If you don’t know who he is, read the NY Times obituary and get back to me. I’ll wait….
Okay, you’re back. You needed to read that obit for two reasons. One, because it gives some context to my little reminiscense of the guy which follows, but much much much more important, because you get to read something by Margalit Fox, who I believe is the best writer in New York. Going away. I mean, not even close. Her obituaries are absolutely shimmering. If you read an obit by Margalit Fox, you never have to read anything else about a person. You know everything you need to know and the way you should know it. And (and this is the highest praise I can muster), you know absolutely nothing about Margalit Fox.
Peter Kaplan was three years ahead of me at Harvard. He worked on the Crimson and I met him briefly in 1976 after I joined the daily paper in the spring of my freshman year (The paper’s treasurer then was a gregarious poker-playing degenerate named Steve Ballmer). Kaplan was all horned-rimmed glasses and tweedy self-confidence. There were a few guys like that at Harvard, but very few who could actually back it up. He’d write some long piece on culture or history and you’d want to get out of the business, which would have been convenient had I actually been in the business at the time.
I moved to Manhattan 33 years ago tomorrow. I’ve told the story before. I had my 1972 Olds Cutlass (with 105,000 miles), all my wordly possessions in the trunk (with plenty of room left) and $1500 to last the rest of my life. I parked the car at my friend’s house in Greenwich after I moved into a room on the 14th floor of the Times Square Motor Hotel. (Seven months later, unable to put it in drive or reverse after I did two stand-up shows at a club on Staten Island, I sold the Cutlass to a used car dealer for $75).
The Times Square Motel was two doors down from the offices of the New York Times. I figured if they wanted me, I could be right over. I had quit my job as a sportswriter at the Albany Times-Union a month before and all I wanted to do was be a writer in New York City. Any writer. One of the first guys I called was Jonathan Alter, my classmate and Crimson colleague, who was just beginning his enviable career at Newsweek. He told me, “You need to call Peter Kaplan.”
I met him for breakfast downtown at a tiny diner. I remember a few things. He ordered oatmeal and he didn’t take his overcoat off. I told him I was thinking about auditioning at Catch a Rising Star and he thought that was a good idea. He was encouraging about any possibility I wanted to pursue. I just needed to decide what that would be. And then we went back to his apartment around the corner. It was everyone’s first apartment in Manhattan: Old, dark, book-strewn. While I was there, the phone rang. It was someone who wanted to know if he was interested in writing the sequel to “Star Wars.” Peter Kaplan laughed and said no thanks. Sitting there, December 1980, this is what I thought it was to be a writer in New York. You go out to eat oatmeal, you leave your coat on, you go back to your apartment and while you’re working on a book or a magazine piece, someone calls and asks if you want to do a screenplay.
22 years later, we met again. During that time, I had stood on the sidelines and admired the way he ran the Observer or the occasional feature or interview with which he would grace us. Nikki Finke, the great Hollywood reporter (DeadlineHollywod) he helped nuture at the Observer, said he would have been the perfect editor of the New Yorker after Tina Brown but he refused to campaign for it. We ran into each other in April 2002 at a memorial dinner for Joe Dalton, another Crimson-hatched, get-out-of-the-business level journalist who died too young. He congratulated me about Letterman and ESPN Magazine, where I had my first column at the time. I reminded him about turning down the chance to write the sequel to “Star Wars.” He laughed and said, “I remember that. There were calling everybody.”
Uh, no they weren’t.