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'Fresh Air' Remembers 'Billy Bathgate' Author E. L. Doctorow


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. Writer E.L. Doctorow died Tuesday in Manhattan at the age of 84. His novels were known for combining fictional characters with real people in a historical context. In his best-known book, "Ragtime," Freud, Emma Goldman, Henry Ford and Harry Houdini all make appearances. Dutch Schultz is one of the main characters in Doctorow's novel "Billy Bathgate." His novel "World's Fair" was set during the Depression and the rise of Hitler. "The March," his book about Sherman's campaign in the Civil War, won the William PEN/Faulkner Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. Many of Doctorow's novels were adapted to the screen. And "Ragtime," the book that made him famous, also became a Broadway musical that won four Tony Awards.

Terry spoke to E.L. Doctorow in 1989 when "Billy Bathgate" was published. The book is set in New York in 1935, where Billy, a teenager, works for the gangster Dutch Schultz. "Billy Bathgate" was made into a film in 1991 with Dustin Hoffman playing Schultz. Terry began by asking Doctorow to read the opening of the novel.


E.L. DOCTOROW: OK, the very first sentence I wrote in "Billy Bathgate" is the first sentence that appears in the book, and it actually delivered the character Billy to me. He was sort of built into the diction and the syntax and even the rhythm of the sentence gave me the way he breathed. Billy is a 15-year-old boy in the Bronx in the 1930s who attaches himself to the great Dutch Schultz, the Prohibition and post-Prohibition New York gangster killer. And the book opens with Billy leaping aboard a tugboat where Mr. Schultz has taken one of his henchmen, Bo Weinberg, on route to a ritual drowning in New York Harbor. And this is the way the book begins.

(Reading) He had to have planned it because when we drove onto the dock, the boat was there and the engine was running, and you could see the water churning up phosphorescence in the river, which was the only light there was because there was no moon or no electric light either in the shack where the dockmaster should have been sitting, nor on the boat itself and certainly not from the car. Yet, everyone knew where everything was. And when the big Packard came down the ramp, Mickey the driver braked it so that the wheels hardly rattled the boards. And when he pulled up alongside the gangway, the doors were already open. And they hustled Bo and the girl upside before they even made a shadow in all that darkness. And there was no resistance. I saw movement of black bulk. That was all. And all I heard was maybe the sound someone makes who's frightened and has a hand - not his own - over his mouth. The door slammed and the car was humming and gone and the boat was already opening up water between itself and the slip before a thin minute had passed. Nobody said not to, so I jumped aboard and stood at the rail, frightened as you might expect, but a capable boy - he had said that himself - a capable boy capable of learning and, I see now, capable of adoring, worshiping that rudeness of power of which he was a greater student than anybody, oh, and that menace of him where it might be all over for anyone in his sight from one instant to the next.


And that's E.L. Doctorow reading from his new novel, "Billy Bathgate."

Now, you said the voice came to you with that first sentence. And when I opened your book, the first thing I thought was how different this voice was from the usual staccato, hard-boiled style associated with crime writing and, you know, with gangster figures in American fiction.

DOCTOROW: Well, I don't think of this as crime writing. And I've never been particularly fond of the so-called hard-boiled school of work. I've never been that much interested in crime fiction or true crime, or nor have I followed the culture of professional criminals in the papers. I think of this as the story of the young man's sentimental education. It's a kind of bildungsroman. He's a bright, enterprising kid - the ideal. He's curious. He's energetic. He has a lot of wonder for the world. It's just that it's the underworld that he's attached to.

Of course in those days, criminals were very much more compartmentalized than they are now. They had their place. They killed each other and not you. If you stayed out of their way and you didn't try to compete with them, you were relatively safe and could observe their comings and goings and drownings and killings with some impunity. Now there's some questions, some blurring of those lines, I think. It's not quite as clear today in the 1980s who is exactly criminal and who isn't. We've had occasions of public officials who been supposed or sworn to uphold the law who have, in fact, broken it. And all that kind of thing just leeches it away, gives you almost a wish for the good old days when a crook was a crook and everyone else wasn't.

GROSS: Why did you choose Dutch Schultz as the gangster that the main character in your novel apprentices himself to?

DOCTOROW: I - that's an interesting question. I think because he was a New York criminal and I felt a little more comfortable with him. He was also - had a more mythical presence in my mind than some of the others. Dutch Schultz was not his real name. You know, his real name was Arthur Flegenheimer. But he took the name Dutch Schultz because he was such a tough kid. It was almost given to him as an honor by his gang. He knows he got through reform school in such a feisty way, so he took on the name Dutch Schultz, which was the name of an earlier criminal in the turn-of-the-century, and the name stuck. He later came to regret it, saying that if he'd kept with his original name, he wouldn't have gotten as much attention and, therefore, into as much difficulty, but that the name Dutch Schultz fit the headlines as the name Arthur Flegenheimer couldn't. And so that was his era.

