Sure, sometimes Peter Kaplan, who died Friday at the age of 59, seemed stuck in time — the tortoise-shell glasses, the ever-present khakis, the charming old expressions like “Have a ball!” but what a time it was — the New York City of George S. Kaufman, the Hollywood of Orson Welles, and the rough-and-tumble journalism from that era. He recreated that reporting in the salmon-colored pages of the New York Observer where, every week for fifteen years, he skewered the elite for other members of the elite.
Peter was like an anthropologist of late 20th-century New York with the manic sense of fun of Harpo Marx. People waited for The Observer’s appearance each Wednesday to see who was up and who was down —and experienced the latter with a delicious sense of schadenfreude. But in many ways, the nostalgia for an earlier era was a pose. Peter was about reinvention for the future with an eye to the past. Peter updated and reinvented that earlier-style of journalism with real reporting, a strong point of view, smart writing and clever headlines.
The front of The Observer was like a journalistic bento box where everything looks so good you did not know where to start. He would talk you through a story, but you had to persevere through the long pauses and “ahhhs,” before getting the witty explanation of the theme in the shorthand prose of the screenwriter–it’s Donald Trump meets Citizen Kane. “There you go,” he would say with a smile.
He created a column called “Sex and the City” which became the basis for that cable and movie franchise. He made stars of his writers and delighted in it. He was an admirer of Henry Luce and was ambitious for journalism and its importance in people’s lives. He believed that journalism was a noble calling and a way—however imperfect—of getting at the truth. And he never stopped trying.