Caleb Carr, military historian and author of bestselling novel ‘The Alienist,’ dies at 68

Caleb Carr, the scarred and gifted son of founding Beat Lucien Carr who endured a traumatizing childhood and became a bestselling novelist, accomplished military historian and late-life memoirist of his devoted cat, Masha, has died at 68.

Carr died of cancer Thursday, according to an announcement from his publisher, Little, Brown and Company.

“Caleb lived his writing life valiantly, with works of politics, history and sociology, but most astonishingly for this historian, with wildly entertaining works of fiction,” Carr’s editor, Joshua Kendall, said in a statement.

A native of Manhattan, Caleb Carr was born into literary and cultural history. Lucien Carr, along with Columbia University classmates Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, helped launch the Beat movement, an early and prominent force in the post-World War II era for improvisation and non-conformity — on and off the page. Kerouac, Ginsberg and such fellow Beats as William Burroughs and Herbert Huncke were frequent visitors to the Carr apartment, where Caleb Carr remembered gatherings that were enriching, bewildering and, at times, terrifying.

“Kerouac was a very nice man. Allen (Ginsberg) could be a very nice guy,” Carr told Salon in 1997. “But they weren’t children people.”

Lucien Carr would prove his son’s greatest nightmare. The elder Carr had been imprisoned in the 1940s for manslaughter over the death of onetime friend David Kammerer, who clashed with him and was later found in the Hudson River. Caleb Carr, born more than a decade later to Lucien Carr and Francesca von Hartz, feared he would be the next victim. With a “gleeful” spirit, his father would slap Caleb across the back of his head and regularly knock him down flights of stairs, while trying to blame Caleb for the falls.

Caleb Carr thought of his parents as “the mostly drunken architects” of his household, and they divorced when he was young. His mother, after turning down Kerouac’s proposal, married writer John Speicher, the father of three girls. Carr and his two brothers referred to their new, blended family as “The Dark Brady Bunch.”

Out of his suffering, Caleb Carr learned to despise violence, fear insanity and probe the origins of cruelty. In his best-known book, “The Alienist,” John Schuyler Moore is a New York Times police reporter in 1890s Manhattan who helps investigative a series of vicious murders of adolescent boys. Carr would call the novel as much a “whydunit” as “whodunit,” and wove in references to the emerging 19th century discipline of psychology as Moore and his friend Dr. Laszlo Kreizler track down not just the killer’s identity, but what drove him to his crimes.

“The Alienist,” published in 1994 and the kind of carefully researched, old-fashioned page-turner the Beats had rebelled against, combined fictional characters such as Moore with historical figures ranging from financial tycoon J. P. Morgan to restaurateur Charlie Delmonico. Carr also featured the city’s police commissioner at the time, Theodore Roosevelt, with whom the author felt a surprising kinship.

“Personally and psychologically, I had always found TR one of the most compelling figures in U.S. history,” Carr told Strand Magazine in 2018.

“Later I realized that some of this had to do with the fact that, as a young man stricken by physical ailments and the fears they inspire, he was brought through his darkest times by his father, a deeply compassionate and caring man. This is often key to great men with noble hearts: an overtly caring father. Having had the reverse — a father who was the chief cause of my childhood fears and ailments — I was drawn to what was, for me, an exotic upbringing.”

“The Alienist” sold millions of copies, inspired the bestselling sequel “Angel of Darkness” and was adapted into a TNT miniseries that starred Daniel Brühl, Luke Evans and Dakota Fanning. Carr was so successful a novelist that his background as a military historian became obscured, or even trivialized. He taught military history at Bard College, was a contributing editor to the Quarterly Journal of Military History and had a close relationship with the scholar James Chace, with whom he wrote “America Invulnerable: The Quest for Absolute Security from 1812 to Star Wars.”

Carr had written for years about possible terrorism against the U.S. and published a book-length study a few months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. In “The Lessons of Terror,” he contended that military campaigns against civilian populations inevitably failed and drew upon lessons dating back to ancient Rome. “The Lessons of Terror” sold well, but some critics thought he was not up to the job.

New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani wrote that Carr “has little credibility as military historian or political analyst,” and suggested he stick to thrillers, while Salon’s Laura Miller called some of his contentions “slippery and elusive as a handful of live minnows.” Enraged, Carr answered with an all-caps letter to the editor of Salon, in which he suggested that Miller and Kakutani should lay off military history and instead “chatter about bad women’s fiction.”

“Several reviews have made claims concerning my credibility that are, quite simply, libelous, and will be dealt with soon,” he later posted on Amazon.com, on which he gave his book a 5-star rating.

Carr’s other books included the Sherlock Holmes novel “The Italian Secretary,” the historical study “The Devil Soldier” and a 2024 memoir that stood as his literary farewell, “My Beloved Monster: Masha, the Half-Wild Rescue Cat Who Rescued Me.”

From childhood, Carr was so repulsed by human behavior that he found himself identifying with cats — and becoming convinced he used to be one. Carr lived alone — or at least lived with no other people — for much of his adult life, spending his later years in a massive stone house in upstate New York made possible by royalties from “The Alienist” and other books, a 1,400-acre property set in the foothills of Misery Mountain.

In “My Beloved Monster,” he called his own story one of “abuse, mistrust, and then the search for just one creature on Earth” on whom he could rely. In 2005, his quest would take him to the Rutland County Humane Society in Vermont, where he noticed a gold and white kitten with outsized, deep amber eyes, a Siberian who mewed “conversationally” when Carr approached her cage.

“I answered her with, with both sounds and words, and more importantly held my hand up so that we could get my scent, pleased when she inspected the hand with her nose and found it satisfactory,” he wrote. “Then I slowly closed my eyes and reopened them several times: the ‘slow blink’ that cats can take as a sign of friendship. She seemed receptive, taking the time to confirm with a similar blink. Finally, she imitated the move of my hand by holding up her rather enormous paws to mine, as if we’d known each other quite a long time: an intimate gesture.”

Carr and Masha would share a home for the next 17 years, attuned to each other’s moods and even taste in music, until Masha’s death. “My Beloved Monster” was a kind of dual elegy. As Masha’s health began to decline, Carr had his own troubles, including neuropathy and pancreatitis, illnesses he believed brought on from his childhood abuse. Watching Masha die, and laid inside a makeshift coffin, was like saying goodbye to his “other self.”

“Some people say that grief is healing; I’ve never found it so. It is scarring, and scarring — is not healing. I have never had someone who was my daily reality for so many years as Masha cut out of my life, my world, and my soul; how can it heal?” Carr wrote.

“Since falling onto this Earth, it seems, I have proved as difficult for my fellow human beings, past the easy points of social convention and amusement, as they have often proved for me. But from Masha, no such questions. I was enough; not just enough, but enough that I warranted defending.”

 Read More

Please follow and like us:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *