Born August 19, 1930, in Brooklyn, NY; son of Malachy and Angela (a homemaker; maiden name, Sheehan) McCourt; married; wife's name, Alberta (marriage ended); second marriage ended; married third wife, Ellen Frey (a television industry publicist); children (first marriage): Margie. Education: New York University, B.A., M.A.
Home—CT. Agent—c/o Simon & Schuster, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020.
Writer. New York Public School system, teacher at various schools, including McKee Vocational and Technical on Staten Island and Peter Stuyvesant High School; worked in Ireland and New York City as a messenger, houseman, barkeeper, and laborer; co-starred, with brother in Vaudeville act; member of Irish Repertory Theatre; performer in plays, including A Couple of Blaguards and The Irish . . . and How They Got That Way. Military service: U.S. Army, served in Germany during the Korean War.
Los Angeles Times Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award in biography/autobiography, Salon. com Book Award, American Library Association award, and Boston Book Review Anne Rea Jewell Non-Fiction Prize, all 1996, and Pulitzer Prize in biography, and American Booksellers Association Book of the Year designation, both 1997, all for Angela's Ashes; named Irish American of the Year, Irish American Magazine, 1998.
Angela's Ashes: A Memoir, Scribner (New York, NY), 1996.
The Irish . . . and How They Got That Way (play), produced by the Irish Repertory Theatre, 1997.
'Tis: A Memoir (sequel to Angela's Ashes), Scribner (New York, NY), 1999.
(Author of text with Malachy McCourt) Ireland Ever, photographs by Jill Freedman, Harry N. Abrams (New York, NY), 2003.
Teacher Man (autobiography), Flamingo (London, England), 2005.
Also author, with brother Malachy McCourt, of musical review A Couple of Blaguards. Contributor to Yeats Is Dead: A Mystery by Fifteen Irish Writers, Knopf (New York, NY), 2001.
Angela's Ashes was adapted by Laura Jones and Alan Parker into a film of the same title, directed by Parker, Paramount Pictures, 1999; 'Tis was recorded on audiocassette.
After a thirty-year career with the New York Public School system of telling his English students to write what they know, Frank McCourt took his own advice. The resulting book, Angela's Ashes: A Memoir, tells the story of McCourt's poverty-stricken childhood in Ireland. The critically acclaimed volume remained on bestseller lists for more than two years, and garnered McCourt both a National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Three years later, McCourt followed up with a sequel, 'Tis: A Memoir, and then went on to chronicle his years as a high school instructor in Teacher Man. Robert Sterling Gingher, who described McCourt in World as a "a consummate storyteller," noted of the author's autobiographical books: "We rarely acknowledge the magical power and mystery of the word, spoken or written, but McCourt's memoirs show that in nearly unimaginable season of extreme need, stories can keep us and our very souls alive."
A Childhood of Poverty
McCourt was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1930. His parents returned with their children to their Irish homeland when McCourt was four for the same reason they had left it: hoping to find better and more lucrative work. The family set up camp in Limerick, "one of the juiciest slums this side of Bombay," McCourt claimed. Home was a tiny cottage
next to the neighborhood outhouse, which often flooded their home with sewage. The family—mother Angela, father Malachy, Frank, and Frank's siblings—slept in one big bed that was populated with fleas. In his autobiography, titled after his mother, who often stared into the cold, empty fireplace grate, McCourt recalled his father beating that mattress in hopes of evicting the vermin: "A man on a bicycle stopped and wanted to know why Dad was beating that mattress. 'Mother o' God,' he said, 'I never heard such a cure for fleas. Do you know that if a man could jump like a flea one leap would take him halfway to the moon?'"
The family's return to Ireland did not prove to be any more profitable than their life in New York. McCourt's father, Malachy, was the stereotypical Irish alcoholic family man: "a kindly parent," John Elson wrote in Time, and relatively sober during the work week; but also a man who returned home late on paydays, empty-handed, having drunk his earnings, soused and happy, convincing his children to sing old Irish tunes about loyalty and readiness to die for their country. McCourt had conflicting feelings for his father, a Billboard reviewer reported, stating that he "hated the man who came home drunk at night after wasting the family's money, but he couldn't hate the man who in the morning lit the fire, made tea, and told his sons magical stories about Irish heroes and folk legends." When Frank was eleven years of age, his father essentially abandoned the family by moving to England to work in the wartime factories. He had intended to send money home to the family, like many other Irish family men; but, predictably, as Diane Turbide reported in Maclean's, he drank most of it away. When Malachy McCourt did return home—and that was an infrequent occurrence—it was often anticlimactic. One Christmas, he came home without his top denture and bearing a half-empty box of chocolates. "I think my father is like the Holy Trinity with three people in him," young Frank recalls in Angela's Ashes, "the one in the morning with the paper, the one at night with the stories and the prayers, and then the one who does the bad thing and comes home with the smell of whisky and wants us to die for Ireland."
