Obituary of Joan Acocella

January 7, 2024

Joan Acocella, staff writer at The New Yorker and one of the nation’s preeminent magazine journalists and essayists, died on January 7 at her home in New York City after a short illness. She was 78.

She is survived by her son Bart Acocella and daughter-in-law Maura Dougherty; grandchildren Caroline and James Acocella; her partner, Noël Carroll; her sister, Victoria Aguilar (Ed); a nephew, Colin Crosskill; and nieces Heather Kosanovich (Greg) and Juliette Aguilar. She was pre-deceased by her parents, Arnold and Florence Hartzell Ross.

She was born Joan Barbara Ross on April 13, 1945, in San Francisco and raised in Oakland, California. She attended the Anna Head School for Girls, then the University of California at Berkeley, where she graduated in 1966 with a B.A. in English. She spent her junior year studying abroad in Italy at the University of Padua, an experience that profoundly shaped her life and career. In 1984, she received a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Rutgers University.

She married Nicholas Acocella just weeks after graduating from college and moved to his native east coast, settling in New York City, which she loved with the zeal of the convert. In 1975, in an extraordinary leap of faith, they bought a loft in the Flatiron District/Chelsea, a former zipper factory that they renovated into the apartment she called home (and office) for the better part of five decades. They eventually divorced, but they were successful co-parents and remained good friends (see this hilariously accurate piece she wrote about Nick and the Feast of the Seven Fishes). Joan was a beloved member of the extended Acocella family long beyond her marriage to Nick, who died in 2020.

She began her career as a book editor, first at Prentice-Hall and then Random House. In the early 1980s, while still working on her doctoral dissertation, she became a dance critic. “Basically, I started writing about dance the way anybody starts,” she said in a recent interview. “I took any assignment that anyone would give me. Anything.”

She started at Dance Magazine, then made stops at the New York Daily News, Financial Times and Wall Street Journal, and she has been a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books. Since 1998, her professional home has been at The New Yorker, where she served as the magazine’s dance critic for more than 20 years, in addition to writing regular book reviews and taking on other topics up until just months before her death.

Her body of work, both at The New Yorker and elsewhere, demonstrated great breadth and an insatiably curious mind. She wrote about other writers (Willa Cather, Primo Levi, Agatha Christie, Ha Jin), about artists who are household names (Mikhail Baryshnikov, Frances McDormand) and others she thought deserved to be (the puppeteer Basil Twist, the Nrityagram Dance Ensemble in southern India). She covered hangovers and hoarders, profanity and Peter and the Wolf, saints (Mary Magdalene, Joan of Arc, Francis of Assisi) and sinners (Richard Pryor, Tony Soprano), Maleficent of Sleeping Beauty and the March sisters of Little Women.

She is the author of several books, including Mark Morris (1993), the definitive artistic biography of the modern dance choreographer; Creating Hysteria: Women and Multiple Personality Disorder (1999); and The Bloodied Nightgown, a collection of essays that will be published posthumously in February 2024.

She was a heterodox thinker with little tolerance for exhibitionism or gooey sentimentality. Her writing was informed by erudition and meticulous research, but accessibility to readers was a hallmark and point of pride. She was working on two different pieces before her hospitalization in October – retirement was simply not for her. She will be missed by friends, family and colleagues for her irreverent (occasionally salacious, often cutting) wit and love of gossip as much as her intellectual firepower. There was no one better with whom to discuss books, movies and television shows. She was a person of rare intelligence and many highbrow tastes, but with many unpretentious (even childlike) appreciations – announcing at the start of a recent drive to Washington, for example, that what she really wanted was “one of those pizzas in the little box” from the rest stop Pizza Hut on the New Jersey Turnpike.

In lieu of flowers, please consider a contribution to the Mark Morris Dance Group or the Jerome Robbins Dance Division of the New York Public Library.

The funeral mass on Saturday, January 13th can be livestreamed at this link: Joan Acocella Funeral Mass.

Funeral Services


January 12, 2024

4:00 PM to 8:00 PM

Greenwich Village Funeral Home

199 Bleecker Street

New York, NY 10012

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Funeral Mass

January 13, 2024

10:30 AM

St. Ignatius Loyola

980 Park Avenue

New York, NY 10028

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I was very fortunate to know Joan as both a friend and mentor during my decade in New York, the 90s. We both taught evening classes at SUNY Purchase for several years, and would meet after our classes at 10:00pm, having “”performed our classes, and waited together for our ride home to the Village. I was working on my PhD in Performance Studies at NYU, working on my dissertation on The Rite of Spring as a cultural icon. Joan and I shared a passion for all things Ballets Russes; she generously gave me a typed copy of HER dissertation, as she hoped it might be a help in my writing. It was indispensable, allowing me a glimpse inside her surgical intelligence, the extraordinary extent of her knowledge, and wonderful examples of her elegant, sophisticated prose. We lived just a few blocks from each other, and II invariably ran into her at performances all over the city. We discovered interests -and opinions in common. Barbara Pym was “woefully underestimated;” not enough people read Virginia Woolf-or Proust. We both loved Barney’s Christmas windows-always “so dramatic!” We debated whether we were then in the “post-modern” or “post post-modern” era of contemporary dance. We both loved strong coffee, and lively wit-I always rejoiced to hear her throaty laugh across a lobby after a performance. Joan was a guide, a mentor, a model of rigorous, thoughtful prose, a critic who observed dance closely, and always with compassion. Of all her many writings, my favorite ( and my students’ too) was her brief essay on “Swan Lake” entitled “Beauty as Moral Wish.” She loved art and beauty, and we loved her for it. Au revoir, Joan. With my love, Shelley

Posted by: Shelley Berg - Washington, DC - Friend January 11, 2024

I am saddened by Joan's death. In the 90s she took me on as a research assistant for her work on Willa Cather and multiple personality disorders. I was a midlife, naive graduate student in Nebraska who had never been in a city larger than Denver and never overnight in a place larger than Omaha. I came to NYC to do dissertation research and couldn't have known a more generous, interesting person. Joan took me to the Cedar Tavern, the Cloisters, the Rainbow Room, and she gave me a tour of apartment with the zipper marks on the floors. The fact that she gave me so much attention and wonderful conversation made a huge difference in my perceptions of an intellectual life. I was her driver when she visited Nebraska, and I loved explaining center pivot irrigation systems to her. When she finished her Cather work, she gifted me with several books of literary criticism (she wanted keep the Cather-written books), and I loved reading her witty, pithy marginalia. Her commitment to research was also evident. She was a wonderful writer and thinker, but even more, she was wonderful model of curiosity, generosity, and breadth. My sympathy to her family and friends.

Posted by: steve Shively - Lincoln, NE - Friend January 11, 2024
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