’Angela’s Ashes’ author McCourt dies in NYC at 78
By Hillel Italie
NEW YORK — After a childhood of almost impossible suffering, Frank McCourt came to embody so many improbable dreams.
He was a survivor of poverty who became rich, the child of immigrants who made good. He was the retiree who stepped into a magical second life. He was the winning ticket for every ordinary person who has imagined that he or she could turn their lives into a book.
"What the memoir requires is a distinctive voice, and Frank was a master of his voice," said Mary Karr, a friend of McCourt and author of the best-selling memoir "The Liar’s Club."
McCourt, the beloved former school teacher and author of "Angela’s Ashes," died Sunday of cancer. He was 78, gravely ill with meningitis and recently was treated for melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer and the cause of his death, said his publisher, Scribner.
"We had this big dinner party in Roxbury (Conn.) last month, and he was there," said author Gay Talese, a longtime friend. "I made him a vodka martini, and he didn’t look at all like he was going to disappear from the Earth in a month. He was very jovial, as usual."
Until his mid-60s, McCourt was essentially a New York character — the kind who might turn up in a New York novel — teaching by day and at night singing songs and telling stories with his younger brother Malachy, and otherwise joining the crowds at the White Horse Tavern and other literary hangouts.
But there was always a book or two being formed in his mind, and the world would learn his name, and story, in 1996, after a friend helped him get an agent and his then-unfinished manuscript was quickly signed by Scribner.
"F. Scott Fitzgerald said there are no second acts in American lives. I think I’ve proven him wrong," McCourt later explained. "And all because I refused to settle for a one-act existence, the 30 years I taught English in various New York City high schools."
The book has been published in 25 languages and 30 countries.
McCourt, a native of New York, was good company in the classroom and at the bar, but few had such a burden to unload. His parents were so poor that they returned to their native Ireland when he was little and settled in the slums of Limerick. Simply surviving his childhood was a tale; McCourt’s father was an alcoholic who drank up the little money his family had. Three of McCourt’s seven siblings died, and he nearly perished from typhoid fever.
"I had no idea that he had had those experiences," said Talese, who had known McCourt well before his first book came out.
"You read about Barack Obama’s life and you wonder, ‘How did he get to be president of the United States?"’ he said. "Frank McCourt’s life is in the same kind of tradition, where so much is done with a life that seems to have so little promise."
McCourt’s book was a long Irish wake, "an epic of woe," McCourt called it, finding laughter and lyricism in life’s very worst. Although some in Ireland complained that McCourt had revealed too much (and a little too well), "Angela’s Ashes" became a million seller, won the Pulitzer and was made into a movie of the same name, starring Emily Watson as the title character, McCourt’s mother.
"I was stunned when I first read his book," said author Peter Matthiessen, who became friendly with McCourt after "Angela’s Ashes" came out. "I remember thinking, ‘Where did this guy come from? His book was so good, and it came out of nowhere."
The white-haired, sad-eyed, always quotable McCourt — his Irish accent still thick despite decades in the United States — became a regular at parties, readings, conferences and other gatherings, so much the eager late-life celebrity that he later compared himself to a "dancing clown, available to everybody." Mary Karr once kidded him that her idea of a rare book was an unsigned copy of "Angela’s Ashes."
"I wasn’t prepared for it," McCourt told The Associated Press in 2005. "After teaching, I was getting all this attention. They actually looked at me — people I had known for years — and they were friendly and they looked me in a different way. And I was thinking, ‘All those years I was a teacher, why didn’t you look at me like that then?"’
But McCourt was as much a star in person as on paper. Matthiessen remembered when he had a birthday party years ago at a restaurant in Italy and McCourt attended. The author sang "little Irish ditties" to the pleasure of the guests and the confusion of the locals. More recently, McCourt introduced Matthiessen at a Paris Review tribute.
"Everybody loved him," Matthiessen said. "The only thing they didn’t like about Frank was having to come after him on a stage, because he would just wipe the audience out."