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Frank McCourt; storyteller hit gold in ‘Angela’s Ashes’

Frank McCourt told an interviewer he knew he would someday have to write his memoir, “or I would have died howling.’’ Frank McCourt told an interviewer he knew he would someday have to write his memoir, “or I would have died howling.’’ (Bebeto Matthews/Associated Press/File 1997)
By William Grimes
New York Times News Service / July 20, 2009
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NEW YORK - Frank McCourt, a former New York City schoolteacher who turned his miserable childhood in Limerick, Ireland, into a phenomenally popular, Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, “Angela’s Ashes,’’ died in Manhattan yesterday. He was 78 and lived in Manhattan and Roxbury, Conn.

The cause was metastatic melanoma, said Mr. McCourt’s brother, the writer and actor Malachy McCourt.

Mr. McCourt, who taught in the city’s school system for nearly 30 years, had always told his writing students that they were their own best material. In his mid-60s, he decided to take his own advice, sitting down to commit his childhood memories to paper and producing what he described as “a modest book, modestly written.’’

In it, Mr. McCourt described a childhood of terrible deprivation. After his alcoholic father abandoned the family, his mother - the Angela of the title - begged on the streets of Limerick to keep him and his three brothers meagerly fed, poorly clothed, and housed in a basement flat with no bathroom and a thriving population of vermin. The book’s clear-eyed look at childhood misery, its incongruously lilting, buoyant prose, and its heartfelt urgency struck a remarkable chord with readers and critics.

“When I look back on my childhood, I wonder how I survived at all,’’ the book’s second paragraph begins in a famous passage. “It was, of course, a miserable childhood: The happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.

“People everywhere brag and whimper about the woes of their early years, but nothing can compare with the Irish version: the poverty; the shiftless loquacious alcoholic father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters; the English and all the terrible things they did to us for 800 long years.’’

“Angela’s Ashes,’’ published by Scribner in 1996, rose to the top of the bestseller lists and stayed there for more than two years, selling 4 million copies in hardback. The next year, it won the Pulitzer Prize for biography and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Two more installments of his life story followed: “ ’Tis’’ (1999), which described his struggle to gain a foothold in New York, and “Teacher Man’’ (2005), an account of his misadventures and small victories as a public school teacher. Although both were bestsellers, neither one achieved anything like the runaway success of Mr. McCourt’s first book, which the British director Robert Parker brought to the screen in 1999.

Not to be outdone, Mr. McCourt’s younger brother Malachy brought out two volumes of his own memoirs: “A Monk Swimming’’ (1998), which also made the bestseller list, and “Singing Him My Song’’ (2000). Then, when it seemed that the McCourt tale had been well and truly told, Conor McCourt, Malachy’s son, gathered the four brothers, got them talking, and filmed two television documentaries, “The McCourts of Limerick’’ and “The McCourts of New York.’’

It was “Angela’s Ashes’’ that loomed over all things McCourt, however, and constituted a transformative experience for its author. Speaking to students at Bay Shore High School on Long Island in 1997, Mr. McCourt said, “I learned the significance of my own insignificant life.’’

Francis McCourt was born Aug. 30, 1930, on Classon Avenue on the edge of the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, where his Irish immigrant parents had hoped to make a better life. It was not to be, largely because his father, Malachy, usually spent his scant laborer’s earnings at the local bar. Beaten, the family returned to Limerick when Frank was 4, and the pattern repeated itself.

Three of Mr. McCourt’s six siblings died in early childhood. The family’s circumstances were so dire, he later told a student audience, that he often dreamed of becoming a prison inmate so that he would be guaranteed three meals a day and a warm bed. At home, the staple meal was tea and bread, which his mother jokingly referred to as a balanced diet: a solid and a liquid.

When Mr. McCourt was 11, his father went to work in a munitions factory in Britain and disappeared from the picture. Mr. McCourt stole bread and milk, which became the family’s principal means of support. After dropping out of school at 13, he delivered telegrams and earned extra income writing letters for a local landlady.

In 1949, Mr. McCourt, at 19, gathered his savings and boarded a ship for New York and a new life, which began unpromisingly. Finding a job at the Biltmore Hotel in midtown Manhattan, he was put in charge of the 60 caged canaries in the public rooms. Thirty-nine of them died, whereupon Mr. McCourt taped the lifeless bodies to their perches. The ruse did not work.

A series of laboring jobs followed, interrupted by the Korean War. Drafted into the Army, Mr. McCourt served as a dog trainer and later a clerk in West Germany.

Despite his lack of formal schooling, Mr. McCourt won admission to New York University, where he earned a degree in English education in 1957. A year later he began teaching at McKee Vocational High School on Staten Island, an eye-opening experience that he recalled, in often hilarious detail, in his third volume of memoirs, “Teacher Man.’’

In his first week, an unruly student threw a homemade sandwich on the floor, an act that astonished Mr. McCourt not so much for its brazenness as for the waste of good food. After appraising the sandwich with a connoisseur’s eye, he picked it up and ate it.

Mr. McCourt developed an idiosyncratic teaching style that found a somewhat more receptive audience at the elite Stuyvesant High School, where he taught creative writing after earning a master’s degree in English from Brooklyn College in 1967. He had students sing Irish songs to break down their resistance to poetry. After discovering a sheaf of written excuses from past years, he recognized an unexplored literary genre and asked students to write, say, an excuse letter from Adam or Eve to God, explaining why he or she should not be punished for eating the apple.

He even had students test themselves. “When they wrote their own tests, they asked questions they wanted answers to and then they answered them,’’ Mr. McCourt told the journal Instructor. “It was grand.’’

On the side, Mr. McCourt made fitful stabs at writing. He contributed articles on Ireland to The Village Voice. He kept notebooks. But at the Lion’s Head in Greenwich Village, where he became friends with Pete Hamill and Jimmy Breslin, he felt like an interloper, he said. They were writers. He was just a teacher.

“I had no idea he had the ambition, much less the ability to carry it off in such spectacular fashion,’’ Hamill, who first met Mr. McCourt at the Lion’s Head in the 1960s, said in a telephone interview.

In 1977, Mr. McCourt and his brother Malachy, who was acting and bartending in New York, cobbled together autobiographical sketches into a two-man play, “A Couple of Blaguards,’’ which opened off-off-Broadway at the Billymunk Theater on East 45th Street. They performed a revised version at the Village Gate in 1984 and again at the Billymunk in 1986, and took their show to several other cities.

This excursion into the past, along with his nagging sense that a writing teacher should write, motivated Mr. McCourt to undertake his childhood memoirs after he retired from teaching in 1987. An early attempt, when he was studying at New York University, had fizzled out, but three decades later, he said, he had worked through his awkward, self-conscious James Joyce phase and had gotten beyond the crippling anger that darkened his memories.

“After 20 pages of standard omniscient author, I wrote something that I thought was just a note to myself, about sitting on a seesaw in a playground, and I found my voice, the voice of a child,’’ he told The Providence Journal in 1997. “That was it. It carried me through to the end of the book.’’

Still, his plans were vague. “I didn’t know what I was going to do with it, but I had to write it anyway,’’ he said in another interview. “I had to get it out of my system.’’

A persistent friend demanded to see what Mr. McCourt was writing, then turned the pages over to a literary agent, Molly Friedrich, who submitted the incomplete manuscript to Scribner. It was bought immediately.

Critics, enchanted by Mr. McCourt’s language and gripped by his story, delivered the kind of reviews that most writers can only dream of. But the book was ultimately a word-of-mouth success. An instant celebrity, Mr. McCourt did his utmost to resist becoming the designated spokesman for all things Irish, “from agriculture to the decline in the consumption of claret in the West of Ireland,’’ he joked.

In Ireland itself, the reaction was mixed. “When the book was published in Ireland, I was denounced from hill, pulpit and barstool,’’ he told the online magazine Slate in 2007. “Certain citizens claimed I had disgraced the fair name of the city of Limerick, that I had attacked the church, that I had despoiled my mother’s name and that if I returned to Limerick, I would surely be found hanging from a lamppost.’’

Time healed at least some wounds. Mr. McCourt was awarded an honorary doctorate by Limerick University, and curious tourists can now take “Angela’s Ashes’’ tours of the city.

Mr. McCourt’s first two marriages ended in divorce. In 1994, he married Ellen Frey McCourt. He leaves his wife; his brothers Malachy and Alphie, both of Manhattan, and Mike, of San Francisco; his daughter, Maggie McCourt of Burlington, Vt.; and three grandchildren.

“I think there’s something about the Irish experience - that we had to have a sense of humor or die,’’ Mr. McCourt once told an interviewer. “That’s what kept us going - a sense of absurdity, rather than humor.

“And it did help because sometimes you’d get desperate,’’ he continued. “And I developed this habit of saying to myself, ‘Oh, well.’ I might be in the midst of some misery, and I’d say to myself, ‘Well, someday you’ll think it’s funny.’ And the other part of my head will say: ‘No, you won’t - you’ll never think this is funny. This is the most miserable experience you’ve ever had.’ But later on you look back and you say, ‘That was funny, that was absurd.’ ’’

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