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In search of The Dice Man: An extraordinary journey to track down a cult author

When Steve Boggan tried to track down the creator of the cult novel, The Dice Man, he was told the author had died. And then the plot really thickened…

Steve Boggan
Saturday 12 January 2013 01:00 GMT

It is our pleasure to inform you that Luke Rhinehart is dead,' read the message. 'He very much wanted us to tell you this as soon as possible so that you wouldn't be annoyed that he wasn't replying to your e-mails.

'In recent years he had gotten great satisfaction out of his interaction with friends on the web, and he told us he had tried to avoid dying so he could continue these dialogues. Unfortunately, Chance had other ideas.'

I was sent this e-mail, dated 1 August 2012, while trying to track down George Cockcroft, alias Luke Rhinehart, the acclaimed and controversial author of The Dice Man, one of the most darkly comic novels of the 20th century. Had I stumbled upon a literary event, the death of a free thinker who had encouraged legions of followers to throw dice as a way of making life decisions?

Or was it a hoax? Was the 80-year-old American subversive rolling the dice again – and had they told him to announce to the world that Luke Rhinehart's number was, literally, up?

Cockcroft's seminal novel, The Dice Man, published under the name Luke Rhinehart, exploded on to the literary scene in 1971. In the book, bored psychiatrist Rhinehart first throws the dice in order to decide whether or not to go downstairs and rape his neighbour, Arlene. Eventually, the dice take over his life with bewildering, funny and disastrous consequences. Some of the philosophical points raised by the book make for uncomfortable reading – it was banned in several countries – but Cockcroft never held back, and he continued living his life in the same way (still occasionally throwing dice, still writing, still calling himself Rhinehart and Cockcroft) until seeking seclusion in a small town in New York state several decades ago.

So far, the book has sold upwards of two million copies and today is selling faster, and in more languages, than ever. Its reach is staggering and evergreen, eliciting breathless praise from a spectrum that begins at the New York Times and ends at Loaded magazine (which named Rhinehart as its Novelist of the 20th Century).

News of Luke's death, then, would come as a disappointment to generations of followers. I stumbled upon it while trying to send him a copy of a book I had written about pursuing a $10 bill across America; I thought its randomness might appeal to him. After a little investigative work I discovered that an Australian writer called Simon Smithson had an e-mail conduit to the author through which he had been corresponding for five years.

I contacted Smithson, only for him to reply: 'I'm deeply sorry to break the news that George passed away only very recently. Or at least I'm reasonably sure he did. I can understand that this may sound strange – the thing is, I was never sure where Luke Rhinehart, the author, Luke Rhinehart, the character, and George Cockcroft, the man, found their borders.

'All I can tell you is that I was saddened to receive an e-mail telling me that Luke had passed. As George used "Luke Rhinehart" interchangeably with his own name, I'm still not too sure… my first take was that George had passed, and my second take is that he may well have rolled the die and chosen to tell everyone he'd died – no pun intended.'

The news had been broken to Smithson in the August e-mail, which (in suspiciously Rhinehartesque prose), continued: 'Luke didn't fear death, although he confessed to being a bit nervous. Death to him was just another one of life's unknowns, like travelling to a new land, starting a new book, trusting a new friend. Every human act was a step into the unknown, death simply one of the scarier ones.

'Luke liked to laugh at death, but then again he liked to laugh at everything. Since he always saw seriousness as mankind's fatal flaw and humans seemed to take death most seriously, he felt confident that death wasn't all it was cracked up to be. He promised to report back as soon as he could and let us know what he had found. He was confident we would all get a good chuckle out of it. However, at this point Luke is still dead.'

But was he?

I e-mailed Cockcroft's agent, Dan Mandel, in order to check on the author's condition, but he did not reply. I made several calls to Mandel's office in New York but he returned none of them. "He'll send you an e-mail," was all his receptionist would say. And none came.

I weighed up the evidence. Writing such an e-mail to a friend about one's own death would be dark, even by the standards of Luke Rhinehart. After all these years, his wife, Ann, who met Cockcroft in 1954 after a throw of a die told him to pick her up in his car, would surely know how to mimic his prose – and would probably want an announcement about his death to be a celebration. And nobody celebrated life more than The Dice Man.

I began to feel that he probably was dead, and realised that I was missing him already. He was one of my heroes. I sent my condolences and began re-reading The Dice Man with rising senses of sorrow and loss when, suddenly, a message arrived from Rhinehart's e-mail account.

