When a teacher at the Bronx High School of Science assigned students to write about an interesting character they knew, one pupil, Edgar Lawrence Doctorow, excelled. The boy wrote such a brilliant description of a Carnegie Hall doorman and his relationships with the venue’s musicians that his teacher wanted to put the report in the school paper and suggested they photo the doorman to run alongside it. At this point, Edgar had to come clean. There was no such man; he was a work of fiction. The teacher was furious and gave him an F. But this perhaps was the moment that the novelist E.L. Doctorow was born.
Edgar Lawrence Doctorow—named for his father’s favorite author Edgar Allan Poe—was born in the Bronx in 1931. His grandparents had been Russian-Jewish immigrants, and his father owned a music store on Sixth Avenue. The Doctorows were not wealthy—“there was no money,” Doctorow told the Guardian—but he had a happy childhood in a house “filled with music and books.”
After high school, and after receiving that F, Doctorow went on to Kenyon College, a liberal arts school in Ohio. On graduating with honors in 1952, Doctorow returned to New York City to continue his studies at Columbia University. “My [Master’s] thesis was supposed to be a play,” Doctorow said, “but I never wrote it; I was drafted into the army.” But although he left Columbia before attaining a graduate degree, it was there he met his future wife Helen Setzer.
After spending two years in the army and being stationed in Germany, Doctorow and Helen married (the couple has three children). From 1954 to 1957, he worked as a literary scout in New York for Columbia Pictures, tasked with finding books that might make for good movies. “I read scripts, yes, but mostly novels in galleys, and that was encouraging because I saw how many bad books were being published,” Doctorow told the New York Times. “It was very useful to realize that simply because something was in print didn’t necessarily mean that it should have been.” He figured he might be able to write better than those he read, which was encouragement indeed to a young aspiring author.
On occasion, Doctorow did find a great book that he thought could translate to the screen. “I remember finding on my desk a first-draft partial manuscript of Saul Bellow’s ‘Henderson the Rain King.’ It was under option by Columbia Pictures, and I urged them to pick up the option,” he said. “Of course they didn’t.”
After a couple of years, discouraged by the fact that only one of his recommendations was turned into a film, and a bad film at that, Doctorow left Columbia Pictures to become an editor at the New American Library publishing house. Doctorow was possessed with the confidence to try his hand at writing when he moved into publishing and had his first novel, “Welcome to Hard Times,” published in 1960. Perhaps influenced by his time at the studio, the novel—a Western set in the Dakotas in the late 19th century—was cinematic enough to be optioned and made into a film starring Henry Fonda.
In 1964 Doctorow became editor-in-chief of Dial Press. “It was a very exciting place to be,” he told the New York Times. “Not only because this was the Sixties but because your most creative juices were required just to keep that house in business. I was editing Mailer, James Baldwin. I published William Kennedy’s first novel, Ernest J. Gaines, Thomas Berger and a book by Joan Baez.”
Although his second novel, “Big as Life,” a satirical work of science fiction, was a flop, his third, 1971’s “The Book of Daniel,” established Doctorow as a major American novelist. Critics and readers alike loved the story of Daniel Isaacson, the son of parents based on Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, confronting his family’s history. “I didn’t want to write about the Rosenbergs,” Doctorow an audience at the Time Warner Center in New York City in 2006, according to Adam Liptak of the New York Times. “I wanted to write about what happened to them.” Like his first book, “The Book of Daniel” was adapted into a film. Released in 1983, “Daniel” was directed by Sidney Lumet and starred Timothy Hutton.
Doctorow’s most admired and popular book, “Ragtime,” was published in 1975. Like much of his other work, it draws on real life and features historical characters. Set at the start of the twentieth century, Henry Ford, Harry Houdini, President William Howard Taft and Sigmund Freud pop up alongside fictional characters. “Ragtime” sold over 4 million copies, won the National Nook Critics Circle Award and became a film in 1981 as well as a Broadway musical in 1988.
Doctorow continued to explore the twentieth century in his novels. “Loon Lake” was set in the Great Depression; “World’s Fair,” which won the National Book Award, depicted the Bronx of his youth in the 1930s; and “Billy Bathgate” portrayed the young assistant of mobster Dutch Schultz. In 1991 it too was made into a film, starring Dustin Hoffman, Nicole Kidman and Bruce Willis, and the book won the PEN/Faulkner Award and the National Book Award.
With so many of his novels turned into motion pictures, “People have always said my work is cinematic,” Doctorow said. “Except the directors I’ve worked with.” He explained to the Washington Post that, “they tell me how difficult it is to translate because so much of my books are interior. So much of the action is in the mind, in the moral realm.”
One wonders what his former teacher would make of the success of Doctorow’s books, which often merge history and fancy. Their masterful blend of fact and fiction is certainly not what one looks for in school newspaper reporters but they have given the boy from the Bronx an almost unsurpassed reputation among contemporary American authors. As the Washington Post’s David Segal put it, “Doctorow now occupies one of the narrowest subsets in American letters: the million-selling author who is taken seriously.”