By Stephen J. Kotz
E.L. Doctorow, who was known for such critically acclaimed and commercially successful novels as “The Book of Daniel,” Ragtime,” “Billy Bathgate,” “World’s Fair” and “The March,” died on Tuesday in New York. Mr. Doctorow, who was 84, was also a longtime resident of John Street in Sag Harbor.
Mr. Doctorow’s death, from complications of lung cancer, was announced on The New York Times website, but still came as a shock to many of his friends and neighbors.
The writer Joe Pintauro, who lived across the street from Mr. Doctorow for years, said he was aware Mr. Doctorow had been ill but did not realize to what extent. “He very quietly carried it,” he said of Mr. Doctorow’s illness.
“Living so close, getting to know his kids, watching his grandchildren growing up, it just breaks my heart,” he said. “He was one of the greats of the literary world.”
Another friend, the writer Roger Rosenblatt said he had seen Mr. Doctorow a few weeks ago and although he appeared gaunt, he was optimistic about a new pill his doctors had been giving him. “His spirits were up,” he said, “and then Tuesday night we got the news.”
Mr. Rosenblatt said that Mr. Doctorow was a private person, dedicated to working at his craft. “He hated giving readings. He was better than anybody at it, but he hated doing it,” Mr. Rosenblatt said. The reason, he said, was his distaste of the inane questions that often followed.
Although Mr. Doctorow kept a generally low profile in Sag Harbor, he wrote the foreword for “Voices of Sag Harbor: A Village Remembered,” a book published in 2007 by the Friends of the John Jermain Memorial Library, said Carol Spencer, a member of that organization.
“It is a modestly lovely creation, human in scale, with its history available on every street, in every yard,” Mr. Doctorow wrote of the village.
Mr. Doctorow’s novels are often steeped in history—although he often changed the facts to suit his purposes, but “he did not think of himself as a historical novelist and disliked the term,” Mr. Rosenblatt said, adding that the history that was important to him was the work of those writers who preceded him.
Nonetheless, “Ragtime,” Mr. Doctorow’s best known work, is filled with appearances by historic characters, from Sigmund Freud, to Harry Houdini, Stanford White, and Emma Goldman, whose actions often have nothing to do the lives they actually led.
Several of Mr. Doctorow’s books, including his first book, a Western, “Welcome to Hard Times,” “Ragtime,” “The Book of Daniel,” and “Billy Bathgate” were made into movies. A Broadway adaption was also made of “Ragtime.”
Mr. Doctorow’s books were critically acclaimed. He won the National Book Award for “The World’s Fair,” and the PEN/Faulkner Award for “Billy Bathgate” and “The March,” among others. In 2012, he received the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction, in 2013, the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the National Book Foundation and the Gold Medal for Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and in 2014, he received the Prize for American Fiction from the Library of Congress.
Mr. Doctorow, a lifelong supporter of liberal causes, was praised shortly after his death on Twitter by President Barack Obama.
Before launching a career as a novelist, Mr. Doctorow worked nearly a decade as an editor and also taught at Sarah Lawrence College, Princeton University and other schools.
Edgar Lawrence Doctorow was born on July 6, 1931, in the Bronx and attended Kenyon College in Ohio, graduating with honors in 1952. After a year of graduate studies at Columbia University, he was drafted into the army. While in Germany, he married the former Helen Esther Setzer, who survives him.
Besides his wife, Mr. Doctorow is survived by a son, Richard of Sag Harbor, two daughters, Jenny Doctorow Fe-Bornstein and Caroline Doctorow Gatewood of Bridgehampton, and four grandchildren.