Life with a syncopated beat

This is the story of how a house, a city and particularly a musical form inspired a novel that in turn became a movie and a musical, bringing the story full circle.

E.L. Doctorow based his seminal 1975 novel “Ragtime” not only on the city in which he lived, New Rochelle, but on his home in the spacious Forest Heights neighborhood.

“The book opens with the house in this neighborhood,” says Barbara Davis, city historian and community relations coordinator for the New Rochelle Public Library, where Doctorow, then a professor of writing at Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers, did much of his research. “In the early 20th century, New Rochelle had become one of the premier suburbs. The men worked in the city and would come home to these lovely houses and parkland. What a lovely time to be writing about. It was a period of such transition.”

That transition was marked by, but not limited to, an influx of Eastern European immigrants, racial tensions and self-determination for women. If “Ragtime” seems timeless, it is partly because these are issues we still grapple with today.

The 20th century’s dawn was also a time when the Industrial Revolution kicked into another gear, giving rise to the tabloid media, says Theresa Leghorn, vice president of the New Rochelle Council on the Arts and former director of the Museum of Arts & Culture, where she and Davis curated an exhibit on “Ragtime” in 2008 as part of New Rochelle’s continuing “One City, One Book” program.

Writing about a time when the newfangled tabloids fed and were fed by celebrity, Doctorow chose to tell his story in a way that is instantly intelligible in our Internet age, but that was still unusual in the 1970s. “Ragtime” is a tapestry threaded with the fictional happenings of the real-life rich and famous – magician Harry Houdini, reformer Emma Goldman, chorus girl Evelyn Nesbit, her onetime lover, architect Stanford White and her murderously jealous husband, Harry K. Thaw. But at the center of the tapestry is the fictional upper-class white family that lives in the New Rochelle home – Father, Mother, Mother’s Younger Brother, Grandfather and the unnamed young son. Their lives are forever changed by their relationships with an abandoned black baby, the child’s mother, Sarah, and the baby’s father, Coalhouse Walker Jr., a ragtime musician who discovers that for a black man marching to his own beat, life can have tragic limitations.

But ragtime is music off the beat. If New Rochelle is the Doctorow novel’s cinematography, ragtime is its soundtrack –
a blend of marches, European classical traditions and African-American rhythms in which the accents occur between the downbeat and the upbeat, creating a ragged effect.

“Syncopation was not only a new form but it was the kind of music that had this hesitation and yet a robustness,” Leghorn says.

Perhaps the greatest proponent of this irresistible push-pull was Scott Joplin, composer of “The Entertainer,” “Maple Leaf Rag” and “Elite Syncopations,” among other infectious delights. In the 1970s, the music underwent a revival just as Doctorow was writing “Ragtime.” Marvin Hamlisch turned Joplin’s work into an Oscar-winning score in “The Sting” (1973), in which the music is used anachronistically. (The film is set in the 1930s, by which point ragtime was long out of favor.) Other ’70s salutes include pianist Joshua Rifkin’s Grammy-nominated Joplin compilation and Kenneth MacMillan’s sprightly ballet “Elite Syncopations.”

But it was Doctorow’s novel that captured the tune within. It won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction in 1975 and the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award a year later.

In 1981, “Ragtime” was turned into a film that was shot partly in Mount Kisco and featured the last performance by James Cagney, who had retired to Dutchess County. Seventeen years later, “Ragtime” came full circle as a musical that was noteworthy for a score that included Joplin’s music and Tony-nominated performances by Audra McDonald as Sarah and Brian Stokes Mitchell as Coalhouse Walker, among others. Despite mixed reviews, the production ran two years on Broadway. The 2009 revival had the opposite experience – great reviews, no legs, closing after just 28 previews and 65 performances.

Whatever you may think of “Ragtime” and its various incarnations, you’ll find it hard to resist Doctorow’s hypnotic voice, Davis says:

“You may not like a character, but you’ll feel for him.”

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