By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 20, 2009
Frank McCourt, who melted the hearts of millions of readers with "Angela's Ashes," a lyrically poignant memoir of his poverty-stricken Irish childhood, died of melanoma July 19 in New York. He was 78.
Mr. McCourt was a retired teacher in his mid-60s when he wrote "Angela's Ashes," an unflinching and unforgettable account of his family's misery in Limerick, Ireland, in the 1930s and 1940s. It was his first book, published in 1996, and immediately won critical acclaim and a vast readership.
The memoir received the Pulitzer Prize and stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for 117 weeks, including 23 at No. 1. In a review, Washington Post book editor Nina King wrote, "This memoir is an instant classic of the genre."
From the first page, Mr. McCourt enchanted readers with a warm, subtle voice that was by turns funny and sad but always honest.
"When I look back on my childhood, I wonder how I survived at all," he wrote. "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."
Mr. McCourt, the oldest of seven children, was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where his parents had arrived from Ireland in the 1920s. But their luck soon ran out, and they moved back across the Atlantic when he was 4. They settled in his mother's native city of Limerick in a house with no electricity or running water. It was next to a public lavatory, where the entire neighborhood dumped buckets of excrement that often flooded the McCourts' floor.
"From October to April, the walls of Limerick glistened with the damp," Mr. McCourt wrote. "Clothes never dried; tweed and woolen coats housed living things, sometimes sprouted mysterious vegetations. In pubs, steam rose from damp bodies and garments to be inhaled with cigarette and pipe smoke laced with the stale fumes of spilled stout and whisky."
A sister and two younger brothers died as toddlers, leaving Mr. McCourt's mother -- the "Angela" of the title -- to raise four sons largely on her own. Mr. McCourt's father, alternately charming and quarrelsome, would spend his meager earnings on drink and come home in the middle of the night, singing songs of Irish heroes.
"The [school]master says it's a glorious thing to die for the Faith and Dad says it's a glorious thing to die for Ireland," Mr. McCourt wrote in a passage laced with pathos and humor, "and I wonder if there's anyone in the world who would like us to live."
In the meantime, the family subsisted on tea and bread. A discarded apple peel or a single boiled egg, cut into slices for the whole family, was considered a treat. Young Frank resorted to thievery to bring home bread, lemonade or fruit.
He had chronic conjunctivitis that left him without lashes on his lower eyelids. At 10, he almost died of typhoid fever and spent more than three months recovering in a hospital. It was the first time he had slept in a bed with sheets or had a full stomach. He also had his first encounter with Shakespeare, writing that it was "like having jewels in my mouth when I spoke the words."
At 13, he quit school to deliver telegrams, stealing time at night to read books under street lamps. His father moved to England to work in wartime factories but failed to send money home, leaving his family more destitute than ever.
One day, Mr. McCourt saw a group of people milling near a church, "waiting to beg for any food left over from the priests' dinner."
"There in the middle of the crowd in her dirty gray coat is my mother.
"This is my own mother, begging. This is worse than the dole . . . It's the worst kind of shame."
"Angela's Ashes" sold more than 5 million copies worldwide, was translated into 17 languages and was made into a 1999 film directed by Alan Parker, with Emily Watson playing the role of Mr. McCourt's mother.
"The memoir is rendered in the present tense, with nary a date or quotation mark in sight," critic Gail Caldwell wrote in the Boston Globe. "The result is a story so immediate -- so gripping in its daily despairs, stolen smokes and blessed humor -- that you want to thank God young Frankie McCourt survived it in part so he could write the book."
Francis McCourt was born Aug. 19, 1930, during his family's brief sojourn in Brooklyn. He sailed back to America on a freighter in 1949 and took menial jobs in hotels and on the docks before being drafted into the U.S. Army during the Korean War. (He described his life in the United States in a 1999 memoir, " 'Tis.")
He used the GI bill to enroll at New York University, talking his way into college even though he had never gone to high school. One of his professors asked a class to write about an object from childhood, and Mr. McCourt wrote about the bed he shared with his three brothers and countless fleas. He received an A-plus for his paper and began to think of being a writer.
After graduating from NYU, Mr. McCourt began teaching in 1958 at a vocational high school on Staten Island and later at a high school on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He received a master's degree in English from Brooklyn College in 1967 and spent two years doing doctoral studies at Trinity College in Dublin. In 1970, he began teaching literature and writing at New York's prestigious Stuyvesant High School, where he was revered by a generation of students. He often described experiences from his childhood to inspire his students to write about their own lives.
His third volume of memoirs, "Teacher Man" (2005), was called "the best self-portrait of a public-school teacher ever written" by Newsweek's Malcolm Jones.
In time, Mr. McCourt's mother and younger brothers followed him to the United States. When their mother died in 1981, the brothers took her ashes back to Limerick, temporarily losing them during a pub crawl. His father died in 1985.
Long before he retired from teaching in 1987, Mr. McCourt had contemplated writing a book. But it took years for him to find the proper tone of writing, choosing the present tense from a child's perspective, with simple, poetically repetitive diction.
Some people in Ireland were not amused by "Angela's Ashes" and thought Mr. McCourt had exaggerated his family's woes. One childhood acquaintance even tore the book to pieces in front of Mr. McCourt and threw it on the ground.
But Mr. McCourt's brother Malachy, who teamed with him in a two-man revue of stories and songs in the 1980s, said: "In reality, our life was worse than Frank wrote. Insane outbreaks of laughter saved us."
Mr. McCourt, who liked to say that he was the only person he knew who had lived in all five boroughs of New York City, never made more than $37,000 a year as a teacher. He grew wealthy from his books, bought homes in Manhattan and Connecticut and supported relatives in Ireland.
Survivors include his third wife, Ellen Frey McCourt; a daughter from his first marriage; three brothers; and three grandchildren.
After leaving Ireland in 1949, Mr. McCourt saw his father only two more times before he died in 1985. Yet, in spite of everything, he maintained remarkable good cheer about his errant father and the deprivations of his childhood.
"If it hadn't been for alcoholism," he said, "he would have been the perfect father, and my mother -- who would sing love songs about him when there was a little money coming in -- would have been so happy. I'm haunted by the possibilities of what might have been."