Storyteller Won Fame With 'Angela's Ashes'

Frank Mccourt 1930 - 2009

July 20, 2009|By Rinker Buck | Rinker Buck,Tribune Newspapers

Frank McCourt, the Irish-American storyteller who parlayed the miseries of a Limerick upbringing into an extraordinary late-life literary blooming, died of cancer Sunday in New York City.

Mr. McCourt, 78, had spent the past 13 years buoyantly touring the globe on reading tours and writing two sequels to his 1996 best-seller, Angela's Ashes, which sold more than 5 million copies and was translated into more than 20 languages.

He had been undergoing treatment for skin cancer in recent years and been released in early June from New York's Memorial Sloan Kettering Center to recuperate at his Roxbury, Conn., home. Two weeks ago he was diagnosed with meningitis, a frequent complication of patients whose immune systems are compromised by cancer treatment. Mr. McCourt was moved to a New York hospice where, over the past few days, family and friends from around the world had gathered at his bedside.

He considered his public speaking prowess inseparable from his role as a writer and accepted several invitations a year to appear at charitable fundraisers and writing workshops at Connecticut's community college campuses. His name on the marquee of the Warner Theater in Torrington or Hartford's Bushnell guaranteed a sellout audience.

In private conversations, as well as before audiences, Mr. McCourt was an effortless, comic entertainer. The essence of his storytelling success was an exacting verbal parody. Whether he was mimicking a British aristocrat defending the persecution of the Irish, or the unctuous "droning" of Irish Catholic priests, Mr. McCourt's intonation and timing were both flawless and fatally sarcastic. He loved to lampoon himself, an appealing self-deprecation that took the edge off his mordant stereotypes of others. His stories about working at the Biltmore hotel in New York, where he was assigned to feed the birds in the lobby (the birds died), or of training U.S. Army dogs in Germany (the dogs would only attack him), reduced his audiences to tears of laughter.

Mr. McCourt's life, in a way, was one long rehearsal for Angela's Ashes. Long before the book catapulted him to international fame, he was well known in New York literary and theater circles for performing a hilariously madcap version of his Limerick stories, a "Couple of Blagards," with his brother Malachy.

He also enjoyed a devoted following among high school students in New York, where, as a creative writing teacher, Mr. McCourt relieved the tedium of weekly classes by entertaining his classes with the tragicomic tales of his Irish youth. It was only after quitting teaching in the early 1990s, encouraged by family and friends, that he found the time and discipline to turn 30 years of performing his Limerick tales into the written jewel of a first memoir, published when he was 66.

McCourt was born in 1930 in Brooklyn, N.Y. Unable to find work in Depression-era New York, the McCourts moved back to Limerick when Frank was 4, sinking even deeper into poverty and the unending litany of woes that became the narrative material of Angela's Ashes: alcoholism, unemployment and the inventive, minor crimes that the teenage Mr. McCourt indulged in in an increasingly pathetic attempt to support his family.

Angela's Ashes won the Pulitzer Prize in 1997 and numerous other literary awards, and spent 117 weeks on The New York Times best-seller list, making Mr. McCourt a wealthy man and a popular figure on the national reading circuit.

When he died, Mr. McCourt said, "I don't want funeral services or memorials. Let them scatter my ashes over the Shannon and pollute the river."

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