'Angela's Ashes' author Frank McCourt dies at 78

by Jim Merritt

Newsday (MCT)

20 July 2009


NEW YORK — Frank McCourt, who won a Pulitzer Prize and international acclaim for his first book, the autobiographical “Angela’s Ashes,” published when the author was in his mid-60s, died Sunday in Manhattan.

The cause was metastatic melanoma, according to a news release from Scribner, his publisher.

A retired New York City schoolteacher who was a graduate faculty member at Stony Brook University’s Southampton campus, McCourt lived in Manhattan and Connecticut. He was 78.

The author had also been battling meningitis, according to published reports from his brother Malachy.

Robert Reeves, director of the Stony Brook Southampton master of fine arts program in writing and literature, where McCourt taught for almost a decade, said McCourt was a master storyteller and humorist, whose classes always filled up before those of other celebrated faculty members.

“He was the real rock star on the faculty who could fill stadiums and would have babies named after him,” Reeves said. The program’s literary magazine, The Southampton Review, published in July, is a tribute to McCourt.

Novelist and journalist Pete Hamill, McCourt’s friend for 40 years, said, “For me to even talk about him, I need 20,000 words. I do think the laughter of the world has diminished by about 10 percent. He was a wonderful, decent, modest laughing boy. I’m going to miss him all my days.”

“Angela’s Ashes,” which was published in 1996, when the author was 66, is a warts-and-all memoir of crushing poverty, hunger and alcoholism in the slums of Limerick, Ireland, where McCourt grew up.

Newsday called “Angela’s Ashes” “an Irish miracle” and “an extraordinary remembrance of an impoverished childhood in Ireland, told with intelligence, lyricism and wit.”

The book stayed at the top of U.S. hardcover bestseller lists for three years, and has been published in 25 languages and 30 countries. It won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for biography and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and was made into a 1999 film. Directed by Alan Parker, the film starred Emily Watson as McCourt’s mother, the Angela of the book’s title, and Robert Carlyle as his chronically unemployed, alcoholic father.

The Paris Review co-founder, author Peter Matthiessen, who became friendly with McCourt after “Angela’s Ashes” came out, said he was “stunned” when he read it.

“I remember thinking, ‘Where did this guy come from?”” Matthiessen said. “His book was so good, and it came out of nowhere.”

Following the book’s success, McCourt gave speeches and readings the world over.

He continued telling his life story in two more bestsellers: 1999’s “‘Tis,” which chronicled his struggles in America after living in Ireland, and 2005’s “Teacher Man,” about working in the city’s public schools. More than 10 million copies of his books have been sold in North America alone, according to his publisher. With his brother Malachy he wrote and starred in a play, “A Couple of Blaguards.” His most recent work was “Angela and the Baby Jesus,” a 2007 children’s book.

Frank McCourt was born on Aug. 19, 1930, in Brooklyn, to Irish immigrant parents. In 1934, when the author was 4 years old, they returned to Limerick, Ireland, where they lived for 15 years, the miserable period recounted in “Angela’s Ashes.”

McCourt returned to the United States in 1949, at age 19. He worked as a janitor at the Biltmore Hotel, and served in the U.S. Army in Germany. McCourt graduated in 1957 from New York University in Manhattan with a bachelor’s degree in English education. He returned to his alma mater for an honorary doctorate in 2000, according to a university spokesman. He obtained his master’s degree from Brooklyn College.

In 1987, McCourt retired after almost 30 years of teaching English in New York City schools, the last 18 at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan.

McCourt is survived by his wife, Ellen Frey McCourt, his daughter, Margaret McCourt, his brothers Malachy, Michael, and Alphonsus “Alphie” McCourt, and three grandchildren, Chiara, Frankie and Jack.

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