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

This undated self portrait made available by Little Brown publisher, shows author Caleb Carr and his cat Masha at his home in Cherry Plain, NY. Carr died of cancer Thursday, May 23, 2024, according to his publisher, Little, Brown and Company. (Caleb Carr/ Little Brown via AP)

NEW YORK (AP) — 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.

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 found 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.

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.

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’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."

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.”

Hillel Italie, The Associated Press

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