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Peter W. Kaplan, editorial director of Fairchild Fashion Media who died Friday at age 59, was remembered by colleagues and friends as one of the most influential and savviest editors of his generation.
Kaplan died of the effects of lymphoma after fighting the disease for the past year.
This story first appeared in the December 2, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
With his charisma and irrepressible interests, Kaplan managed to navigate Manhattan’s ultraslick media scene without becoming jaded or losing his signature smile.
In 2010, Kaplan joined the Condé Nast-owned Fairchild Fashion Media as editorial director after holding the role of creative director at Condé Nast Traveler. In the 15 years he spent prior to that as editor in chief of The New York Observer, Kaplan helped reinvent that weekly as one with an acerbic wit and an irreverent point of view. Ubiquitous as those factors are now in today’s overpopulated, digital media terrain, such characteristics were far from common in the snark-free, pre-blogger era.
Raised in New Jersey with his two brothers Robert and James, Kaplan graduated from Harvard University. In his first exposure to the news business, he took a job as a desk assistant at ABC News in New York. Over the years, his career included posts, in addition to Condé Nast and the Observer, with Charlie Rose’s talk show and the late Clay Felker’s now-defunct Manhattan Inc., among others.
Gregarious and self-effacing, Kaplan’s boyish smile and easygoing, elliptical conversational style belied his intellectual depth, cultural breadth and sharp news instincts. Nostalgic as he may have been for some of the grit and fortitude that once fueled New York, his days at Fairchild centered on digital innovation, in-depth coverage, cultural and media intelligence and strategic thinking. Ideas-driven, Kaplan was instrumental in relaunching and redesigning WWD.com with a greater emphasis on breaking news, striking photography and easy-to-navigate features. He brought his highly sophisticated visual sense to WWD, as well as a gift for writing a shrewd headline. Kaplan was also the driving force behind the relaunch of the former Fairchild men’s magazine M as a quarterly and was an innovator of “reverse publishing,” print media derived from Web content, as proven by his key role in the launch of Style.com’s twice-a-year print magazine.
“Working with Peter filled each day with exclamation points and plenty of brio, one of his favorite words. His singular sparkle will be deeply missed,” said Gina Sanders, chief executive officer of Fairchild Fashion Media.
Joining Fairchild was a bit of a homecoming for Kaplan, who started reading WWD as a boy, since his father, a sportswear executive, was a subscriber. He came to the paper with great respect for its long history and its quirky balance of competitive business reporting and spirited fashion and cultural coverage.
While a newsman through and through, Kaplan traveled easily through various fields of influence in New York media circles. He worked as executive producer of public television’s “Charlie Rose,” cultural correspondent for The New York Times and editorial director of Manhattan, Inc. magazine. His writing portfolio included pieces for New York magazine, Rolling Stone, Esquire and The Washington Post. He also coedited “The Kingdom of New York,” published by HarperCollins in 2009.
A throwback in terms of his attire, Kaplan wore tortoiseshell glasses, Paul Stuart khakis, and a pale blue Oxford shirt — occasionally frayed — with the sleeves rolled up and a tucked-in tie, day-in and day-out. As for that preferred color combination, he told The New Republic magazine in a 2012 profile, “It happens at the beach — the ocean meets the shore.” For years, the fast-moving Kaplan favored shoes with steel supports because he believed the extra heft helped tone his legs. When those were discontinued, he bought brown Alden shoes since his mother (a psychotherapist) had advised that black was too severe, the profile also noted. More recently in M, Kaplan reminded readers of the often forgotten human aspect of fashion. “The suit or the shirt you see is the function of a brutal and sensitive attack as complicated as the movie business or the automotive business,” he wrote.
As the Observer’s longest-serving editor, a post he walked away from in 2009, Kaplan turned the salmon-colored broadsheet into a spirited must-read with a distinctively New York point of view. Candace Bushnell, Nikki Finke, Frank DiGiacomo, Ben Smith, Choire Sicha and George Gurley were among the voices that he helped define. Championing young journalists was something Kaplan succeeded in doing throughout his career. Bushnell’s high-flying tales about New York’s movers and shakers wound up on the printed page thanks to Kaplan, who encouraged her to spill it in what he coined “Sex and the City.”