GROSS: Was he Jewish?


GROSS: Did that have - figure into your selecting him as the main gangster?

DOCTOROW: No, I don't think so. I think it may have been something as simple as that I liked the sound of the name. The sound Dutch Schultz, the - it had a kind of a primeval ring in my mind, I think.

GROSS: Were there stories about him in the Bronx neighborhood where you grew up? Or was he reputed to own any businesses or have any front operations there?

DOCTOROW: Well, Billy is seen early in the book, when he goes back to tell about his first connection with Schultz, hanging around one of Dutch Schultz's beer drops, a place - a sort of warehouse for the awful green beer he was selling or foisting on the speakeasies and then on the bars after the repeal of Prohibition. And the fact that the beer drop is in the neighborhood confers upon the neighborhood a certain kind of distinction, which the young boys like. It gives them a sense of place, a sense of bearing or position in the world that they might not otherwise have. I, myself, was only 4 years old when Dutch Schultz died. He was killed in 1935. And I don't think any of that actually came through to me. But obviously, the name Dutch Schultz and the general idea of his rather fast, meteoric and violent career was part of the folklore of New York in the 1930s.

GROSS: E.L. Doctorow is my guest, and we're talking about his new novel, "Billy Bathgate."

One of the central incidents of the new novel is a ritual murder in which one of Schultz's henchmen is killed by getting cement overshoes and getting drowned in the ocean. And you write, (reading) a ritual death tampers with the universe. I think this idea of the ritual death was something of great interest to you in planning this novel?

DOCTOROW: Well, it certainly - the book began with an image in my mind of men in tuxedos and black tie on a tugboat. And for the longest time, I didn't know what it meant or why I was thinking of it. And then I realized that they had to be criminals and that one of them was going to kill the other. And that's really the genesis of the entire book. That's the way it began for me. So this was a crucial scene, a very seminal scene. And the nature of the ritual, the sort of sad necessity of it sort of seeps through the entire occasion and makes it quite horrifying. And I guess something about that appealed to me as a writer.

DAVIES: E.L. Doctorow speaking with Terry Gross in 1989. We'll hear more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're listening to Terry's 1989 interview with writer E.L. Doctorow. He died Tuesday at the age of 84.


GROSS: Let me ask you to read another short excerpt from "Billy Bathgate." And this is Billy talking about what it feels like to hold a gun for the first time.

DOCTOROW: Yes, this comes later. He begins - insinuates himself into the gang, attaches himself. Dutch Schultz gets his attention and then becomes kind of a mascot, a good luck charm, and gradually, works his way up into sort of an apprentice kind of person in the gang - and goes beyond that, later. But at this point, they're up in the country, and he's given instruction in the firing of a gun, taken to a local police firing range, where Dutch Schultz and his men have set up firing privileges.

And Billy says, in this point, (reading) I will never forget how it felt to hold a loaded gun for the first time and lift it and fire it, the scare of its animate kick up the bone of your arm. You're empowered, there's no question about it. It's an investiture, like knighthood. And even though you didn't invent it or design it or tool it, the credit is yours because it's in your hand. You don't even have to know how it works. The credit is all yours. With the slightest squeeze of your finger, a hole appears in a piece of paper 60 feet away. And how can you not be impressed with yourself? How can you not love this coiled and sprung causation? I was awed. I was thrilled. The thing is, guns come alive when you fire them. They move. I hadn't realized that.

GROSS: Did you go to a shooting range or anything before writing this and hold a gun in your hand so you'd have a sense of the physical sensation you were trying to describe?

DOCTOROW: No. No, I don't - I've never fired a pistol. I, as a soldier in the Army, I fired rifles, which do have a kick - a sort of different kind. But this - the thing about writing is that you use your imagination a good deal of the time and you can usually work out things by thinking about them and imagining them. That's the whole game - to get into people's skins, to pretend to be someone you're not, to have experiences you've never had and to represent them truly to render them so that questions like this are asked of you.

GROSS: (Laughter). Several critics who loved your new novel mention that in the first-person narrative of Billy, who's 15 or 16 in the novel, that he uses some words that - it's kind of hard to believe he'd have access to words like empowered and investiture, which are in the reading that you just gave. How did you think that through about what kind of language to give him, especially with these, like, bigger words and more...

DOCTOROW: Well, I must've understood he was smart as a whip. He's something of a rhapsodist, too. I mean, part of his being is his power to celebrate that - even things even that repel him and make him fearful. He seems to take all of life into himself and embrace it with a capacity for wonder and rhapsody that is reflected in these nice looping, long sentences he comes up with. We do learn at a certain crucial strategic point that Billy has used his criminal earnings to get himself through a very advanced high school in New York called Townsend Harris High School and then into an Ivy League college, which he decides not to name because in his adulthood, when he's writing this book, he has a certain renown and he doesn't want to be identified. He's rather mysterious, as it turns out. Possibly as an alumnus of whatever Ivy League college it is, he doesn't want to pin the rap on them.