Dear Mr Boggan,' it read. 'The reports of Dr Rhinehart's death were somewhat exaggerated, most notably by Luke himself. We apologise for his thoughtlessness. To pretend to die while sneakily lurking here and there in the darkest shadows is the lowest of the low. But we can expect no better from him.'

After I stopped laughing, I began to wonder whether I had been hoaxed again. But this time, I found myself asking whether Luke Rhinehart really was alive. Or was this the e-mail I had been promised from his agent? Was George Cockcroft actually Dan Mandel? Had they ever been seen together in the same room? Wasn't The Dice Man's catchphrase "Anybody Can Be Anybody"?

Or was Simon Smithson really Luke Rhinehart? Had the roll of a die told George Cockcroft to give Luke Rhinehart an Australian alter-ego?

I had been sucked into the world of the Dice and was going mad.

Four months on, George Cockcroft has agreed to be interviewed and is chuckling down the phone, but Luke Rhinehart is still dead. Sort of.

"Luke will still pop up now and then," says Cockcroft. "But I have much more fun using the voice of the intimate of Luke writing to people about Luke's death than I do about using the voice of Luke."

This "fun" involved writing to 25 relatives and friends to tell them Luke was dead. Or to hint that George could be dead. Or, he insists, to yank their chain, assuming they would know he was kidding – and that George was really alive. But not everybody did assume that.

"I chose the initial recipients on the basis of thinking they would enjoy the Death Letter and wanting to see their reactions. I knew that the letter created a certain amount of ambiguity about the possible reality of Luke's death, but thought most everyone would think that no one would start such a letter, 'We are pleased to inform you…' I was wrong in my assumption.f

"A very dear friend over there in England, Neal Foster, immediately phoned, a bit upset, to ascertain that the letter was not literally true. I had upset a good friend and that was a real sin for Ann – although not for me. I saw that Neal was immediately relieved and thus I had done no real harm."

In fact, Foster, actor-manager at the Birmingham Stage Company, was furious. "I was so pissed off," he tells me. "I first met George in 2002 when I went to stay with him after performing in The Dice House, a play inspired by his book. Over the years he and Ann have become very close friends.

"When I got the e-mail saying Luke had died, I naturally assumed it was George. My mother had recently died and as an atheist I had been deeply affected by the thought that I would never speak, simply say 'hello' to her ever again. I now felt this way about George. When I called Ann and she told me he was alive, I was not impressed. I said, George, you shouldn't fuck with people's emotions. It left me feeling upset for months afterwards. I have given him instructions that he absolutely should never send any letters like that to me again. Ever. I mean, when he dies for real, who's going to believe him?'

The novelist and columnist Danny Wallace, author of another work of randomness, Yes Man, interviewed Cockcroft at his home in Canaan, New York State, last winter and the two became close friends. He was crushed when he received the Death Letter. "I was hailing a cab in north London when I got it," he recalls. "It was early evening and sunny and I was on my way to meet some friends, and the second I got it I knew what it was. Or, at least, I thought I did. George had confided in me when we'd met up and in our subsequent e-mails that on his death, a letter from him would go out to a select group of people. I just assumed this was it, and felt quietly grateful to have been considered worthy.

"The more I read the letter, the more strangely wonderful I thought it was, and how very George. Well, at first there were no doubts, because really, what kind of sociopath does this? So I was sad, because he was my friend."

Wallace sent flowers and then e-mailed Cockcroft's "intimate" to ask if he might write an obituary. "This is where I became suspicious," he adds. "They wrote straight back and said they didn't feel it was the right time to write an obituary. I blinked. After someone's death seemed the perfect time to me.

"I thought about it a lot. It was a wonderful mystery. My dad started to tell me that he thought George was definitely alive, and I'd been starting to really suspect it too, but I didn't want to phone up in case it turned out not to be true. But when I got a shamefaced e-mail from him a week or so later, saying that he felt he'd probably misjudged the joke a little bit, I laughed, and I laughed, more out of relief than anything. And then I e-mailed him back and called him a silly old bastard."

Other recipients appeared to be moved, but succinctly. The New Zealand-born model and actress Zoe Brock replied: 'Thank you for this. You will be missed and always remembered with a grateful grin and a full heart. Love to your family. Z.'

Some were obviously sceptical while trying to remain sympathetic. Paul Vincent Farrell, a Tokyo-based artist replied: 'That is the most beautiful, genuine, uplifting, and perfectly inspiring farewell message I have ever read. Even more wonderful in fact because even after re-reading it a number of times I'm no closer to knowing whether I've just read a draft of the final chapter of Our Autobiographies and the character of Luke has now officially been shelved. Or if in fact my honoured and respected mentor has actually passed into another realm. If the former, I applaud you sir! If the latter, I applaud you even louder sir!'