Intent on creating “a kind of intrinsic New York wit with reporting that no one else did,” Kaplan splashed oversize illustrations on the cover, played up the headlines and laid bare the absurdities and humor in Manhattan’s well-entrenched excesses. Under his stewardship, the Observer took on what Kaplan once described as “a hard-edged view of New York that combines the idea of power and a point of view. That’s what the paper is. That’s what the Web site is. That’s why the headlines are written as they are. We are somehow the embodiment of the New Yorker’s psyche.”
Arthur L. Carter, founder of the Observer, first met Kaplan in 1992 when he was in search of an editor for the paper. “He came to my office on 64th Street and that was that,” Carter recalled Saturday, “I thought he was a very talented, lovely man and very articulate. He had a very strong spirit and view of the newspaper business. For him, newspapers were not just a business or just a job. He felt strongly about newspapers and what newspapers could do.
“He was able to get to the heart and soul of a story, and get it on the printed page, which is a very difficult thing to do,” Carter continued, “Peter brought it to a whole other level. I don’t think that anyone else has the unusual combination of intellectual brilliance and kindness to the human condition that Peter had.”
As a former Harvard classmate of Kaplan’s, New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson said he seemed to be half living in 1973 and also living in some kind of screwball comedy. He and her husband, Henry Little (whom Kaplan introduced her to at Harvard) started The Herman J. Mankiewicz Film Society to show obscure old movies like “Duck Soup” and “The Fly” on campus that would reel in a crowd of 10 on a good night. Kaplan also organized “The Stoogeathon,” a marathon screening of Three Stooges episodes. During that extravaganza, he somehow piped in live audio of one of the three comedians, Moe (Howard), who was then living in a nursing home. “It was the coolest thing to ever have happened to us to have one of the Three Stooges brought in live to Harvard,” Abramson said.
Another coup for Kaplan was finagling the premiere of the 1974 film “Daisy Miller” to be held at the Orson Welles Cinema in Cambridge, Mass., and arranging for the movie’s director, Peter Bogdanovich, and its star, Cybill Shepherd, to visit Harvard’s campus. Beyond the movie screenings, Abramson said she would not have become a journalist had Kaplan not had “a strange way of disappearing” occasionally, when they were undergraduate stringers for Time magazine. As the magazine’s number-two Harvard-based freelancer, Abramson would get all of Kaplan’s more choice assignments by default if he went MIA for a few days.
Noting how Kaplan remained unjaded throughout his life, Abramson said, “He had what I can only describe as an incredibly romanticized drive. It’s a little injurious to say he was Gatsbyesque but he had a fierce determination to invent himself as a character and the talent to pull it off. He became a latter-day Harold Ross or William Shawn — the fabulous editor of my generation who many young writers just blossomed under.”
Having become friends in 1984 when Kaplan was a reporter at the Times, Condé Nast editorial director Thomas J. Wallace said that it was in the years that followed that Kaplan took on the role that he was made for — editor. “A fine editor weaves a lot of facts into a great story. Peter wanted more than a great story. He wanted to make a difference. And he did,” Wallace said.
“Fundamentally, Peter was a very serious man. He had this look he would get when he was about to say something important. His head would go slightly back, then the corners of his mouth would turn slightly down, he would look away for a minute and then turn and look directly at you. What struck me wasn’t that he did that, but the frequency in which he did. So many things struck him as important and worth talking about, and talking about seriously,” Wallace said.
“When we were at the Times, there was a tradition — as there is in many places — that each person who left would be taken out for a drink. We would all go to the Algonquin for drinks. And the person who was leaving would stand to say a few words and tear up. Then the rest of us would start crying because we realized we had to go back to work. At some point, we realized this is far too much fun and we don’t need someone to leave to get together,” Wallace said. ‘‘So we started having lunch every six weeks or so and that became the greatest employment agency for 20 years for all of us.”
Another member of that lunch club, Charlie Rose said he and Kaplan were continually exchanging ideas. Earlier this year, the talk show host ran the questions he had planned for his interview with John Galliano by Kaplan. “That’s what he meant to me. He was like a wise presence on my shoulder,” Rose said.
