World’s Finest

My Life With and Without the Supermen.

(Courtesy of Lisa Chase)

June 2009, the Century Association, midtown Manhattan. The graying man being honored that night wears a tan suit, his tie loosened and askew, making him appear as the prep school boy he never was. But what else could Peter Kaplan wear? There was the blue blazer that saw him through the fall and winter and most of the spring. But summer was coming and he’d switched to the outfit that came to define him. There were those who swore Peter wore a trench coat — he did not — and even a fedora — no. Those belonged to The Man, that beautiful figure who graced the New York Observer’s logo for most of its history. The one glaring out into the skyline sunbeams that radiated over the great city. That was the paper, not Peter. Or maybe it secretly was.

That night, after fifteen years as editor of the Observer, Peter had come to the decision most of us believed he would never make. He was leaving. And scores of us who’d worked for him — some flying in from California or Cincinnati — had come to see Peter, listen to him, be with him, as he made his official goodbye to the place most of us still considered home.

Of course, there were others there. Extended members of a family that included a great many people who never worked in the old, roach-infested offices in the townhouse on East 64th Street, or the more “professionally” arranged headquarters downtown. There were magazine editors and dignitaries. Old friends. Writers of great acclaim. Among them was a man who had stayed in the back of the crowd, taking in the currency of the room, enjoying the spectacle, measuring the meaning of this moment.

By now, David Carr had been at The New York Times for several years and had emerged as something more than the paper’s media columnist. For millions of readers, he was The Times. For reasons all his own, Carr was wearing a baseball cap and brown blazer that night, and at some point he had approached the guest of honor, as the photograph shows, to tell him how special the evening was — how special Peter was. And Kaplan, who hated parties, who believed himself the off-screen auteur, looks uncomfortable with the praise.

To those who didn’t know them, two men who looked so different must therefore be different. After all, Peter was the child of some privilege, who’d lived different lives as a screenwriter and television producer and would-be cartoonist before finding his place as editor of the publication he saw as a “reporter’s paper where writers felt at home.” He never went through what David did. He never had to fight off terrible addictions — cocaine and alcohol foremost among them. Kaplan never had that dark period Carr wrote about in his memoir Night of The Gun. He never had to overcome the jagged pits of his own making to become a dutiful husband and father, a great editor and writer and friend. A Timesman of the modern age.

(Courtesy of Erin Lee Carr)

But for those who knew them, really knew them, as I had the great fortune to do, they shared so much. They were both boyish in their own ways. Both could be stark in their assessments of you, which in the moment read as cruel. But with that same brutish honesty also applied to praise, unfeigned, a true gleam was placed upon you when you did something right. They both believed in your potential — as a person, as a reporter, as a friend. And each made sure to make sure you knew that they were proud of you, that you’d done them right. This is what you forever sought out, no matter how old you were, or how long it had been since you worked for either man. More than their approval, you sought their respect. To have it felt extraordinary.

With their passing, people have tried — and for that matter failed — to make both martyrs of a long-gone age. They point to Peter’s love of print as a sign that somehow the business had passed him by. In truth, he loved digital media, though not aggregators, and signaled his belief that the iPad would provide a rebirth for the magazine industry by hiding his device in a manila envelope tucked among the crumpled-up broadsheets he was reading. Likewise, though he was a man who loved newspapers, Carr was also the first person who showed me how to use Twitter. A dogged reporter who came out of the alternative press, he could see that whole business unraveling, and he heralded the next generation of people trying to provide original content and storytelling in innovative ways.

That’s what I’ve tried to think about these past few months since this photo was first sent to me by Peter’s widow, Lisa Chase: the future. Though my study is lousy with photos of the two men, this is the only one I have of them together. It reminds me of the comic book Peter and I always spoke about — and laughed about — World’s Finest, which for decades featured the joint adventures of Batman and Superman. And as with that comic, here they are: heroes in their own right, held together in the same frame, men who changed the lives of many, but especially mine.

But is that who they were? Heroes? No. They were more. Heroes exist in granite, on posters against a boyhood wall. They are the men of distant myth. David and Peter were actual people, two men who took it upon themselves to take me in when I was still very young, to lecture me and mentor me, to love me, to help me grow as a writer and a reporter and a man. From the day I met David when I was 20, and Peter at 26, not a single moment passed when I hadn’t turned to one or the other, seeking out counsel or solace, telling them news of great achievement and heart-thumping worry, sharing with them experiences of the most intimate kind. I like to think the photograph has helped me make it through these months, as I’ve struggled to come to terms with the fact that I will never speak to either of them again. In truth, outside of the shared misery one feels in losing two people so close to you, it’s led me to question their separate but shared legacies and outlooks on a media world that has changed so very much since they (and even I) entered it.