Besides struggling financially—Angela and her children survived on measly payments from the Irish welfare system and handouts from relatives who castigated Angela for marrying out of her geographical area (Malachy was from Northern Ireland)—the McCourts suffered emotionally as well. When Frank was three years old and the family was living in the United States, his baby sister, Margaret, died of unknown causes. When back in Limerick, McCourt's twin brothers, Oliver and Eugene, died of pneumonia within six months of each
other—Oliver first—in 1935. His mother's reaction was "banshee screaming at the gravesides," McCourt wrote, and his father's reaction was, predictably, to get drunk. "After Eugene died, he went out and got a white coffin, and I saw him at the pub with the men who drove the carriage. They had their pints on top of the coffin. It was one of the most disturbing moments of my early life, seeing the disrespect," McCourt later told a reporter for People. A young McCourt had to drag his father out of the pub when it was time for Eugene's funeral.
McCourt's mother contracted pneumonia herself, while trying to maintain the crumbling family structure, and McCourt survived typhoid. Limerick, the author noted of his mother's native town, was so steeped in consumption, it "turned noses into fountains, lungs into bacterial sponges." The McCourts dealt with the city's disease and filth, and also with prejudice against Malachy McCourt's northern accent. Whereas in Brooklyn, they felt a camaraderie with other immigrants, back home in Ireland they encountered "begrudgers," Thomas Mallon said in a Gentleman's Quarterly article, a "subspecies" of the Irish envious of those who might be getting "above themselves," like the McCourts who had been lucky enough to have lived in the United States.
McCourt found Irish schools to be a place where conceited teachers competed for status rather than did much teaching. While Frank was recognized as a gifted student, nevertheless, he dropped out at age fourteen and worked several menial jobs, including delivering telegrams and writing threatening—as well as humorous—letters to customers of a dressmaker who had yet to pay up. By the time he was nineteen years old, he had earned enough money to pay ship's passage back to New York. "When I look back on my childhood," the author recounted in Angela's Ashes, "I wonder how I survived at all."
Back to New York
While Angela's Ashes ends when McCourt is nineteen years old, in essence, age nineteen is where its author's good fortune begins. His first job upon arriving in New York was at the Biltmore Hotel where, he told Robert Sullivan of the New York Times Magazine, he was responsible for sixty canaries living in cages in the Biltmore's public rooms. When thirty-nine of the birds died due to McCourt's dereliction of duty, he taped the dead birds to their perches. He got away with the deception for several days, but when the boss noticed that none of the birds would sing, he demoted McCourt to a construction job. McCourt was fired the day a dais collapsed and a prominent official of a large insurance company fell to the ground, startled, and died of a heart attack. The boss, a fellow Irishman, told McCourt if he "wasn't one of my own" he would dropkick him right back to the Emerald Isle. "Why don't you become an exterminator!" the boss bellowed, as McCourt recounted to Sullivan.
Instead, McCourt joined the K-9 unit of the U.S. Army and later, with the help of the G.I. Bill, attended New York University (NYU), where he studied English by day and worked the docks by night. McCourt told a People contributor that he had to talk his way into NYU when he enrolled in 1954. "I had never attended high school, but I was fairly well-read," he said. In one of his classes he wrote some stream-of-consciousness works about his early upheaval from Brooklyn to Limerick and was
pleased to discover that his classmates enjoyed his stories. Despite the despair, illness, and poverty, Sullivan stated, they thought it was all pretty funny. McCourt never seriously entertained thoughts of writing a book, however, feeling somewhat ashamed of his life and not imagining it to be of particular interest to the reading public. "I tended to dismiss my own life when I looked at people like Hemingway," he told Sullivan.
