E.L. Doctorow

E.L. Doctorow Biography

Author (1931–2015)
Writer E.L. Doctorow is the author of novels including Ragtime, Billy Bathgate and The Book of Daniel.


Award-winning author E.L. Doctorow explored the American experience in his best-selling novels, often incorporating historical settings and characters based on historical figures. Doctorow’s novel, The Book of Daniel (1971), was inspired by the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg spy case, and one of his best-known works Ragtime (1975), which includes Harry Houdini, Emma Goldman and Theodore Dreiser as characters, was made into both a film (1981) and a musical (1998). Other novels include Billy Bathgate (1989) about a teenager pulled under the wing of mobster Dutch Shultz, and The March (2005), which centers on General William Tecumseh Sherman’s march through the south at the end of the Civil War. E.L. Doctorow died on July 21, 2015 in New York City. He was 84 years old.

Early Life

Author E.L. Doctorow, best known for his literary inventiveness and ability to weave sweeping historical context into his works of fiction, was born Edgar Lawrence Doctorow on January 6, 1931 in New York City. A Bronx native, he was a second-generation American of Russian-Jewish descent. His father, David, owned a store in Manhattan that sold musical instruments and his mother, Rose, was a pianist.

Named for Edgar Allan Poe (who Doctorow called “our greatest bad writer”), his family immersed him in the cultural life of New York City as they struggled to make a living during the Depression. Doctorow remembered frequently attending concerts and plays as a child. “As I grew up I was a beneficiary of the incredible energies of European émigrés in every field — all those great minds hounded out of Europe by Hitler,” the author told The Kenyon Review. “They brought enormous sophistication to literary criticism, philosophy, science, music. I was very lucky to be a New Yorker.”

Young Doctorow was also an avid reader and showed an early literary interest. While attending the Bronx High School of Science, he wrote a detailed profile of “Carl,” the stage doorman at Carnegie Hall for a journalism class. His teacher was impressed by the well-written profile and wanted to publish it in the school newspaper, until Doctorow confessed that he had invented the character.

Doctorow majored in philosophy at Kenyon College in Ohio where he studied with the poet and critic John Crowe Ransom. He graduated with a B.A. in 1952 and went on to study drama for a year at Columbia University where he met his wife Helen Setzer, who was an aspiring actress. Doctorow was drafted into the Army and was stationed in Germany where he married Setzer in 1954. The couple had three children – a son, Richard, and two daughters, Jenny and Caroline.     

After Doctorow was discharged from the Army, he worked as a reservations clerk at La Guardia Airport and as a script reader for CBS Television and Columbia Pictures in New York. He eventually joined the editorial staff of the New American Library in 1959 where he worked with authors including Ian Fleming and Ayn Rand. He moved onto Dial Press in 1964 where he became editor-in-chief, working with authors Norman Mailer and James Baldwin, among others.

Literary Career

In 1960, Doctorow published his first novel, Welcome to Hard Times, a western fable that a New York Times book review described as “taut and dramatic, exciting and successfully symbolic.” In his next book, Big As Life (1966), Doctorow experimented with sci-fi fantasy to satirically explore the human condition. The plot centers on a group of New Yorkers who come together when two human giants are discovered standing in the Hudson River. The book was not well received and Doctorow said in 1980:  “Unquestionably it’s the worst I’ve done.” The author also panned the 1967 movie adaptation of the book, which starred Henry Fonda. 

Doctorow’s reputation as a respected novelist, though, came with his third novel, The Book of Daniel, published in 1971, which was inspired by Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, U.S. citizens who were accused of passing information about the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union. The couple was eventually executed for espionage at Sing Sing prison in 1953. In 1983, the novel was made into a movie, Daniel, starring Timothy Hutton.

In Ragtime (1975), Doctorow again blended fictional and historical characters – including magician Harry Houdini, novelist Theodore Dreiser and philosopher Emma Goldman – in a literary epic set in and around New York before World War I. The novel earned Doctorow the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, and in 1981 was adapted into an Oscar-nominated film, directed by Milos Forman and starring James Cagney in his last role. Ragtime was turned into a Tony-nominated Broadway musical in 1998.

Doctorow received the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction for his novel Billy Bathgate (1989), which follows the life of a Bronx teenager who becomes the errand boy for mobster Dutch Schultz. In 1991, Billy Bathgate was adapted into a film, starring Dustin Hoffman.

The March, a sweeping historical fiction novel published in 2005, is often considered one of Doctorow's signature works. Set in 1864-65, the novel centers on General William Tecumseh Sherman’s march through the south at the end of the Civil War. Doctorow received the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award/Fiction for The March.

Other novels include: Loon Lake (1980), World’s Fair (1985), The Waterworks (1994), City of God (2000), and Homer and Langley (2009). His essays included Reporting the Universe (2003) and Creationists: Selected Essays, 1993–2006. He also wrote the play Drinks Before Dinner, which was performed at The Public Theater in 1978 in a production starring Christopher Plummer and directed by Mike Nichols. Doctorow also published the short-story collections Lives of the Poets (1984) and Sweetland Stories (2004).

Doctorow‘s last novel Andrew’s Brain (2014) dives into the mind of a cognitive scientist and unfolds as a confessional monologue about his life and loves. In addition to his writing, Doctorow also taught at several colleges and universities, including Sarah Lawrence College and New York University.

Death & Legacy

On July 21, 2015, E.L. Doctorow died from complications of lung cancer at a New York hospital. He was 84. In his literary works, he left behind a narrative of the American experience. One year before his death, Doctorow told NPR: “I think of myself really as a national novelist, as an American novelist writing about my country.”

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