Stuart Kaplan once told me how important it is to always be moving forward. “When you want to do something, you just go ahead,” he said. “Do it. It’s better to do something even if you get it wrong.”
I doubt I can do Stuart, his family, friends, and coworkers justice or capture the gravity of what I felt when I learned of his passing. But I’m taking his advice and plunging ahead anyway…
Whispers and stories abounded when I first heard about the man responsible for bringing the Rider Waite tarot deck to market back in the 1970’s. I heard from tarot friends that he lived in Stamford Connecticut, a stone’s throw from my grandmother’s house in New Canaan. My imagination went into maximum overdrive.
You could call Stamford, Greenwich, and New Canaan, the “Eyes Wide Shut” part of Connecticut. I was familiar with the luminous estates set inside rolling woods, the salty waters of the Long Island Sound, Philip Johnson mid-century modern glass homes, and the wealthy, eccentric people who lived there. This world gleamed in my eyes because Metro North iron tendrils connected it with shiny, glittering Manhattan.
Thoughts of Stuart conjured up visions of an occultist cloaked in shadows with secret libraries and a pair Great Danes ready to leap at anyone who dared disturb his occult activity. I imagined a yawning mansion tucked away perhaps with an ocean view. There was a butler, a maid, yes it was a labyrinth of a Clue game with tarot at its center.
I’ll never never forget walking into BEA (the Book Expo of America) in 2011 at the Javits Center on Manhattan’s West Side. BEA is (or was) an enormous event where publishers showcase new titles. My first book, Tarot Diva, was being released. The full metal gear machinery of the big business of book selling was on display.
I heard that famed Stuart Kaplan was there in the US Games booth. I excitedly, albeit
nervously, went over to introduce myself to him, noticing his tall, slim silhouette right away. Far from being mysterious or dangerously occult, Stuart was absolutely lovely, excited, and enthusiastic for my new book. I also had the good fortune to meet Lynn Araujo that day. Lynn is media director of US Games and Stuart’s right hand woman and she's a treasure.
A few years later, Llewellyn asked me to write the Complete Book of the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot. I pinched myself with excitement. Here was the opportunity for a deep dive into tarot history. Best of all, I had the excuse to go straight to the source. I could talk at length with Stuart about his story and his role in changing the course of tarot history.
What I found most inspiring about Stuart moves right to the heart of how I understand magic and mystery. From a very young age, Stewart knew what he was supposed to do, even though he didn’t know how he was going to do it.
“I wanted to find something no one knew anything about and write about it,” said Stuart. “I wanted to leave something behind that no one had done.”
Stuart did just that. He didn’t know it would be tarot. He did have the sense to follow his instincts and never look back. Stuart’s legacy is that he never stopped.
We spoke about writing, the love of the process, and the excitement of discovery. He shared when he was writing fiction, he couldn’t read another author’s novel because their style would seep into his writing. And he spoke of imagining that his fictions as fact so he could get them down in paper.
Stuart talked fondly about the thrill of the chase in his detective hunt to finding Pamela Colman Smith's artwork or anything she may have left behind. He explained how he’d hire a driver and car for the day and go house to house in the English countryside, asking around about Pamela.
He wasn’t the sort of person to be on the town, out and about. By his own accounts and the accounts of others, he preferred to be working at his deck. He spoke of how often he came to his office at US Games on the weekends do work on whatever was at hand.
He reminded me of how important it is to move ahead with the things you feel you should do. How wasting too much time weighing pros and cons were just that, a big waste and missed opportunity.
Stuart thought tarot was an intriguing “uncollated book which gives you a new story every time you shuffle the cards.”
Stuart wasn’t the mad occultist I’d imagined. He was even better. A flesh and blood gentleman from a distinct period of time this world will never see again. A man who after high school, followed Hemingway’s footsteps and moved to Paris.
His curiosity and delight was tangible. Yes, he changed the course of tarot history but more importantly, he loved the people around him and most of all he loved his family.
He was a cheerleader for others.
A cheerleader for me.
I once asked Stuart what his biggest challenge was, “Time,” he replied. “There’s so many more things I want to do.”
My heart goes out to US Games, his family, to all who know and love him.
And to everyone who has lost a loved one amidst the harsh slap of this pandemic where we can’t gather in person to share our grief, our stories of loss and love, or engage in the simple human medicine of hugging one another.
This pandemic will someday be a thing of the past, this I know and take comfort in.
And I’m taking Stuart’s advice and moving forward.
I am deeply, forever grateful to have known him in some small way.
Thank you Stuart.