My heart is heavy today. I was so saddened to wake up the news that E.L. Doctorow, my friend and mentor, has passed away at the age of 84.
Doctorow redefined the novel as a genre. He redefined what fiction writing is. He redefined the relationship between fiction writing and history writing. In the process, he rewrote American history. His early novels – especially Ragime and The Book of Daniel – also redefined me as a reader.
I had originally planned to write my thesis at the University of Copenhagen on him, but as fate would have it, I got to know him personally instead.
When I was in my early 20’s, I had the honor of visiting with him and his wife in Sag Harbor during one magical summer. This was overwhelming for a young girl from Copenhagen, and a myriad of jumbled-up memories are popping up today:
Meeting my literary hero, actually staying in his house. How his wife, Helen, always said that I looked like/reminded her of Mariel Hemingway in Manhattan. Sitting in the kitchen over breakfast, listening, awestruck, to Edgar talking on the phone with Sidney Lumet and Bob Fosse. Being invited to an intimate birthday gathering for John Steinbeck’s widow, Elaine, along with a number of Hollywood and Broadway dignitaries such as Lauren Bacall and Bud Schulberg. To actually see the gazebo overlooking the sound where Steinbeck used to sit and write. That was my Cinderella moment, for sure.
When Doctorow told Lauren Bacall that I was working on a book on Woody Allen, she turned to me and said: “If you ever want to meet him, just let me know! He is terrified of me, and he’ll do anything I tell him to!” How silly of me to not take her up on her kind offer. My only excuse is that I was too young and self-conscious.
All of this is not meant as name dropping, but as an attempt to explain how this great writer – who changed the face of literature – also changed my own sense of what is possible for me in this world:
He was the first one to consistently encourage me to pursue my calling as a writer, making me believe that I had it in me to not just write something valuable and worthwhile, but to actually have it published internationally. Without that encouragement, I doubt whether I would have had the chutzpah and stamina over a period of many, many months to contact publisher after publisher in the United States all the way from Copenhagen (before email and internet was available). To have my books finally find their way into print.
I would love to write extensively about Doctorow’s works – how magnificent they are – and how his theories on fiction writing changed our view of the novel. At the moment, however, my heart is too heavy. I am, instead, absorbed by the memories – allowing myself to follow where they lead, a bit overwhelmed by this sentimental journey, so forgive me for rambling on. I will get back to the more rational stuff at some later point.
One of my most treasured possessions is my signed hardcover first edition of Ragtime which I have had with me for 30 years now. Normally Doctorow signed copies of his books “with best wishes, E.L. Doctorow.” I know this because I have a few which he signed before that summer. But my copy of Ragime he signed “with love, Edgar Doctorow.” As proud and as moved as I was by that, what really changed my life was the fact that he made it out “To my friend + colleague Annette”
How fortunate and blessed I am to have called this man my friend and my mentor. Rest in peace, dear Edgar. I am forever grateful to you. You will be missed, and never forgotten.