McCourt took a series of teaching positions, his first one at a vocational school on Staten Island, where he earned a reputation for instilling discipline in students who often decked their teachers and for imbuing an appreciation of Shakespeare in students who preferred machines to manuscripts. His popularity and acclaim earned him a job offer at Manhattan's Peter Stuyvesant High School, one of New York City's prestigious schools and noted for fierce competition among its applicants and for maintaining grade point averages. Teaching English and creative writing, he encouraged his students to write about what they knew: their lives, their families. He also enthralled them with what he knew. "'Our lives are boring,'" McCourt recalled to the People reporter that his students would reply. "'Your childhood was interesting.' They were envious of my misery." Even so, his students were tough critics and the rapport he developed with them taught him a lot. "Teaching made a man out of me," he noted to Turbide.
Writes Angela's Ashes
McCourt claimed to have spent many years writing pieces of the book that eventually became his prizewinning autobiography. It was not until he retired from teaching in 1987 that he decided to consider his life story as something to be shared with the world. He started writing Angela's Ashes in 1994 and had his book completed in one year. Fortunately, he knew the right people to help him start his new career as an author. In the 1960s, he had befriended a group of writers and journalists at places like the White Horse Tavern in New York, where they would meet, drink, and tell stories. He dabbled in writing, penning a cabaret show, A Couple of Blaguards, with his then-bartender brother, Malachy, who gained some fame of his own telling stories about his life on the Jack Parr Show. He also occasional penned stories for the Village Voice newspaper. At a monthly meeting of these Irish-American writers, McCourt mentioned that he had finished a good amount of his book. Also at this meeting was novelist and former New York Times reporter Mary Breasted. She took McCourt's book to Molly Friedrich, Breasted's agent and next-door neighbor. Friedrich, in turn, passed it on to Scribner, who released the autobiography to an enthusiastic literary public.
Critical reaction to Angela's Ashes was welcoming. "The reader of this stunning memoir can only hope," declared Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times, "that Mr. McCourt will set down the story of his subsequent adventures in America in another book. Angela's Ashes is so good it deserves a sequel." Denis Donoghue, discussing the book in the New York Times Book Review, asserted: "For the most part, his style is that of an Irish-American raconteur, honorably voluble and engaging. He is aware of his charm but doesn't disgracefully linger upon it. Induced by potent circumstances, he has told his story, and memorable it is." John Elson of Time wrote favorably of Angela's Ashes as well, observing that "like an unpredicted glimmer of midwinter sunshine, cheerfulness keeps breaking into this tale of Celtic woe." Paula Chin hailed it in People as "a splendid memoir," while Devon McNamara in the Christian Science Monitor concluded that it is "a book of splendid humanity."
Many critics noted that what makes Angela's Ashes so captivating is McCourt's ability to entertain an audience by turning horrifying memories into amusing anecdotes. Kakutani found that "there is not a trace of bitterness or resentment in Angela's Ashes." McNamara reported that "what has surprised critic and reader alike is how a childhood of poverty, illness, alcoholism, and struggle, in an environment not far removed from the Ireland of [eighteenth-century English writer Jonathan] Swift's 'A Modest Proposal,' came to be told with such a rich mix of hilarity and pathos." McCourt himself told McNamara: "I couldn't have written this book 15 years ago because I was carrying a lot of baggage around . . . and I had attitudes and these attitudes had to be softened. I had to get rid of them, I had to become, as it says in the Bible, as a child." He explained further: "The child started to speak in this book. And that was the only way to do it, without judging."
Continues His Story in 'Tis
Angela's Ashes ended with McCourt's return to the United States on a boat called the Irish Oak. The last word of the book is nineteen-year-old McCourt's statement "'Tis," a response he made to a crew member who remarked on the greatness of America. Thus, 'Tis, McCourt's 1999 memoir, begins exactly where Angela's Ashes leaves off, and chronicles the author's struggles and successes during his first years in the United States. McCourt describes his first jobs, including cleaning at the Biltmore Hotel, hauling cargo, and cleaning toilets at a diner, then moves on to his time in the U.S. military during the Korean War and his unconventional education at New York University. Malcolm Jones described 'Tis in Newsweek as "the classic immigrant's tale. . . . a melting-pot story where nothing melts. . . . But more than that, it is the story of a man finding two great vocations—teaching and storytelling—and he wins our trust by never touching up his memories."
