New Rochelle was founded in 1688. During the 327 years since, hundreds of thousands of people have called our city home, and a fair number have had an outsized influence over the events or imagination of the larger world. Thomas Paine, Norman Rockwell, Carrie Chapman Catt, Ossie Davis & Ruby Dee, Don Hewitt, to name just a few. Visit the Walk of Fame at Library Green for many more examples.
Ranking the prominence and historical importance of such over-achievers is a bit of a fool’s game; it’s all subjective, and the passage of time can magnify or diminish accomplishments in unpredictable ways. But any list would surely include E.L. Doctorow at or near the very top.
He is universally acknowledged as one of the great American novelists, with works that are unchallenged classics and will almost surely be read for decades, if not centuries, to come. Doctorow’s (front page, above-the-fold) obituary in today’s Times makes clear his remarkable impact on our nation’s culture.
Here in New Rochelle, we have a more intimate perspective. Until just a few years ago, Doctorow and his wife Helen lived on Broadview Avenue, the street he made famous in the very first sentence of Ragtime. (“In 1902 Father built a house at the crest of the Broadview Avenue hill in New Rochelle, New York.”)
To his neighbors, he was Ed, not E.L. And he was notable not just for his talent, but for his kindness — unassuming in his bearing, unfailingly polite, with no sign of the frosty arrogance that sometimes afflicts the famous.
He was also generous with his time, often appearing at local educational or cultural events, giving readings and talks, and otherwise being very much present in our community — and continuing to return after he was no longer officially a resident.
He even had a close connection to our local government; his late sister-in-law, Elly Doctorow, served two terms on the City Council and was much beloved for her civic involvement.
The local history collection at the New Rochelle Public Library is already named in Doctorow’s honor. In the weeks ahead, we will consider other ways of properly acknowledging this extraordinary man.
For now, I join the world in mourning E.L., and join New Rochelle in mourning Ed.