Goodbye, David Rakoff

David Rakoff at the Texas Book Festival, Austi...

David Rakoff at the Texas Book Festival, Austin, Texas, United States. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

They’re rosy, they’re peachy, they understand Nietzsche,

Those beautiful brainy girls.

They write well, they work hard, they understand Kierkegaard,

Those beautiful brainy girls.

Each one is undeniably intellectual.

And thank God they’re certifiably heterosexual.

They know their Cervantes, although they wear panties,

Those beautiful brainy girls.

And with those lyrics, written for the Columbia College Varsity Show in 1984, David Rakoff solidified his place as the funniest, wittiest, cleverest person I have ever had the good fortune to know.

It was the first year of co-education at Columbia, and David, along with future TV writer superstars Alexa Junge and Adam Belanoff, and composer Noel Katz, wrote this song as the opening to our show.

Years later, I still remember every word, and it still makes me smile.

David was like that.  Once you read something he wrote, or listened to him on the radio, or hung out with him in London, with your mother, ordering Turtle Soup (“Wait! It’s really turtle! he was shocked. “How horrifying!”), you remember every word he said and it makes you smile.

That’s why I’m so sad today.  Because even though, in the decades since college ended, David and I only spoke about once a year, I could always count on him to make me smile.  And last night, all too soon, at the age of 47, David died.

You know those friends that you don’t speak to for ages, but then when you do, it seems as if you never were out of touch?  That was David.  Our friend Jayne ( a talented writer in her own right) once told me that she thinks everyone who knows David feels that they have a special bond with him.  That was him.  Always making you feel special, when in fact, he was the special one.

Smarter than anyone.  Funnier. Brighter. Wittier.  And completely, totally, unimpressed with that indisputable fact.

A few years ago, David went to the Southampton Writer’s conference to teach a seminar.  He hated leaving the city. “You want greenery? Order the spinach salad.”  was the way he put it in an essay for Outside Magazine.  But he came, and he joined me (and my mother, again, for once she met him in London in 1986 she never forgot him, and always wanted to be included) at my house for lunch.  When my husband arrived, David got that look on his face that he got – that grin, those flashing eyes. “I had no idea you’d married Stanley Tucci!” he gushed, in his “I’m your saucy gay friend” sort of way. And then proceeded to make my husband feel extremely flattered…and a bit uncomfortable…for the rest of the afternoon.

That was David.  At once making me feel special for having such a husband, and my husband feel special for having movie-star looks.  All the while ignoring his own specialness, though with every word he wrote, every arcane bit of language he somehow managed to make sound fresh and current, that specialness – that extraordinary mind and talent –  was apparent.

David was generous with his talents, too.  I sent him my book proposal years ago, after an agent read an essay I had published, and contacted me interested to know if I had a book she might rep. David helped me craft a proposal.  And when the agent ended up telling me she didn’t want to rep me after all, she didn’t think I really had a book –  she did add that it was quite possibly the best book proposal she had ever received.

That was David, too.

Every email from him started “Oh honey.”

Every phrase he turned was sweet.

Every observation incredibly true, universal, yet somehow singular at the same time.

The world has lost not just a unique wit, but a lovely, lovely person. Everyone who knew him, who read him, who saw his Academy Award winning short film, who listened to him on the radio,  will miss him.

I know I will.


If you didn’t know David or his work, listen to this. It is a lovely tribute to him, his wit, and his work from his friends at This American Life


  1. Adam B. says

    Thank you for posting this wonderful remembrance, Nancy which the brilliant, humble David would be blushing about or dismissing with a ‘pshaw’ – though those of us who knew him can acknowledge that every word is true.

    The world is much emptier today but how blessed we were to have had David in our lives; I take some small solace in the fact that his brilliant essays will always be within easy reach, his comic turns on TV and radio just a few clicks away.

    Lucky us who will miss him always.

  2. anna rabinowitz says

    Dearest Nancy:

    Your words are heartbreakingly true and moving.

    From the “Mom” who was blessed to have those few forever memorable tastes of David in person.

  3. Lisa says

    I knew David from college too. In fact, I met him during his study abroad in London with a mutual Columbia friend. I kept in touch with him on and off throughout the years and when I reconnected with him through Facebook a few years ago, it was like no time had passed. You are so right – he made you feel special, even though he was the special one. So smart, charming and funny. He was a beacon of light in this world. I will never forget him.

  4. says

    Thanks for writing this wonderful tribute.

    I’m a Canadian writer in NY, and there are not that many of us here, certainly not at David’s level of fame and fortune. I never met him (lucky you!) but watched his trajectory with interest and a little envy. I was saddened and shocked to learn of his death.

    You were so fortunate to have enjoyed his kindness and generosity personally. It doesn’t surprise me to hear this as Canadians have big hearts!

  5. Alyssa says

    I don’t know the person, but he seems like an amazing man base on how you describe and talk about him. 🙂


  6. Jill Chenok says

    Nancy, thank you for this. I had not been in touch with David for years, but as you say so eloquently, he was a dear soul, truly special, and someone impossible to forget. So sad to lose such a bright light. Very sorry that I will not have the chance to see him again. Thank you for reminding me of our brilliant friend!

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