In a Newshour interview with Terence Smith, McCourt predicted that 'Tis would be less-enthusiastically received than Angela's Ashes: "It won't have the, the exotic appeal, I think, if you want to call it that, of Angela's Ashes—a distant place and a distant time." L. S. Klepp concluded in Entertainment Weekly that, like Angela's Ashes, 'Tis "has the same clairvoyant eye for quirks of class, character, and fate, and also a distinct picaresque quality. It's a quest for an America of wholesome Hollywood happiness that doesn't exist, and it's about the real America—rendered with comic affection—that McCourt discovers along the way." Similarly, Library Journal reviewer Gordon Blackwell asserted, "McCourt's entertaining 'Tis . . . recounts candidly, and with humor where appropriate, his return to the United States."
"In 'Tis, [McCourt] must live between the tormenting reality of [the American] dream and the sad past of his soul's memory," stated Gingher in World. "The book's lyrical power of reclamation," the critic added, "has everything to do with its author's ability to live between these worlds, which in some profound way are only vivid and intelligible in terms of each other." John Bemrose related in Maclean's that "McCourt ultimately clambers up the ladder of success. But much of 'Tis's charm lies in his account of how he almost didn't make it." As Mary Ann Gwinn concluded in a Seattle Times review, "McCourt establishes himself as a Dickens for our time, a writer who can peel the many layers of society like an onion and reveal the core. . . . 'Tis seldom loses its woeful tone, but it never loses its mordant humor, and it's struck through with a memory undimmed by the golden forgetfulness of nostalgia." During a six-month period on the bestseller lists, 'Tis sold over 1.5 million copies in hardcover.
In October of 1996, following the release of Angela's Ashes, McCourt was greeted by the mayor of Limerick and launched the sale of his book in O'Mahoney's Bookstore, where six hundred people came for the signing. When McCourt was a boy, he had been thrown out of O'Mahoney's while trying to find out the ending to William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. During this particular visit to the bookstore, however, the management let him stay as long
as he liked and gave him a set of the complete works of Shakespeare in a show of public apology. McCourt also spent part of 1997 as a writer-inresidence at the University of Limerick. Upon the announcement that McCourt won the Pulitzer Prize for his memoir, New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani commended him for reminding society that the "immigrant tradition" is what makes America great. "I didn't think I would catch on like that," McCourt told a contributor to People. "My dream was to have a Library of Congress catalogue number, that's all. If the luck of the Irish came to me, it's about time."
If you enjoy the works of Frank McCourt
If you enjoy the works of Frank McCourt, you may also want to check out the following books:
André Aciman, Out of Egypt: A Memoir, 1994.
Mary Karr, The Liars' Club: A Memoir, 1995.
Michael Patrick MacDonald, All Souls: A Family Story from Southie, 1999.
Biographical and Critical Sources
McCourt, Frank, Angela's Ashes, Scribner (New York, NY), 1996.
McCourt, Frank, 'Tis: A Memoir, Scribner (New York, NY), 1999.
McCourt, Malachy, Through Irish Eyes: A Visual Companion to Angela McCourt's Ireland, Smithmark Publishers, 1998.
Back Stage, January 14, 2000, Elais Stimac, review of The Irish . . . and How They Got That Way, p. 37.
Billboard, January 15, 1997, review of Angela's Ashes, p. 74.
Biography, fall, 2003, James B. Mitchell, "Popular Autobiography as Historiography: The Reality Effect of Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes," p. 607.
Book, September-October, 2003, "Head of the Class," p. 15.
Booklist, August, 1999, Donna Seaman, review of 'Tis: A Memoir, p. 198.
Christian Science Monitor, December 4, 1996, p. 13; March 21, 1997, p. 4.
Commonweal, June 19, 1998, Daniel M. Murtaugh, review of Angela's Ashes, p. 28; October 22, 1999, Molly Finn, "Two for Two," p. 24.
Economist, February 27, 1999, "Irish Books: Angela's Offspring," p. 83.
Entertainment Weekly, January 22, 1999, Andrew Essex, review of 'Tis, p. 35; September 24, 1999, L. S. Klepp, "'Tis a Beaut: Angela's Ashes Is a Pretty Tough Act to Follow but Frank McCourt Dazzles Us Once Again in 'Tis, the Enchanting Story of His Adventures—and Misadventures—in America," p. 139.
Gentleman's Quarterly, October, 1996, p. 93.