Others seem not to have been taken in at all. Stuart Fenegan, the producer of the hit movies Moon and Source Code, bounced back with: 'How terrible! George, I hope you are OK sir!'. While a South African-based Finnish correspondent's reply concluded: 'I sincerely trust that we will soon hear about the definitive date for The Resurrection of The Dice Man – November 15 perhaps [Cockcroft's birthday] – I'm personally certain that the resurrection is imminent!'

Cockcroft's 77-year-old brother, Jim, who lives in Montreal, laughs about the episode. "I wasn't taken in for a second," he says. "I just assumed the Death Letter was George up to his old tricks again."

To understand why George Cockcroft wrote the Death Letter it is necessary to go back in time. Born in Albany, New York, to an engineer and a civil servant, he studied American literature and, later, psychology, at Cornell and Columbia Universities.

"There actually was a specific moment when I decided to write a book about randomly living by throwing a die," he tells me. "It was in July of 1965. I had returned from living and teaching for a year at the University of the Americas in Mexico City and was teaching a summer seminar at Dowling College on 'freedom'. We were reading writers like Nietzsche, Camus, Sartre, a bit of Zen and talking about freedom. One day I began describing dice living. I posed the question of whether the ultimate freedom might not be to make most of one's decisions by casting dice. I was surprised at how angry at this idea some of the students were, and how excited and fascinated were others. It was that evening that I decided to write a novel about someone who explores the possibilities of dice living.

"I had been using dice to make decisions since my late teens – for almost 15 years before this date. Moreover, in my very first effort to write a novel, about when I was 21 or 22, a minor character in that novel was a Dr Luke Rhinehart, a psychiatrist at the mental hospital in which the protagonist of that novel, Eric Cannon, had been incarcerated. Dr Luke practised dice therapy.

"When I began writing The Dice Man in the summer of 1965, it was Luke that I resurrected and made the world's first Dice Man. When I landed a book deal, I insisted to my publishers that the author of the book be Luke Rhinehart, not George Cockcroft. Having Luke's name on the cover would make it appear that the book might possibly be an autobiography and thus make reading the book a more unsettling experience. Equally important, I didn't want to have to play the role of author all the time. I could be Luke at times, but at others just plain George."

Unfortunately, fate was to play a trick on Cockcroft and the book became much more successful than he had imagined, requiring him to play the role of Rhinehart more and more. The lines became increasingly blurred until, two years ago, he began to question them. He began to feel he was travelling into old age and wasn't sure he wanted Luke along for the ride.

"I never thought much about dying during my advancing years," he says. "In fact, my wife frequently complained that my lack of concern about death was because I assumed I was immortal. I've never assumed I was immortal, but death never aroused in me much interest. Then in about 2009, when I was in my 77th year, I felt a change come over me. I realised I was less interested in life, in particular in my 'career' [his parenthesis]. I found it difficult to finish books, particularly novels. I always began to lose interest in the characters or story and not want to bother to read on. I no longer was interested in getting films made from my novels, no longer interested in giving interviews to promote my books, no longer interested in being Luke Rhinehart.

"I continued to go through the motions in some cases, but my heart was no longer in it. I still enjoyed life: the weather, flowers, kayaking, eating sweets, love-making, but my career was becoming a matter of indifference. I didn't feel I was approaching the end. I felt as vital as ever – physically deteriorating of course and having less creative energy – but still feeling energetic and alive and with not the tiniest sense of foreboding. I wouldn't be surprised if when I'm lying in a bed, gasping for breath, loved ones gathered around all looking serious, the doctor having predicted my passing within hours, I will still be feeling pretty good about things and not worrying about death. My wife may be right – maybe I do think I'm immortal."

He says that for a long time he had been 'George' to his close friends and 'Luke' to lesser acquaintances. But slowly that began to change.

"Except where I felt it was somehow important to achieve a narrow purpose, I ceased using Luke as my name. I began to phase Luke out of my life. In the summer of 2010 I took the next logical step: I began to think of killing Luke off. I wrote at that time the first draft of a Death Letter announcing that Luke had died. It was almost identical to the letter that, two years later, I would send out to 25 or so people. I did originally see the letter as one that I would ask Ann or someone less disturbed by my dying to send out to many people after I actually died.

"But after living with the Death Letter for two years I began to get impatient. Damn it, will I never die!? I enjoyed the letter and wanted others to enjoy it, too. So on 31 July and in the next two days of early August 2012, I mailed it out.

