ANGELA’S ASHES AUTHOR FRANK McCOURT DIES AT 78

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It’s been a gorgeous week here on the west coast…and a simply splendid weekend.

Temperatures have been in the 90s every day. The weather has been glorious.

Over the last several days, two lovely, compassionate, brilliantly talented men that I adore have gone.

So much for revelling in the summer…

Godspeed, Mr. McCourt. You made this world a more wonderful place to be…

FRANK McCOURT, a former New York City schoolteacher who turned his miserable childhood in Limerick, Ireland into the phenomenally popular, PULITZER PRIZE winning memoir ANGELA’S ASHES, died Sunday afternon in Manhattan.

He was 78.

Mr. McCourt resided in Manhattan and Roxbury, Connecticut.

The cause was metastatic melanoma, said Mr. McCourt’s brother the writer 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 best seller lists and stayed there for more than two years, selling four 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. Both, although best sellers, did not achieve anything like the runaway success of Mr. McCourt’s first book, which the BRITISH director ALAN PARKER brought to the screen in 1999.

He also wrote a childrens’ story, ANGELA & THE BABY JESUS, which was published in 2007.

Not to be outdone, Mr. McCourt’s younger brother MALACHY, an actor, brought out two volumes of his own memoirs: A MONK SWIMMING (1998), which also made the best seller 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, he said, “I learned the significance of my own insignificant life.”

FRANCIS McCOURT was born AUGUST 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 Frank was 11, his father went to work in a munitions factory in ENGLAND and disappeared from the picture. Frank 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 female landlord.

In 1949, Mr. McCourt, at 19, gathered his savings and boarded a ship for NEW YORK and a new life, which began unpromisingly.

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,” Mr. 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 tending bar in NEW YORK, cobbled together a series of 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 BILLYMINK 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 UNVERSITY, 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 writers can only dream of. But the book was ultimately a word of mouth success.

“F. SCOTT FITZGERALD said there are no second acts in American lives. I think I’ve proven him wrong,” Mr. McCourt 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.”

Mr. McCourt told THE ASSOCIATED PRESS in 2005 that he wasn’t prepared for fame.

“After teaching, I was getting all this attention,” he said.

“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 the part of it he liked best, he said, was hearing “from all those kids who were in my classes.”

“At least they knew that when I talked about writing I wasn’t just talking through my hat,” he commented.

Mr. McCourt did his utmost to resist becoming the designated spokesperson for all things IRISH, “from agriculture to the decline in the consumption of claret in the West of IRELAND,” as he once joked.

In IRELAND itself, the reaction was mixed. “When the book was published in IRELAND, I was denounced from hill, pulpit and bar stool,” he told the on line magazine SLATE late 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 honourary doctorate by LIMERICK UNIVERSITY, and curious tourists can now take ANGELA’S ASHES tours of the city.

In 1999, the British director ALAN PARKER translated the memoir to the screen, with EMILY WATSON as ANGELA (who died in 1981), ROBERT CARLYLE as MALACHY SR. (who died in 1985) and three actors in the roles of Mr. McCourt as a small, medium size and grown boy.

For the IRISH REPERTORY THEATER Irish Repertory Theater, Mr. McCourt devised a history lesson disguised as an evening of storytelling and singing, titled THE IRISH…& HOW THEY GOT THAT WAY.

It opened in 1997 to less than rapturous reviews. His second volume of memoirs, ‘TIS, which began with his arrival in New York, also encountered rough weather from critics still giddy from the memory of ANGELA’S ASHES. Although his storytelling gifts were in full evidence, Mr. McCourt was taken to task by many critics for being bitter and selfpitying, a marked contrast to the stoic tone of ANGELA’S ASHES, putting off many readers.

With TEACHER MAN, Mr. McCourt rallied. Although criticized as lumpy and episodic, the book was praised for its humane inquiry into the role of the teacher and the possibilities of education.

Mr. McCourt’s first two marriages ended in divorce. In 1994 he married ELLEN FREY. She survives him, as do his brothers MALACHY and ALPHIE, both of MANHATTAN, and his brother MIKE, of San Francisco; his daughter, MAGGIE McCOURT of Burlington, Vermont and three grandchildren.

“I think there’s something about the Irish experience — that we had to have a sense of humour or die,” Mr. McCourt once told an interviewer.

“That’s what kept us going — a sense of absurdity, rather than humour.”

“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, some day 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.’”

More than 10 million copies of Mr. McCourt’s books have been sold in North America alone, reported SCRIBNER, which is an imprint of SIMON & SCHUSTER.

“We have been privileged to publish his books, which have touched, and will continue to touch, millions of readers in myriad positive and meaningful ways,” SIMON & SCHUSTER CEO CAROLYN REIDY said in a statement.

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