Independent (London, England), September 18, 1999, Mary Flanagan, "From a Town of Ashes to a City of Gilt."
Irish Literary Supplement, spring, 2000, Vivian Valvano Lynch, "Ashes through a Glass Not Darkly," pp. 23-24.
Kirkus Reviews, July 1, 1996, review of Angela's Ashes.
Knight-Ridder/Tribune Business News, September 27, 1999, William Conroy, "Stories Featuring Irish Themes, Imports Proliferate in New Jersey"; October 13, 1999, Celia Mcgee, "New Yorker among Finalists for National Book Award."
Library Journal, October 15, 1999, Robert Moore, review of 'Tis, p. 78; November 15, 1999, Michael Rogers and Norman Oder, "McCourt Holds Court at Providence PL," p. 16.
Maclean's, October 18, 1999, John Bemrose, "From Emerald Isle to Green with Envy: A Dreamer Tussles with the American Dream," p. 93.
McCall's, March 3, 1997, review of Angela's Ashes, p. 69; September, 1998, Donna Boetig, "Frank McCourt's Lessons for Parents," p. 110.
Nation, July 27, 1998, Patrick Smith, "What Memoir Forgets," p. 30.
National Review, October 26, 1998, p. 40; September 27, 1999, Pete Hamill, review of 'Tis, p. 54.
New Criterion, December, 1999, Brooke Allen, review of Angela's Ashes and 'Tis, p. 71.
New Republic, November 1, 1999, R. F. Forester, "'Tisn't the Million-Dollar Blarney of the McCourts," p. 29.
Newsweek, August 30, 1999, review of 'Tis, p. 58; September 27, 1999, Jones, "An Immigrant's Tale: In 'Tis Frank McCourt Finds America and Himself," p. 66.
New York, September 27, 1999, Walter Kirn, review of 'Tis, p. 82.
New York Review of Books, May 25, 2000, Julian Moynahan, "Not-So-Great Expectations," pp. 51-53.
New York Times, September 17, 1996, Michiko Kakutani, review of Angela's Ashes.
New York Times Book Review, September 15, 1996, Denis Donoghue, review of Angela's Ashes, p. 13; September 14, 1999; Michiko Kakutani, "For an Outsider, It's Mostly Sour Grapes in the Land of Milk and Honey."
New York Times Magazine, September 1, 1996, Robert Sullivan, interview with McCourt, p. 24.
People, October 21, 1996, Paula Chin, review of Angela's Ashes, p. 42; January 20, 1997, interview with McCourt, p. 81; October 4, 1999, Kim Hubbard, review of 'Tis, p. 51.
Publishers Weekly, October 4, 1999, Daisy Maryles and Dick Donahue, "McCourt Leads the Court,"
p. 19; November 1, 1999, review of 'Tis, p. 51.
Seattle Times, September 19, 1999, Mary Ann Gwinn, review of 'Tis.
Time, September 23, 1996, John Elson, review of Angela's Ashes, p. 74; October 4, 1999, Paul Gray, "Frank's Ashes: The Sequel to a Beloved Best Seller Is Glum Going," p. 104.
World, April, 2000, Robert Sterling Gingher, "Out of the Ashes: The Voice of a Child in Limerick Returns Transformed into That of a Young Man Finding His Place in New York City," pp. 255-261.
World of Hibernia, winter, 1999, John Boland, review of 'Tis, p. 156.
Writer's Digest, February, 1999, Donna Elizabeth Boetig, "Out of the Ashes," p. 18.
Academy of Achievement,http://www.achievement.org/ (June 19, 1999), interview with McCourt.
BookReporter.com,http://www.bookreporter.com/ (August 11, 2004), Vern Wiessner, review of 'Tis.
Frank McCourt's Home Page,http://www.zaney5.freeserve.co.uk/fmindex.html/ (October 2, 2004).
Newshour,http://www.pbs.org/ (March 17, 1999), Terence Smith, interview with McCourt.
Salon,http://www.salon.com/ (August 31, 1999), Andrew O'Hehire, "In His Follow-up to Angela's Ashes Frank McCourt Confronts the Indignities of Immigrant Life."
UnoMas,http://www.unomas.com/index/ (August 11, 2004), Jim Saah, "There Once Was a Man from Limerick . . . An Interview with Author Frank McCourt."*