A Far Cry from the Bronx
By Emily Magnus
The important thing to know about Stuart Kaplan ’47 is that above all else he considers himself a forensic researcher. Once he discovers a topic of interest, he digs deep, exploring all leads and studying even the smallest and sometimes seemingly insignificant details. And while his passion and thirst for knowledge have led him down some remarkable paths, only one subject has kept his interest for a lifetime: tarot cards.
Mr. Kaplan is the first to admit he was not always curious. Born and raised in the Bronx, New York, Mr. Kaplan was very happy in his childhood neighborhood, playing stickball and hanging out with his friends. His father, however, understood the limitations of life in the Bronx, and upon hearing about a new school in New Hampshire, he signed his son up for an interview. During that interview, young Mr. Kaplan told the school’s founder he wasn’t interested in attending boarding school. Nonetheless, four months later, his father put him on a train in Grand Central Station and he arrived at Cardigan Mountain School in the fall of 1946—one of 27 boys in the school’s first student body.
“I was very shy and lacked confidence,” recalls Mr. Kaplan, “but eventually I got over that. Getting out of the Bronx was life-changing.”
Mr. Kaplan attributes much of his growth to faculty Ted and Dolly Peach, who were his dorm parents. In the evenings he remembers visiting their apartment and listening to Rhapsody in Blue on a hand-wound record player, and on Saturday nights Mr. Peach would take the boys into town to watch movies.
“We always sang the same song on those car rides,” he recalls, “’I’ve got sixpence, jolly, jolly sixpence. I’ve got sixpence to last me all my life.’” Mr. Kaplan also remembers climbing Mt. Cardigan, waiting tables in the dining hall–which at the time was still at the Lodge on Canaan Street–and having to choose between one of three “sports”–skiing, working on a farm, or hiking.
There was also a visit from Time magazine in December of 1946. The magazine’s short article reported that as the boys headed home for the Christmas holiday, they “were old hands at milking cows, plucking chickens, dressing hogs, and chopping wood” (“Bring a Broom,” December 30, 1946). It was a far cry from the streets of New York City, and the experience helped Mr. Kaplan grow into an independent young man with a sense of adventure and a hankering for world travel. Six months later, in the spring of 1947, Mr. Kaplan became the second graduate of Cardigan Mountain School, just behind the first graduate, his classmate, Francis Lee Bailey ’47.
After high school, Mr. Kaplan traveled to Paris where he enrolled in the Sorbonne for 14 months, studying French language, art, and history. On holidays he hitchhiked 2,000 miles through 14 countries and made it as far south as the Sahara Desert during his Christmas vacation, trying to escape the cold, damp weather in Paris. When he eventually returned to the United States for college, he attended the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
Mr. Kaplan’s first deep dive into research occurred while he was working on Wall Street, buying and selling coal and copper mines. Putting to use the knowledge he acquired through his profession, in 1995 he wrote and published his first book, Mining, Minerals & Geosciences: A Worldwide Source Directory. The book won a Library Journal Award and sold 5,000 copies.
Three years later, on a whim Mr. Kaplan attended the Nuremberg Toy Fair in Germany, searching for products he might import into the U.S. There he came across his first tarot cards and, intrigued by their history and artwork, he bought a deck to take home. Brentano’s—an independent bookstore in New York City—was interested in selling his cards, but encouraged him to write a companion book explaining the history of the cards and how to use them. Mr. Kaplan did some preliminary research and wrote his second book, Tarot Cards for Fun and Fortunetelling, this time selling over 800,000 copies; the book is still in circulation today.
The success of his tarot cards led Mr. Kaplan to found U.S. Games Systems, a publisher and distributor of books, board games, and decks of cards. His business has grown into a million-dollar venture that, according to its website, “now markets approximately 400 proprietary items from over 20 product categories of tarot, playing cards, games, children's card games, museum products, books, and educational/motivational cards.” U.S. Games Systems continues to develop over twenty new products every year, many of which are original designs of new tarot decks.
Meanwhile, Mr. Kaplan continued to focus much of his attention on researching and writing. A first volume of The Encyclopedia of Tarot was published in 1978; volume four was finished in 2005. The complete encyclopedia includes descriptions and illustrations of more than 1,700 tarot decks from the 15th century to the present and shares the various theories on the origins of Tarot. Mr. Kaplan also collaborated with three other tarot scholars on another book, Pamela Colman Smith: The Untold Story, a comprehensive accounting of the artist’s life and accomplishments. Research for these books took him to Italy and France on multiple research adventures and resulted in the collection of over 6,000 books on Tarot and the history of playing cards.
“If you ask me whether I believe in the myriad associations that people have come to believe about Tarot and where and how it started,” Mr. Kaplain said during an interview with Dr. Stephen Winick, a folklorist, writer, and editor for the Library of Congress. “I am very pragmatic in my approach. Show me proof. That’s why I tried in the encyclopedias to list all possible origins of Tarot, so people can draw their own conclusions. I’d rather be the catalyst to new ideas than the lecturer who insists on his interpretation as the only one that is valid.” ("Stephen Winick interviews Stuart Kaplan," usgamesinc.com)
There’s only been one situation during which Mr. Kaplan’s research skills failed him. In 1973, he received a phone call from the producers of the James Bond movies. The caller introduced himself and said that they wanted to use a set of tarot cards in their next movie, Live and Let Die. At the time, Mr. Kaplan had never heard of James Bond, and when he admitted this to the caller, the gentleman hung up.
But by then Mr. Kaplan was curious enough to find out more about James Bond and so, making up for lost time, he did his research, called the gentleman back, and became a consultant for the movie. Originally the producers had hoped to get Salvador Dali to design the tarot cards for the movie, but when costs became prohibitive, they settled on working with artist Fergus Hall. The Tarot of the Witches cards used in the movie are still available for sale through U.S. Games Systems.
In a tarot deck, the Fool often represents new beginnings, having faith, and being inexperienced. It’s also the card to which Mr. Kaplan most closely relates. “...One should live life to the fullest,” he explained to Mr. Winick, “and, like the Fool in a tarot deck, [one should] be willing to step out beyond the precipice into new adventure; people should not be held back by the fear that they might not succeed. My philosophy is to go for it.” While Mr. Kaplan may no longer be a Fool with countless new beginnings and endless adventures ahead of him, he remains unafraid of what lies ahead, approaching every new day with positive energy and optimism.
Like the Fool in a tarot deck, [one should] be willing to step out beyond the precipice into new adventure; people should not be held back by the fear that they might not succeed. My philosophy is to go for it.
Seventy-five years after his graduation from Cardigan, Mr. Kaplan has not slowed down or grown less curious. He still works full time managing the daily business of U.S. Games Systems and has two additional books in the works. One is a semi-autobiographical book about a 14- year-old boy; another is a non-fiction survey of the card game Authors for which there have been over 300 versions produced since 1861. He hopes to complete both books within the next year. Perhaps there will be a seventh book as well?