Soon it will be the second anniversary of Peter’s death. And this year marked the first Father’s Day when I didn’t reach out to either him or David, to tell how much I cared for them, loved them, wanting them to know how important they were in my life, both in the past and moving forward.

Of course, I’m not alone here. My experiences with each man mirrors and, at times, even shrivels compared to the experiences others — namely Ta-Nehisi Coates and Tom Scocca and Brian Stelter, John Homans, Frank DiGiacomo and Jim Windolf among others—have shared about the two since Peter succumbed to lymphoma over the Thanksgiving holiday in 2013 and David was felled by undiagnosed lung cancer earlier this year.

Many have shared those universally unique first moments. The ones where you walked into Kaplan’s office, filled with unread biographies he’d never get rid of, stacks of newspapers, unfinished coffee cups, untouched bottles of bourbon given as gifts. He was late, of course, and during your time with him, he would drift off to emails with friends, phone calls with one of the illustrators who would illuminate the front page. When you finally got around to speaking about the matter at hand, you might leave disheartened, unsure if Kaplan ever wanted to see you again. I was lucky that he did.

(Courtesy of Jeff Cuyubamba)

As much as Kaplan could be mysterious in that first meeting, Carr was more than willing, perhaps too willing, to share his life with you. In those first encounters, he would tell you about everything — his life as an addict, his recovery, what he felt about the paper and the staff. Most important, perhaps, what he thought of your work.

That was just the start. When I arrived at the Washington City Paper in 1995 as an intern, Carr was just months into his job. I was pure potential to that point — a student of narrative nonfiction who’d gotten by on style alone. As Carr would later tell people again and again, I would sit under my desk and write longhand on yellow legal pads. And early on, everything I touched, he said, would turn to shit. But with his help, I managed to latch onto the story of a man who’d been left in the morgue for eight months. Retracing his life meant nights at the racetrack, botched interviews with his distrusting far-off family, a terse encounter at the boarding house where he died. Years later, at a dinner at Carr’s home in Montclair when my father spoke about how the story — “Goner” — was perhaps his favorite thing I’d ever done, Carr said, “Man, what a way to come out swinging. You haven’t come close since.”

But that was work. David and his wife Jill knew the misery I was living in that summer in Washington. They made sure that my nights didn’t merely revolve around sitting in a squalid dorm room listening to Reds baseball scratchily come across the 50,000-watt frequency of the team’s flagship station in Cincinnati. They had me over for dinner, took me to baseball games in Baltimore, its new ballpark always filled to capacity. They wanted me to know that I had a home. I did. In many ways, I never left.

That’s because from then until his death, David was there, always there, whenever I needed him. He was there when I desperately sought to move to New York from Chicago. He was there to take me upstate to his cabin, where he taught me, or attempted to, a great many things that involved actual physical labor. He always welcomed me to decompress from city life at his suburban home in New Jersey. We went to movies and concerts, ballgames at Shea. When an anti-depressant sent me spiraling into suicidal thoughts in the spring of 2010, I desperately reached out to David, who knew firsthand what it was like to stare down your demons and actually win.

It was David whom I turned to over my dissatisfaction with my first job in New York, and he helped me breach the often-impenetrable ranks of the Observer. How I got that job, taking over Peter’s much beloved print-media beat, seems mysterious to me even now, but I like to think that David — along with countless others who called Kaplan on my behalf — had a great deal to do with it. After all, he knew that Peter and I both loved the medium, loved its gilded history and its gossipy present.

As with my time in Washington, I stumbled badly at first, weighted by the expectations set by my predecessors in writing “Off the Record.” Yet Peter stuck with me, helping me, as my immediate editor Jason Gay did, to develop an informed, confident voice, fearless in its approach, as I made the column my own. As much as Peter yelled at me — and that happened a lot — he would come back with expressions of a warm, ebbing feeling of infinite possibilities, making you believe that you could do the impossible. Just days before the biggest break of my career, as I fretted through the front room of the townhouse, Peter physically picked me up, whirling me around, telling me not to worry, that I’d get the interview nearly everyone in New York had sought. I did. It changed my life, and it was all because of Peter.

Had this been the extent of my relationship with Kaplan, I’d remember him strictly as someone I once worked for, and whom I remember fondly. But it went beyond that, so much so that whenever I find myself alone, which I often do these days, I need only remember his voice to find my youth again, and in turn myself. In these silent moments, it all comes back to me — those hours spent behind closed doors speaking about Billy Wilder and Howard Hawks, about terrible DC Comics from the 1960s that he loved. These were tender, sincere conversations that might stretch on forever, and I can replay all of them on a loop.