GROSS: "Billy Bathgate" continues in the tradition (laughter), if you'll pardon that word, that you've established in your novels of combining fictional and real historical figures. What is the resonance that you think you can get from a novel by combining those two together?

DOCTOROW: Well, I don't really know. It's just something that sort of happened. I didn't begin with any aesthetic theory. I think I've since been forced to try to describe or defend this practice many times. I think what I'm doing is dealing with in the case of historically-verifiable characters is, I'm dealing with the fictions they themselves made of their lives to the extent that they made themselves public and promulgated a myth about themselves, as Dutch Schultz, did as J.P. Morgan did, as Emma Goldman did in "Ragtime." It began with the fictions people create about themselves and then they're in your realm, you see. And it's quite valid for you to deal with them and take off from that point.

GROSS: You know, it's the kind of thing you probably see done badly a lot, you know, even on miniseries', where (laughter) figures from the past are combined with fictional characters, and you end up with a kind of hodgepodge of history. Do you ever feel that people who do this kind of thing less-well point to you as a defense (laughter) for what they're practicing?

DOCTOROW: Well, I suppose all's fair in love and art.

GROSS: (Laughter).

DOCTOROW: I don't feel I have to defend the...

GROSS: Yeah.

DOCTOROW: ...Miniseries. I also know that novelists have been doing this forever. I mean, Napoleon is in "War And Peace." Dumas, a great favorite of mine as a boy, Cardinal Richelieu is a character in - what is it - the "Count of Monte Cristo," "The Three Musketeers." And it seems to me, the justification for any work is not what it (unintelligible) but how good the particular book is. I do know that when "Ragtime" first came out, a lot of people said, well, he can do - this is not allowable. Yet, writers now sort of routinely base novels on factual, historically-verifiable figures. Nobody says a thing about it. So maybe this idea of the strict demarcation between the fictional and the nonfictional is breaking down a little bit, which is probably all to the good because we all compose our lives every day, every minute of the - waking and sleeping, and I don't think that fiction writers should be the only ones to take the rap for that.

GROSS: You are still a board member of PEN, the international writers' organization?

DOCTOROW: Yes, I am.

GROSS: Why has it been important for you? You've been outspoken on First Amendment issues in this country, and on free speech issues in - on behalf of writers in other countries, as well. Why has that been important to you?

DOCTOROW: Well, I - it's - I mean, what is the alternative? The alternative is repression and tyranny and the absence of thought, the absence of life. I think that any writer has to decide at a certain point to commit a certain amount of his time and his effort to this very basic elementary insistence that such-and-such a writer shouldn't be in prison, such-and-such a writer should be allowed back to his own country, such-and-such a writer shouldn't be tortured and certainly not have to be in hiding with a death threat on his head.

We see all forms of censorship everywhere all around the world, and it's really quite appalling. And people who live by the word seem to me to have a certain obligation to simply point this out and say it's wrong.

GROSS: Have you ever been afraid to speak or write your own truth?

DOCTOROW: You're always afraid. I mean, fear is one of the things you have to deal with - the fear of revelation, the fear of self-exposure, the fear of talking out of turn, the fear of offending those around you who may see themselves in your work. These are all the conditions you begin with, and part of becoming a writer is learning to deal with that failure and encourage learning the peculiar life of self-revelation.

GROSS: There's the fear of embarrassment, you know, that you'll write something that won't be liked or that will reveal something about yourself that you won't want revealed, and then the fear of imprisonment, torture or death. Has it given - do you think it's given writers more courage to watch writers in other countries who have to brave so much to just write what it is that they're writing?

DOCTOROW: Well, we are very privileged here, of course. Usually, we're not physically in danger...

GROSS: Well, actually, weren't you one of the writers who was monitored by the FBI back in the '70s?

DOCTOROW: Oh, yes, but that was a great honor, you see. To have a file in the FBI is one of the credentials for achievements, like the honor roll of American writing. But essentially, nothing comes of that, but it's a great privilege to be on the same list with everyone from Theodore Dreiser and Faulkner and Hemingway and Katherine Anne Porter, to - all the way up to Truman Capote. And it's a wonderful group of names to be attached to. It's kind of literary criticism the FBI does.

GROSS: (Laughter). Well, we're out of time. I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

DOCTOROW: My pleasure.

DAVIES: E.L. Doctorow, speaking with Terry Gross in 1989. Doctorow died Tuesday in Manhattan. He was 84. After a break, we'll remember Marlene Sanders, a pioneer for women in broadcast journalism, and David Edelstein reviews the new film, "Phoenix." Here's music from Randy Newman's score for the film "Ragtime." I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF RANDY NEWMAN SONG, FROM "RAGTIME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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