Peter W. Kaplan, the former New York Observer editor who cast a sardonic lens on Manhattan’s ruling class while still evincing a romantic’s view of the city, has died. He was 59.
Kaplan died yesterday in Manhattan, his brother James said by telephone. The cause was cancer.
Kaplan’s wry and quixotic take on New York was ever-present in the pages of the Observer, the salmon-colored broadsheet for which he was best known. As its longest-serving editor, from the 1990s and into the next decade, he crafted its clever tone, an intelligent and muckraking style that became irritatingly familiar to Manhattan’s elite -- whom he saw as both his subject and reader.
They included real-estate billionaires, municipal pols, old-money socialites, restaurateurs, movie stars, investment bankers and, perhaps most critically, the knot of editors, producers and publishers who sat at the helm of some of the most powerful media organizations in the country. In Kaplan’s eyes, they all congregated regularly at the same bars and restaurants.
“You could follow them week-by-week like characters in a 19th-century novel published in weekly installments, showing up, disappearing for a few weeks, returning much changed with a new wife or a business triumph or a nice embezzlement,” he had written in the foreword to “The Kingdom of New York,“ a compendium of Observer articles published in 2009.
Kaplan saw the Observer as a necessary alternative to the New York Times’ dominance, and it offered competing interpretations on the city, what Kaplan likened to the catholicity of viewpoints found in the film “Rashomon.”
Kaplan was also inspired by the point-of-view reporting espoused by legendary editor Clay Felker, the founder of New York magazine and one of Kaplan’s mentors. To that end, he crafted a contemporary template for Felker’s New Journalism, publishing smart, punchy headlines and fully reported stories in which the writer often entered the narrative.
As an example of his faith in news-gathering, Kaplan noted how in 2003 the Observer landed an interview with Jayson Blair, the disgraced New York Times reporter who fabricated news articles. An Observer reporter had “staked out Blair’s house in Brooklyn until he was invited in and got the following quote of his dreams: ‘So Jayson Blair the human being could live, Jayson Blair the journalist had to die,’” Kaplan recounted in the foreword to “The Kingdom.”
Perhaps Kaplan’s best-known protege was Candace Bushnell, a freelance journalist who began writing for the Observer in 1993. Kaplan devised a column based on Bushnell’s dating life he called “Sex and the City.” The column later became the basis for the hit HBO series and a pair of Hollywood films.
His stewardship of the Observer ended three years after Arthur L. Carter, the Manhattan businessman who founded the Observer in 1987, sold the newspaper to real-estate developer Jared Kushner in 2006 for $10 million. Kushner, 25 at the time, cut costs at the money-losing publication, forcing Kaplan to trim staff. The paper’s format changed from broadsheet to tabloid, and the articles became shorter. When Kaplan saw the newsroom’s budget dwindling, he decided it was time to leave.
When Kaplan left the Observer, he told Charlie Rose, “I have a sort of an evangelical mission to save the part of the print media that I love, which is sophisticated, arcane, a little bit of a throwback to the ’20s.”
Peter Wennik Kaplan was born on Feb. 10, 1954, in South Orange, New Jersey. His father, Robert, was an executive at a clothing firm and his mother, Roberta Wennik, was a psychotherapist. Kaplan grew up in northern New Jersey, making the occasional trip to New York.
His first brush with journalism began when he wrote for his high-school newspaper and later at Harvard College as a reporter for the Crimson. As an undergraduate, he also worked as a stringer for Time magazine and managed a campus film society called Herman J. Mankiewicz Pictures, an expression of his nostalgia for screwball satires of the 1930s.
After graduating from Harvard in 1976, he wrote for various magazines and landed a job writing a television column for Esquire. In 1984, he joined Manhattan, Inc., a wry business-focused title, and eventually became its editorial director under Felker. It was his first foray into managing a newsroom.
In 1993, Kaplan entered television when Charlie Rose asked Kaplan to be his executive producer. A year later, Carter lured Kaplan away to become the fourth editor of the Observer.
After leaving the Observer, Kaplan had a short stint at Conde Nast Traveler before managing Fairchild Fashion Group, where he revived M magazine, a glossy men’s title focused on style and luxury.
“Now the world has changed,” he wrote in “The Kingdom.” “Will those papers persevere? They will, if they can buy safe passage into the new era. Great cultures are always being declared washed up. The Kingdom isn’t dead. It will exist as long as there’s a reporter and an editor to conjure it.”
Kaplan married Audrey Mary Walker in 1984 and they had three children before divorcing in the late 1990s. He also had a son, Davey, with Lisa Chase, an editor at the Observer whom he married last year.
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