Local VP, an FOB, may also be a VIP Interview: Tommy Caplan is a vice president of his family business, a crony of the rich and famous, a novelist and Bill Clinton's friend.

December 06, 1997|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

Tommy Caplan does not think he's eccentric, but you might.

Born into the Baltimore-based Oscar Caplan family of jewelers 51 years ago, Caplan's speech is merry old England through and through, he looks fresh from a Evelyn Waugh tale, possesses a vague family title, has a child-like sense of wonder and the uncanny habit of befriending the rich and famous.

In the latter category, include the leader of the free world, President Bill Clinton, who considers Caplan, a buddy from his Georgetown University days, an indispensable comrade and, at times, informal adviser.

Caplan is also a novelist, who until recently wrote his books in longhand in his Highfield House apartment. Here he is at the Stone Mill Bakery in Roland Park, a tad late after circling the block, crisply attired and looking content after two weeks of being interviewed and feted for his third book, "Grace and Favor" (St. Martin's, $24.95), published last month.

There was the party in early November tossed by Caplan friends George Plimpton, George Stephanopoulos and film director Whit Stillman ("Metropolitan," "Barcelona"). And a party in Washington the home of James Fallows, editor of U.S. News & World Report, attended by the Clinton family and followed by a night at the White House (presumably not in the Lincoln Bedroom). And yet another affair for Caplan, given by the writer Susan Shreve and her husband, literary agent Timothy Seldes.

Caplan, a Gilman School graduate and a founder of the PEN/Faulkner award for fiction, also appeared on the "Diane Rehm Show" and "Charlie Rose." If that wasn't enough excitement, Caplan will appear today at Eddie's on North Charles Street, the tony supermarket that he described in a New York Times interview as a "cross between Balducci's and Gristede's." Caplan added, "I'm hoping a lot of people will just throw the book into their shopping carts." That's what he would do, Caplan says, over a cup of black coffee. Then, he would pay for the groceries and have them delivered to his apartment.

L Life, between books, is not nearly so glamorous, he insists.

We probably should get to that writing career posthaste, but what you probably want to know about first is Caplan's FOB status. As with many aspects of Caplan's life, his friendship with the president is a matter of serendipity. In 1964, they found themselves on the same hall as freshmen at Georgetown. It was an alphabetical fluke.

An article in November's George magazine chronicles their long association, hyping Caplan's status as the one who often lends rhetorical splendor to presidential speeches, a claim that Caplan modestly dismisses.

The magazine article also reviews their odd alliance at length, making it clear that the cheerful Anglophile, whether traveling to the Hope, Ark. home of his college classmate, or gently spinning the traveling press corps during Clinton's first presidential campaign, was valued as a tonic for the drearier aspects of Clinton's chosen ambitions. When the president spoke to the Maryland General Assembly last winter, he acknowledged Caplan, who was in attendance with his young godson.

The friendship doesn't fit the mold, but it is Caplan's disarming, bon vivant demeanor that makes him a palatable outsider to hard-bitten White House staffers. Caplan draws out a certain unknown quantity from their boss, as well. In George, Clinton attests to his friend's loyalty, saying: "He'd be my friend if I filed for bankruptcy and spent the rest of my life running a filling station."

Caplan, who at one time leased a flat in London, has at least one foot firmly planted in the hunt country of aristocratic England. Yet he is fascinated with the globalization that has brought people and cultures together to brash and unpredictable effect.

In "Grace and Favor," Caplan marries a Baltimore-born merchant banker to a beautiful British woman who inherits her family's ancient estate. Murder, intrigue, treachery ensue, of course. The book, glowingly blurbed by Plimpton, Andrew Solomon, Christopher Buckley, Robert Stone, et al., is a way of exploring the collision of historic privilege with a new, globalized world order.

Although Caplan attended Harvard business school, and serves as a vice president in the family business, he clearly prefers the literary life. "What's nice about writing books, it's not a competitive act, except against yourself," he says.

When he's not writing, or tending to family affairs, Caplan keeps busy with projects such as floating a sitcom proposal in Hollywood, playing an extra in his friend Stillman's latest film, and making new rich and famous friends. But it's wrong to say he knows only glamorous people, Caplan insists. "I like interesting people," he says.

Clearly, interesting people like Caplan as well. Some of them just happen to be rich and famous, too.

Caplan will sign "Grace and Favor" from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. today at Eddie's, 6213 N. Charles St.

Pub Date: 12/06/97

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