When PBS approached Rose about developing a weekly show that has become “Charlie Rose: The Week,” Rose was reminded of a New York-centric show proposal that he and Kaplan drafted in 2010. “As sick as he was, he found the memo [for the show].” Rose said. “When I reread it, I was struck by his incredible love of journalism, love of the city and love for people.”
As a sign of thanks, Kaplan is credited as “executive of ideas” for “Charlie Rose: The Week.” Rose said he hopes to develop their 2010 show idea in some capacity in Kaplan’s memory.
Not one to hold back when he had something to say, Kaplan’s idealistic wisdom-seeking and accessible personality could vacillate quickly from affable to take-no-prisoners. His quirks also made him a target for lampooning — numerous fake Twitter accounts were born out of aspects of his personality.
“Shortly after Peter joined Fairchild,” said Ed Nardoza, editor in chief of WWD, “we told him the story of how for decades a big blue banner used to hang over the WWD newsroom. It said simply: ‘Our salvation depends upon our printing the news.’ But in the mid-Nineties, an overzealous business executive had misinterpreted that 100-year-old statement of journalistic independence as arrogance and had the banner taken down and relegated to the trash heap. A few weeks after hearing that story, Peter walked into the offices struggling with a wide, ungainly object all bundled up in brown paper. He had taken it upon himself to make a six-foot-long wooden replica of the old banner, based on an old photograph and actually painted in its original font. There it was, built to last: ‘Our salvation depends upon our printing the news.’ We promptly hung it up in the middle of the newsroom. Anyone coming through today can’t miss it. I consider that to be one of Peter’s most valuable legacies here at WWD.”
Another longtime friend, Sally Bedell Smith, said Kaplan was the perfect wingman when they covered television together at the Times. “He had such a pitch perfect appreciation for pop culture and he was always full of ideas, including many that were offbeat. One of our friends who is an editor said they wished they could have Peter sitting in a corner [of their office] giving a stream of ideas,” Smith said.
Another friend, Fox News editor at large Peter Boyer, said, “Peter was one of my first friends in New York. I met him 30 years ago when we were working at the Times. At the time, I was new to New York. I had come up from Atlanta and the West Coast before that. In meeting him, I thought, ‘This is what a New Yorker is like.’ Of course, I was terribly wrong about that. Most New Yorkers are not nearly so sweet.”
Boyer continued, “But the unmistakable thing about Peter was only one thing — that big, glorious smile. It seemed to enter the room before he did and fortunately that was the one thing that stayed there after he was gone. It looked like he was always thinking, ‘Ain’t it just grand?’’
Upon leaving the Observer a few years earlier, Kaplan said, “It’s as good as it gets. I had a little newspaper in New York City! You can’t beat that. No matter who you are. It’s better to have a little newspaper in New York City than a big newspaper in New York City. Because then you only have to report and write for the people you care about. And nobody else.”
That kind of free-minded thinking served Kaplan well in his various roles and that indie spirit also helped to define Gawker, Politico and other media outlets with a distinctive point of view. Post-Observer, Kaplan set his sights on “getting on the front lines to figure out how to save journalism.”
In his attempt to protect the printed word, he tried to cover the moral responsibility that sometimes is eclipsed by the basic facts. In his editor’s letter in M’s summer issue, Kaplan questioned the lack of contemporary heroes. “What of this ragtag century — an urchin century in which men have pretty little to look to in terms of navigation lights in the fog. There is kind of a terror of romanticism in this age — you tell me why. We may be living in the least romantic moment in the history of the American civilization.”
He went on to say, “But in the Age of Obama — and in so many ways it is — the concept of heroism has evaporated. Physical courage and ethical courage have generally been split up, and intellectual courage has been kicked into the dumpster.”
But Kaplan ended the piece on a more optimistic note, “Often it takes a crisis in America to bring boys to manhood. ‘Moral courage,’ Robert F. Kennedy said, ‘is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence.’ But that kind of courage may be more rife than we know.”
In addition to his brothers, Kaplan is survived by his wife, Lisa Chase, an editor at Elle, and their son David, as well as his daughter Caroline and other sons Charles and Peter from his first marriage to Audrey Walker, which ended in divorce. Services will be held Tuesday at 10 a.m. at the Larchmont Synagogue in Larchmont, N.Y.