E.L. Doctorow, a noted American novelist who was nominated for numerous national literary awards during his lifetime, passed away yesterday at the age of eighty-four in New York City. Doctorow was known for important and popular works like Ragtime, Billy Bathgate, and The March.
I met E.L. Doctorow briefly in December of 2009 while on a cruise and workshop with The Nation magazine. Doctorow was one of the celebrities whom The Nation paid to travel with the workshop and rub elbows with the attendees who were paying exorbitant fares in order to meet, listen to, and fawn over an assortment of journalists, authors, and politicos.
One of the sessions I attended was an interview of Doctorow by journalist and humorist Calvin Trillin. Trillin and Doctorow, obviously friends, generated more humor than they did knowledge of Doctorow's extensive body of work. (One of Trillin's first in-depth questions of Doctorow was "Why do you call yourself "E.L."?)
At that time there was no internet access on board cruise ships, other than that which was "sold" by the minute in the ship's internet cafe. I would type my blog into a word document each day either in my stateroom or outside in a deckchair, and then go to the internet cafe and purchase a few minutes of connectivity in order to publish it to the web.
The second day at sea I was in the internet cafe trying to publish from a computer that was giving me trouble. All of the other machines were occupied, but I happened to notice one old fellow seemed to be preparing to leave. I had moved in close so that I could pounce on his computer, when the guy suddenly turned around and I realized that I was face-to-face with E.L. Doctorow. I finally quit gawking and extended my hand, telling the famous author that I was a fan. (I had read Ragtime years before and loved it.) We chatted for a minute - he was very pleasant.
Other celebrities on the cruise included Howard Dean, Katrina Vanden Huevel (owner and publisher of The Nation), journalist Robert Scheer, journalist and author (and Mrs. Robert Scheer) Narda Zacchino, and investigative journalist Christian Parenti. Rose Stryon, the widow of author William Stryon, was also an attendee, and she and I had a nice visit at dinner one evening when we happened to be seated at the same table.
There were, in retrospect, several highlights to those few relaxing days on the Caribbean, but none more memorable than meeting E.L. Doctorow. The sea of modern American literature will continue to churn up the occasional treasures, but with the death of E.L. Doctorow it has lost an important beacon.