"The recipients reacted in three different ways. A few, like Neal, thought I might really have died and thus immediately wanted to determine if I had. When they learnt I was still alive they were deeply disappointed – just kidding; they were relieved and no one was annoyed. A few believed that Luke/George had died and expressed their condolences. A few recognised the playfulness of the letter and answered in an equally playful way. The responses I most enjoyed were those that answered playfully or who wrote back expressing uncertainty about what was going on."

Frustratingly, when I ask whether the dice played a part in his decision to send out the Death Letter, he replies: "I no longer discuss what decisions I make the usual way and what I make by letting chance have a roll, or role."

So, what did he get out of it – and are there any regrets? "I am quite content to have sent the Death Letter – no regrets at all," he smiles. "The friend that was most upset was not annoyed with me when he learnt the truth, only relieved. We remain as close as ever. A couple of friends responded with very adulatory words and I enjoyed reading them, but felt a little guilty for having elicited them. I felt under the circumstances I really should kill myself. I think others just thought, 'Typical George' and enjoyed it too.

"It also has helped me to understand my legacy: a hundred or so friends created by my books, a few thousand people whose lives have been made marginally happier and more creative, and a lot more people who have been entertained. It is a very satisfying legacy.

"But I can anticipate – if I live long enough – that there will come a time when I will write to 25 people saying, 'Luke is alive! The grave is empty! He's back!' and then write to a couple of hundred other people and tell them too. He's a tough guy to keep down."

Steve Boggan is the author of 'Follow the Money: A Month in the Life of a Ten-dollar Bill', published by Union Books

The death letter

Dear XXX,

It is our pleasure to inform you that Luke Rhinehart is dead. He very much wanted us to tell you this as soon as possible so that you wouldn’t be annoyed that he wasn’t replying to your e-mails. In recent years he had gotten great satisfaction out of his interaction with friends on the web, and he told us he had tried to avoid dying so he could continue these dialogues. Unfortunately, Chance had other ideas.

His dying was neither sudden nor slow. As some of you know, he had been writing ‘Death Poems’ for at least a decade before his last one. Of course, at the same time as he was writing these he was also writing ‘Birth Poems’, so we saw nothing foreboding in his writing of death.

Luke didn’t fear death, although he confessed to being a bit nervous. Death to him was just another one of life’s unknowns, like travelling to a new land, starting a new book, trusting a new friend. Every human act was a step into the unknown, death simply one of the scarier ones. Luke liked to laugh at death, but then again he liked to laugh at everything. Since he always saw seriousness as mankind’s fatal flaw and humans seemed to take death most seriously, he felt confident that death wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. He promised to report back as soon as he could and let us know what he had found. He was confident we would all get a good chuckle out of it. However, at this point Luke is still dead.

Some of you have asked about Luke’s last days. They were no different from days from any week over the last several decades. For a man who believed in chance and change Luke was discouragingly consistent. In fact, many of us who knew him were disappointed in his willingness to roll along on his familiar patterns.

“It’s not rolling along in the same old patterns that is bad in itself,” he said, “but rather if you’re enjoying the rolling. If you’re comfortable in the selves you’re rolling along with, then roll on. Most people aren’t.”

Luke’s wife was with him throughout the last week of his life.

“I’m dying,” he said to her at one point early in the week.

“Big deal,” she said.

“I know, I know, it’s nothing to brag about, it’s just that I find it interesting. I’ve never died before.”

“Well a lot of creatures have,” she said, straightening his pillow with such mighty whacks Luke’s head bounced.

“Right. And that’s a quite comforting thought. I have several trillion creatures waiting to greet me on the other side.”

“Or ignore you.”

Luke stared at the ceiling.

“That would be boring,” he finally said.

“Typical Luke – always worried about being bored.”

“I don’t worry.”

“Right. And dogs don’t bark.”

Luke was silent.

“Are you going to miss me when I’m gone?”

“Oh, come off it. You’ve been underfoot for more than 50 years. Instead of tripping over you as I have been I’ll probably trip becauseyou’re not where I always assume you are.”

“That’s comforting.”

“Of course I’ll miss you.”

We want you to know that Luke uttered no famous last words. He was determined to say nothing of significance since whatever it was he feared it would be given too much importance. No single statement should ever have too much importance. The whole secret of happy living, he sometimes said, is to avoid thinking anything has much importance.

He did, in fact, speak at the very end. With a bunch of us around him and Luke barely able to breathe, he pushed himself up into a sitting position and turned and looked fiercely at us with unaccustomed seriousness. We could see that he was determined to say one last thing before he died. One or two of us leaned forward to catch his last words.

“So long,” he said.

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