(Courtesy of Jeff Cuyubamba)

In these times, I think back to moments that were both touching and farcical. I can remember clearly the rainy night we ran up and down the Upper East Side, me holding an umbrella over him as we tried, in vain, to catch a cab until he charmed a young woman into letting us share hers. Once inside, we loudly dropped every name we could in speaking to one another, talking about Graydon Carter and Rupert Murdoch, about Tina Brown and Harry Evans. At some length, we discussed why Brown’s last magazine, TALK, had failed when her Vanity Fair had not. All the while, Kaplan kept looking at the young lady’s face and back at mine.

“We were great back there,” Kaplan said almost immediately after we exited the cab, once again running with me sheltering him from the rain. “You should have asked her out.”

(Courtesy of Shravan Vidyarthi)

He was serious. Over the years he would never let the subject go. Once, at a benefit for Housing Works, he physically dragged me outside, ordering me to march right back into the event and “get yourself a girlfriend.” I often think that Kaplan feared that it would never happen for me, that I would spend my life on my own, as indeed I have, except for a brief engagement to a girl he couldn’t stand. He wanted me to know, especially after I left the paper, that he felt I needed to find someone, to have a family, to be happy. In this case, I’ve often felt I failed him.

Indeed, the great tell of a great mentor is that willingness to stick with you long after you’ve left their physical orbit. I can recall two different occasions when work had taken a terrible turn and David called before I had the chance to reach out to him. I know that once he nearly came to blows with someone on a Midtown street in defense of my reportorial ethics and professional honor. When things had fallen apart without warning at one particular job, I quite literally went running to him late in the night as he was ready to walk into a concert. He grabbed hold of my shaking shoulders then, and said of the well-known media baron I had been working for: “[Redacted] doesn’t love you. We love you.”

Likewise, when things had gone wrong in the job I took immediately after the Observer, Kaplan was the first to call, to tell me I needed to get out. Years later, after I moved to Washington as an adult, I found myself walking through the halls of a government building when I was struck by what Walker Percy might called malaise. I didn’t then, nor did I ever, belong there. And at that moment, I knelt on the ground, unable to move. The only thing I could do was to call Peter. I was lost, I told him, and I couldn’t see a way out. I had left New York, the only place outside of Southwest Ohio I’d ever actually loved, and now I was suddenly here, rudderless, without hope. He calmly told me we’d come up with a plan, figure things out together. If he needed to make a call, any call, on my behalf, he would. But at that moment, I needed to exit the building, compose myself, and get the hell home.

(Courtesy of Erin Lee Carr)

Lost. That was the word I used when I emailed David asking him to meet up just weeks before his death. The previous week, we’d seen Whiplash together on the Lower East Side, but I hadn’t gotten to speak to him. Months before, I’d handed over a manuscript for my first book (written only after Kaplan gave his blessing) to an editor outside my publishing house, and I had spent the winter moving to a neighborhood where I knew no one, unable to determine where I fit in the world. There were pending projects, but they were just that — pending. By now Peter had been dead over a year, and I told David I needed to talk.

(Courtesy of Erin Lee Carr)

That afternoon I was late to lunch, and because of that, we ate at The Times. David famously hated eating at the paper, but he wanted to get the most out of our time with one another. As coworkers approached, he told people that I was his son and that this was not the time to talk about work. This was our time, and ours alone, and Carr wasn’t going to let anyone interfere with that.

There were practical matters to address. What did I want to do now? How much money did I need to make? He told me I needed to write more often, to be a little more “webby.” But he also, more than once, said that he wasn’t worried about me. I was doing fine chemically — referring to my drinking and those sprawled-out days that I cringe at when I look back on my early 30s. The cockiness I once had was gone, he said. But that was OK. We’d all taken our lumps — he certainly had — and in my case, as with his, I was better for it.

What bothered him, though, was my personal life. It was fine to no longer be that boy about town. But there was more to life than babysitting my friends’ children and watching ballgames. But that was something we’d work on — together. I was heading for a long trip, and after that, he’d make a point of seeing that I got out there, to feel a part of the city it is so easy to disappear from. We had to think about the future.

Shortly after, we stood on the sidewalk, where he smoked a cigarette. We said hello to a common friend who would join the paper shortly after. Once again he said I was in a good place, that he loved me. Then he hugged me. And with that, he was gone.

Yes, there have been others. After all, I’ve been a journalist since I was 19. I’ve worked with fine people, and with a couple of exceptions, superb editors and teachers. But none were either willing or able to take on that guiding role in my life. No one cared as much. And I never felt the need or ability to express with them the sorts of things I could with Kaplan and Carr, never developed the kind of quasi-fatherly (or in some cases motherly) feeling that I did with these two men. When I look back over these past two decades, I can count on one hand the people who mattered the most to me, the ones whom I not only loved working with but being with as well. Peter and David weren’t like family. They were family. And their absence from my life tears at me each day.

