. Also, it looks like he thought your pro-Palestinian activism was a way of working out personal issues. Still your personal fondness and appreciation for what he taught you are beautifully expressed.

  9. American says:

    My sympathy for your lose.
    Very interesting friendship— or ‘what a pair you were’ —-differences without animosity.

  10. I’m sorry, Phil, for your – and journalism’s – loss, and want to thank you for the insight into the role Peter Kaplan played in your life and the launching of this very important blog. Someone should write a biography about that guy.

    “Mondoweiss was his idea; he said I had to write about whatever was on my mind. He thereby granted me freedom to obsess; and 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.”

    That’s a pretty big “reveal” right there.

    But I disagree with his statement that you’re not an American, Phil. He was right about “An American in New York” not being the right title for this blog, but America is an important historical idea in part because Jefferson took Adams’s need for a declaration of why the American colonists needed to be independent from British rule, and turned it into a statement of universal values. Jefferson who opposed immigration, because he thought the then-existing “stock” was pretty good and would only get diluted, but lost that one. Jefferson who had his unique view onto universal values from his perspective at Monticello, the little mountain top, of privileged white Anglo-Saxon plantation owner, slave owner, married into the Randolph family.

    You and Thomas Jefferson, Phil. America has that unique historical quality of extracting viewpoints onto, and enduring statements of, universal values out of different racial, ethnic, religious, cultural, economic and historical backgrounds. As America and Zionism come to grips with each other, Phil, you’re the main reporter.

  11. Walid says:

    Sounds like a great guy, Phil, sorry for your loss.

  12. Citizen says:

    Extremely interesting post by Philip Weiss. You can learn a lot about Phil Weiss from reading this article about the model he was encouraged to emulate by a guy he so admires and is so indebted to: link to nymag.com

  13. oh phil, i’m so sorry. my heart goes out to you.

  14. Woody Tanaka says:

    Phil, I am so sorry for your loss.

  15. Bumblebye says:

    Biiig Hug, Phil. You’ll pass it on to others who loved him.

    “he was proud of fathering this website”
    You tellin’ us who’s the daddy?
    XXX

  16. Thank you for sharing your personal experiences with a remarkable individual. He will be missed.

  17. Pamela Olson says:

    “He wanted the power of observing the dirty game, not playing it.”

    Perfect turn of phrase. All journalists should be like this. Instead, most are making gravy from the game itself, and negating themselves in the process. No longer a journalist — just another horse trading hack.

  18. Pamela Olson says:

    Sorry for your loss, and thanks for this lovely, soulful tribute.

    As far as Dickens — “A Christmas Carol” has been thoroughly overdone by now, but it has always struck me as an incredibly powerful piece of prose. Someone with the least possible chance of changing his mind and his life is given the gift of being shown reality for what it is — and it finally breaks through and changes him completely. Breaks him out of his prison of denial, loneliness and grimly satisfied despair. I’ve met lots of people I think would benefit greatly from a visit by three ghosts.

    If only the spirits of past, present, and future could visit Israel — show them what really happened, what’s truly going on now, and where things are actually heading. Would it do any good? Will we ever know?

    • RoHa says:

      I was a bit sad that Scrooge allowed himself to be bullied out his principles by the emotional manipulations of the ghosts. I would have preferred him to stand fast until they offered logical arguments.

      • Pamela Olson says:

        Logic is grounded in subjective experience. If you don’t know what you truly value, logic becomes meaningless.

        • RoHa says:

          “If you don’t know what you truly value, logic becomes meaningless.”

          Logical investigation can lead you discover what you do value, to decide what you should value, and to change your values. Values and changes of values grounded in rationality are far more likely to be well-chosen than those scared into you by a bunch of ghosts.

        • RoHa says:

          Just as values and changes of values grounded in rationality are far more likely to be well-chosen than those bullied into you by a bunch of Zionists.

        • gamal says:

          Hi Ms Olson, Joha wrestled with just such issues…as in….

          Free bread:

          The Mullah’s wife sent him to buy some bread. When the Mullah arrived at the bread shop he saw a long line waiting to buy bread. He thought he would do something to get in front of the line. He shouted, “People, don’t you know the Sultan’s daughter is getting married tonight and he is giving away free bread?” The multitude ran toward the palace as the Sultan was generous to a fault and loved his daughter extravagantly. The Mullah was now in front of the line and was about to buy bread when he thought to himself, “Mullah, you are truly a fool. All the citizen’s are getting free bread tonight and I am about to pay for it”. So he ran to the palace and when he got there he was thoroughly beaten by the disappointed people.

        • eljay says:

          >> Just as values and changes of values grounded in rationality are far more likely to be well-chosen than those bullied into you by a bunch of Zionists.

          The very best values are the ones you very carefully cherry-pick from religious texts and then interpret to your benefit and satisfaction.

