David Rakoff dies at 47; Thurber Prize-winning humorist

David Rakoff, a humorist whose cynical outlook on life and culture earned him the 2011 Thurber Prize for American Humor, died Thursday in New York City after a long illness. He was 47.

The statement from Doubleday and Anchor Books announcing his death did not give a cause, but Rakoff had long written about his battles with cancer.

He won the Thurber prize — named for legendary humorist James Thurber — for “Half Empty” (2010), his third collection of essays. They veered from sarcastic to poignant and expounded on such topics as optimism, mortality and the bohemian myth of artists.

His other bestselling books are “Fraud” (2001) and “Don’t Get Too Comfortable: The Indignities of Coach Class, the Torments of Low Thread Count, The Never-Ending Quest for Artisanal Olive Oil, and Other First World Problems” (2005).


One essay in “Fraud” was a memoir of his battle with Hodgkin’s disease. Ostensibly the story of his tracking down the sperm sample he banked in Toronto before undergoing chemotherapy 12 years earlier, it begins in typical Rakoff fashion: “I cannot escape the feeling that I was, at best, a cancer tourist, that my survival means I dabbled.”

He was born Nov. 27, 1964, in Montreal to psychiatrist Vivian Rakoff and his physician wife, Gina Shochat-Rakoff.

Rakoff, who attended Columbia University and lived in New York, cultivated hipness and ironic distance from his subjects, who usually lived outside the mainstream: American Buddhists who pay for lectures from Steven Seagal; Icelandic elf communicators; Loch Ness monster believers.

A longtime contributor to the public radio show “This American Life,” Rakoff also wrote essays that appeared in GQ, Slate, the New York Times and elsewhere.


As an actor, he had appeared in several stage plays by David and Amy Sedaris, and had occasional roles on television. Rakoff also appeared in and adapted the screenplay for the dark comedy “The New Tenants,” a 2009 short film that received an Academy Award.

“He was of course incredibly charming, witty and learned, a brilliant raconteur with the quickest mind imaginable, but most of all he was a generous soul,” Bill Thomas, his longtime Doubleday editor, said in a statement.

Rakoff’s final work — “Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die; Cherish, Perish” — is scheduled to be published next year.

In addition to his parents, Rakoff’s survivors include a brother, Simon, a comedian; and a sister, Ruth Rakoff, whose memoir “When My World Was Very Small” (2010) recounts her battle with cancer.

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