Frank McCourt, author of the 1996 Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir “Angela’s Ashes,” detailing a childhood of Irish squalor died on Sunday. He had been gravely ill with meningitis after being treated for melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. McCourt was 78.
Mayor Bloomberg praised McCourt, saying his success reflected the talent found in classrooms across the city.
Until his mid-60s, McCourt was known primarily as a creative-writing teacher and as a New York City character, singing songs and telling stories with his brother Malachy and joining the crowds at the White Horse Tavern and other literary hangouts. Much of his teaching career was spent in the English Department at Stuyvesant High School, where he shared personal stories with his classes. In 1996 he released “Angela’s Ashes” and it was an instant success. “F. Scott Fitzgerald said there are no second acts in American lives. I think I’ve proven him wrong,” McCourt later said. “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.”
McCourt’s 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. His father drank up the little money his family had. Three of his seven siblings died, and he nearly perished from typhoid. The book was a long Irish wake, “an epic of woe,” McCourt called it, finding laughter and lyricism in life’s very worst. “Angela’s Ashes” became a million seller, won the Pulitzer and was made into a movie of the same name. After “Angela’s Ashes,” McCourt continued his story in ” ‘Tis,” which told of his return to New York in the 1940s, and in “Teacher Man.”
McCourt is survived by his wife, Ellen Frey, and a daughter, Maggie; three brothers, Malachy, Michael and Alphie, and three grandchildren. McCourt’s students, and his other fans, will have a chance to pay him tribute at a pubic memorial, being planned for September, says younger brother Malachy McCourt.
Former students remember Frank McCourt
While his books captivated millions of readers around the world, Frank McCourt, spent the earlier part of his life enthralling a smaller group of people: his students in the New York City public school system, where he taught for 30 years.
It was when the Brooklyn-born, Ireland-raised McCourt reached his 60s that he decided to put memories of his impossibly impoverished childhood in Limerick – and his mother Angela – to paper, and the result was “Angela’s Ashes.” Now, his former pupils are returning the favor, remembering McCourt as “a legend in the halls,” according to a woman who identifies herself only as Nicole on a New York Times blog dedicated exclusively to remembering the 78-year-old author.
“I still remember the first day of English class, and the only time Mr. McCourt assigned us a book to read for the entire term,” recalls another graduate of McCourt’s, Agatha Ariola. ” ‘You will read, Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again,’ he had said in a melodic accent that I, a sheltered, first-generation Asian-American, found so refreshing from the harsh Queens accent I often heard on the 45-minute subway commute to Stuyvesant HS.” As Ariola further recalls, “Class was 40 minutes of storytelling by this wonderfully gifted and engaging author, and I was encouraged to write from my own voice as a child of immigrant parents. Although my creative writing is now mostly kept in my journals for personal reading, Mr. McCourt left me with the legacy and appreciation of family, and the desire to go out into the world and seek the experiences that create memories.”