IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

E.L. Doctorow, Acclaimed Author of 'Ragtime' and 'Billy Bathgate,' Dies at 84

E.L. Doctorow, the author of classics like "The Book of Daniel," "Billy Bathgate," "World's Fair" and "Ragtime," died Tuesday at 84, his son said.
Image: E.L. Doctorow in 2007
E.L. Doctorow in Rome in June 2007.Giuseppe Giglia / EPA

E.L. Doctorow, the author of literary classics like "The Book of Daniel," "Billy Bathgate," "World's Fair" and "Ragtime," died Tuesday at 84.

Doctorow — the "E.L." stood for "Edgar Lawrence" — died of complications from lung cancer, his son, Richard, told The New York Times and The Associated Press.

Doctorow, who spent a decade as a prominent editor before turning to the typewriter full-time in 1969, specialized in fiction set during momentous historical times.

"The Book of Daniel," the novel that launched his career in 1971, broadly fictionalized the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed for turning over U.S. nuclear secrets to the former Soviet Union.

"Ragtime" (1975), which tracks one New York family through from 1900 until the U.S. entry into World War I in 1917, included Harry Houdini, Booker T. Washington and Henry Ford among its cast of characters.

"Billy Bathgate," winner of the National Book Critics Circle award for fiction in 1990, illuminated the gangster world of the 1920s and '30s, following the adventures of a 15-year-old protegé of Dutch Schultz.

Image: E.L. Doctorow in 2007
E.L. Doctorow at the Big Ben Bookshop in Prague in the Czech Republic in June 2007.Radim Beznoska / EPA

"Ragtime" was made into a motion picture which starred James Cagney and was nominated for eight Academy Awards in 1981. "Billy Bathgate" was also made into a motion picture in 1991, this time with a screenplay by Tom Stoppard.

Doctorow was one of the most highly honored U.S. authors of the last half-century. "World's Fair" — set in the environment of the 1939 New York World's Fair — won the 1986 National Book Award, while "Ragtime" and "The March" (2005) won National Book Critics Circle Awards along with "Billy Bathgate."

"Edgar's work has always been ascendant, always steeped in the new, with original language, surprising storytelling, rigorous thought and standards of truth," Kate Medina, Doctorow's longtime editor at Random House, said in a statement through the industry trade publication Publishers Marketplace.

"Through books of great beauty and power, and characters I'll never forget, he showed us America's great flaws and its astonishing promise, and our own," Medina said. "Edgar was fun, even as he was holding all of us to the high standards he set for himself."

Gina Centrello, president and publisher of the Random House Publishing Group, called Doctorow "one of the great creative minds of our time."

"He was sharp and funny, vocal and opinionated, and he inspired readers with every book, every story, and every essay. We will all miss our author and friend dearly," she said.

Late in life, Doctorow was awarded the Gold Medal for Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction and the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction to join the National Humanities Medal that he was awarded by the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1998.

His last novel, "Andrew's Brain," published last year, was hailed as a "terrific comic creation" by The New York Times and a "tour de force" by The Sunday Times of London.