Justin Kaplan, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer and general editor of the 16th and 17th editions of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, died Sunday at age 88. His 1966 biography of Mark Twain won a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize, and he also wrote biographies of Walt Whitman and Lincoln Steffens. He spoke with Fresh Air in 1992.
The son of a shirt manufacturer, Kaplan was born in Manhattan on Sept. 5, 1925. He was already a ferocious reader, immersing himself in Tolstoy, Boswell’s “Life of Johnson” and Pepys’ diary as a teenager, and editing translations of Plato and Aristotle. He entered Harvard at age 16, and by his early 20s, he had already edited a number of books in the publishing house of Simon & Schuster. There he became the ”house intellectual,” seeking out younger authors while dealing diplomatically with such established names as philosopher Bertrand Russell, novelist Nikos Kazantzakis and sociologist C. Wright Mills.
After writing his Twain biography, he published an illustrated book on the author’s world and a biography of muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens. He moved to Cambridge, Mass., in 1959 with his wife Anne Bernays, and he was part of the literary social circle that inhabited the 02138 ZIP code.
When he was not writing, he was hiking and skiing with his family or reading in the woods. He also liked to cook, and he specialized in soups. He taught writing at the Truro Center for the Arts at Castle Hill in Falmouth, and he kept teaching until just two years ago, even as his Parkinson’s progressed, said Cherie Mittenthal, the executive director of the center. Kaplan was an intense listener, and his students responded to him with great respect.
His last book was “When the Astors Owned New York: Blue Bloods and Grand Hotels in a Gilded Age.” It’s a sparkling combination of biography, social history and architectural appreciation. It brings to life the story of a family that amassed one of the greatest private fortunes in American history, building grand hotels and transforming social behavior. We’re honored that he and Anne Bernays contributed their keen editorial eye to Ploughshares.