But should I even think of them as that? Your bosses don’t have to be parental figures. Many argue they shouldn’t be. And it seems somewhat selfish, in this writing, to speak of Peter and David as father figures, since they were actual fathers to their actual children. They had sons and daughters who saw their dads die too soon. They had wives who loved them and who’ve done their best to move on with things, tasked with the terribleness of moving on.

And I have a father — a real one. A wonderful man who dedicated his life to the study of Indian philosophy, taking his own young pupils under his care for over fifty years. He is someone who quite literally came from nothing, earning his degrees at night and becoming a pre-eminent scholar in his field. He’s helped me financially and emotionally, even lived with me at times after my mother’s death. Very rarely has there been a time since I left home for college when we have gone two days without talking with one another on the phone. We love each other. Respect one another. Need one another.

All I can say is that somehow David and Peter could be there when my own father could not. Again, I’m not alone in this belief — Brian Stelter said as much in his piece about Carr. Perhaps because they believed in the possibilities, in helping people through the uncertainties of youth, both wanted to take you in, make you understand that you could speak to them about anything, at any time. They loved mentoring, teaching you things that others could not. Each understood the peculiar condition writers and reporters endure in facing that blank screen, that phone call that goes unanswered. Because of this, they wanted you to know that you had someone you could always come back to, that there was a person who could reinforce your own self-worth so you could recover, regroup, and again go out into the world re-fortified, always knowing you had a person — in my case two — who’d be there, no matter what.

I know what each of them would tell me, would want from me. I can hear them in my thoughts, in everything I see or read or write. They would encourage me not to look back, but ahead — to take on the new world I’ve struggled at times to fit in with and see it as the next great challenge. It isn’t a matter of reinventing yourself as much as taking the sensibilities and morals they helped give you and moving on with things, no matter how frightening that prospect might be.

After each one died, people went out of their way to express their concern for me. I’ve received more condolence notes and calls than I care to recount. People wanted to see how I was doing. My response, usually — especially after David’s death — is always “Not well.” There have been those who’ve offered to try and take their place. If I needed to talk, people have said, they’d be there for me. However sweet the sentiment, I know that can never be the case. They can never replace the two men embracing each other in that photograph. You don’t substitute Batman and Superman on the cover of World’s Finest.

I didn’t have the chance, that god-awful chance to watch David fall in front of me, as with Peter. In the months before Kaplan’s death, I would often join a couple former colleagues at a bar just off Union Square, where we’d receive updates on Kaplan’s condition from someone in the know. The night he died, I was home with my father in Ohio and had begun receiving cryptic emails asking me how Peter was doing. Then followed messages and phone calls that he wouldn’t make it. When the news came across, I found myself placing phone calls myself — some to his oldest friends. My dad made sure I made it back for the funeral, and within days there I was, in Larchmont, where I introduced David to the mourners he didn’t know so that he could file his piece on Peter for The Times.

(Courtesy of Shravan Vidyarthi)

It was just over a year later that I found out about David through a series of texts in the streamlined, air-conditioned mall that is Dubai International Airport. My sister and I had landed for a six-hour layover there on our way to Bangkok, where we would spend a week traveling with my father. The three of us had never taken a trip like this, at least since the death of my mother. And because of this, I missed David’s celebrated wake and funeral. I was unable to give testimony and share in that collective but somehow comforting grief.

(Courtesy of Erin Lee Carr)

As a result, David’s passing remained in the background as the three of us traveled through both Cambodia and Thailand. In truth, I didn’t feel what losing both Peter and David would mean until the end of our trip, as my sister and I prepared to leave for the airport. My father stood on the steps of the five-star hotel where the three of us had stayed in Bangkok. He was set to go out on his own to another part of the country the following day. He knew I didn’t want to leave, knew what awaited me in the States. A dark winter. Months of living and dying within my own head. The reality that the two men I had counted on most in the world, perhaps more than him, were gone. Peter had once said after my mother’s passing that you weren’t really a grown-up until you lost a parent. Now, I was no longer Kaplan’s boy, or David’s “pet rock,” as some have said. Life as a real adult was coming at me within a matter of hours, and I wasn’t ready.

And at that moment, I looked at my father, a man who had outlived both Peter and David by two decades. He was 77 years old, facing his own last years. He was a widower who’d traveled with his two children in a place far from the home he and our mother had built for us in Ohio. And he was happy. And now he was ready, as he always has been, to help me move on. Perhaps for that reason, I grabbed him as I hadn’t since I was a boy. I held onto him until the taxi driver told us it was time to go, held onto him as if it would be the last time I would ever see him again.