Monday, July 20, 2009


Thanks to all those who alerted me to Frank McCourt’s death yesterday. I had heard from my friend Terence Winch that he was failing. Terence conducted what was probably the last interview with Frank. It was for TV so maybe it will appear on the web at some point.

I knew Frank a little before he wrote ANGELA’S ASHES and became famous. Back when he and his brother used to put on a stage show called A COUPLE OF BLACKGUARDS about their childhood in Limerick City, Ireland.

They did it in any venue they could find (if I remember correctly I saw it in a church basement). And the small audiences were made up mostly of people who knew or knew of Malachy, the famous McCourt back then.

Frank was a thin, small, already going gray seemingly shy man. While Malachy seemed like a giant in comparison in every way, over six feet, with beautiful red hair when he was young and a full head of white hair when he got older, totally outgoing, a born entertainer. [Terry Winch pointed out to me that Frank wasn't that small and Malachy wasn't that tall, the way I remember them. Maybe I was reacting more to their personalities than actual physicality, though there's no doubt Frank was thin, even slight in my memory, and Malachy was always in my experience a lot heftier.]

He was famous back in the ‘60s as a kind of showman bartender in Manhattan who somebody gave money to for a club of his own, Malachy’s. His reputation became so outsized he appeared as a guest on THE TONIGHT SHOW telling outrageous stories about his life. Out of that came an acting career on TV and in movies.

Through all those years and later, Frank taught school and made no splash until he wrote much of what became A COUPLE OF BLACKGUARDS and they started performing it, and out of which Frank pulled ANGELA’S ASHES.

There are people in the Irish community, on both side of the Atlantic, as well as non-Irish in the writing community, who had objections to ANGELA’S ASHES because of the novelistic style in which it was written, where Frank is giving exact quotes and dialogue and minute details from a time when he was only a little boy many decades before.

It seemed contrived to some to call it a “memoir” for that reason, but it won the Pulitzer and to my mind started the whole trend of “creative nonfiction” which later became so popular, in part because of the amazing popularity of ANGELA’S ASHES which whetted people’s appetite for more compelling true stories.

But it was obviously based on the actual facts of Frank’s life, as he saw it and his family concurred for the most part. And it is an incredible read, a perfectly written book, a true classic to my mind.

The books that followed didn’t work as well I think, though the one about teaching is the best of those. I heard stories about Frank after he became famous and to some extent wealthy, but whenever I read anything by him or saw him in an interview on TV or heard him on the radio, he still seemed kind of shy and delicate, if more sure of himself.

But I think even before ANGELA’S ASHES Frank was confidant, about what makes good writing, about how to help his students (even if he makes it clear he had no idea what he was doing in the beginning) and about what made people respond to writing either on stage or in a book.

When he and Malachy did A COUPLE OF BLACKGUARDS, they’d act out all the characters from their Irish childhood with Frank often donning a kerchief or shawl used as a head covering to play the old women they remembered, and he was very funny, a terrific actor actually (as was Malachy, underrated to my mind).

Malachy published his own memoir eventually, A MONK SWIMMING. I have a copy he signed to me when we gave a reading in San Francisco back in the ‘90s or early part of this decade.

I don’t think he remembered me, which he made only a little effort to cover up. But I didn’t mind, I can’t remember half the people I’ve met even though I want to and feel terrible when I don’t recognize someone.

But we ended up having a terrific time, reading and exchanging anecdotes and even singing a few songs, entertaining ourselves if not the audience in the upscale restaurant/bar where we gave it.

We walked back from the reading to the hotel where they were putting us up and had a good long talk, which I remember fondly. He gave me some good advise which I no longer remember (and have probably since claimed as my own).

I send my condolences to him and to all of Frank’s family. Having lost all my brothers, two of them not that long ago, I know the void that creates. But I suspect that Malachy and the rest of the McCourts know how to throw a good old fashioned Irish wake and funeral and gather strength from family and the old customs.

And I’m sure some wonderful stories about Frank will be told. Maybe there’ll be another book in it from one of the remaining McCourts.


JIm said...

"Angela's Ashes"is the only book which continually made me cry while I was laughing. It was an incredable read and it made me appreciate the character and charm of my Irish heritage.

AlamedaTom said...

Nice post.

~ Willy

t.p. said...

Dear M:

Nice post on Frank. I actually stumbled upon the last few minutes of my interview with him ("The Writing Life" on Maryland public t.v.) last weekend while channel-surfing. No one told me it was already on the air. Frank was a gracious and articulate interviewee, with no pretentiousness at all, in spite of all the money & fame that had come to him. I wish he had had more time---I believe he had a novel in the works and let's hope he got close to finishing it.

His worldwide success came between the ages of 66 and 78, which in and of itself is pretty remarkable. I personally never got the skepticism and even hostility that Angela's Ashes attracted in some quarters. The story didn't seem at all hard to believe. Poverty plus alcoholism can add up to some very dire consequences.

My parents came to this country around the same time as Frank's and for the same reason--to escape the poverty and hardship of Ireland. The McCourts should have stayed in NY. But if they hadn't gone back to Ireland when Frank was 4, we'd never have been given his book.

I re-watched the 1999 Alan Parker film version of AA in preparation for the interview, and liked it much more 2nd time around. Kind of surprising that it didn't do better at the box office. ll