          Mmmm…cherry-licious! :-)

        • Pamela Olson says:

          I’m not talking about values scared into you or given to you. I’m talking about looking deep within. Sometimes some people could use a little help. They are missing the forest for the (internally logically consistent) trees. Or maybe they’re in the wrong forest altogether.

          It’s logical for Scrooge not to care about the Tiny Tim’s of the world. They’re just surplus population, not useful (in his mind). It’s easy for many Zionists not to care about Palestinians. They’re just surplus population, not useful.

          It takes more than logic to transcend that self-imposed trap. The logical post-rationalizations will only come after you’ve subjectively come to the conclusion that will ultimately lead to less cognitive dissonance and more happiness (that is, if you value happiness).

          Or you can stay a “perfectly logical” robot forever and never get in touch with the heart of things — with yourself and what you really value.

          I’ve heard a lot of Zionists talk about what a profound relief it was to finally let go of their denial. They never talk about someone rationally arguing them out of it. It usually happens all at once, due to a subjective experience (an internal feeling when things happened that put the lie to all their “logic”). Once they have the feeling, then they post-rationalize it with new logic to make things internally consistent again. But the feeling is the primary experience.

          Which isn’t to say we’re all just hostages to whims. Our feelings — our deeper, truer, more solid and lasting intuition of things — is often deeply rooted in reality. We’re children of this universe, after all. It has shaped us from the beginning. Sometimes there are glitches, like when fear overrides everything else. But living in constant (often unreasoning) fear is not a very pleasant way to spend time.

          So if you’re aware enough to do so, you work backwards from the feeling of unpleasantness and try to convince yourself of logical reasons why not to live in fear, so that you can enjoy and appreciate your life more. But the feeling (usually) comes first.

  19. Sorry for your loss, Phil.

  20. Abu Malia says:

    Sorry for your loss of a good friend! Phill

  21. schlemiel says:

    An interesting piece. As Phil Weiss says, he is a member of the most self-indulgent generation, and in many ways merely a grown up adolescent still at war with his parents. That would explain a 50-year old suddenly discovering the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and waging a war against Neocons and all Zionists because one of them fired him from his magazine. I knew it had to be something like that. It’s the only thing that fits.

    • MRW says:

      schlemiel=schmuck. BTW, the blog came first. The firing followed BECAUSE the 20-something owner didn’t like the blog.

  22. RoHa says:

    It sounds as though his name should be in the credits, along with Phil and Adam.

  23. jon s says:

    Sorry for your loss, Phil, and thanks for writing a beautiful tribute.

  24. Kathleen says:

    Phil your piece had me tearing up. What a remarkable person. Brilliant and compassionate in his giving…allowing people to do their best. Giving them the space the opportunity.

    His response to the majority of the media outlets laying down in the run up to Iraq. Nailed it. Most of us marching on the streets, in the halls of congress, getting arrested trying to stop a war again…old folks, young folks yes hundreds of thousands, millions world wide. And the media rolled over.

    Steve Kornacki did a tribute to Peter on Sat or Sunday’s UP program . Just went to the UP website can not find the segment he did on Peter Kaplan. I am also sorry for your loss and his family’s loss. He sounds like he was a gem of an individual.

  25. Shmuel says:

    Thanks, Phil. A very moving tribute and vivid remembrance.

  26. Citizen says:

    Didn’t this guy Phil says launched him, also recommend another guy as a role model, a guy who was obsessed with communism and the Holocaust? That is to say, an early neocon recommended for Phil by the guy who launched this MW site as a role model (Eric Breindel)? Why am I the only one asking this question? Can we conclude Phil has disappointed the guy he is so sorry to lose to mortality, based on who Kaplan recommended to Phil as a role model? Or no? Just asking. I’m admittedly confused.

  27. Citizen says:

    Why do I keep getting this pop-up to donate long after I did donate much more than is requested by the pop-up?

  28. MRW says:

    Phil, the moment I heard Peter died, I thought of you and how much this would hit you. I know his death, no matter how much you might have been prepared for it, would sear through you like a fat hot poker punching a hole in the middle of your chest, a hole you can’t fill.

    We have indelible deaths in our lives, deaths that we don’t get over. And I know this is one of them for you. Somehow the simple description of Peter’s blue oxford shirt and Navy jacket told me so. It was such a caress for his physicality, an aching call for something you want back.

    You wrote a lovingly magnificent epitaph for him.

    Martin

  29. Phil, I’m very sad for you, and for us all who’ve felt his influence through this site. Thanks for inspiring us all to listen as courageously as you and your mentor, friend, did–do. And, wow, thanks for the link to your work on Prof. Sonnenfeld: it shows what you mean about how Peter Kaplan refused selfish “power” for a truer power to help the powerless.

  30. Citizen says:

    Phil, sorry for such a deep loss. I had a taste of this myself this year. Such a loss is ineffable, but your article tries hard and does convey to us part of the depth of your loss.

  31. gamal says:

    “All his creativity and glamour and imagination he poured into others”, that is just the most perfect summation of devotion. other beings are more precious than the deity.