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Frank McCourt: Regular guy, extraordinary artist

(Lisa Schwarzbaum, left, with McCourt and his wife, Ellen)

Frank McCourt’s telephone answering machine message always promised that he would return all calls “with alacrity.” Of course, the man who wasn’t home could have said “as soon as possible.” But why waste such a beautiful word? The Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, who died in New York at age 78 on July 19  after a battle with melanoma, loved words the way others love chocolate. And he told stories the way others brush their teeth – regularly. Thousands of fortunate former students know this from classroom experience, since Frank was proud of his long career as a teacher in the New York City public school system. Millions of fortunate readers know this from falling in love with his spellbinding memoirs Angela’s Ashes, ’Tis, and Teacher Man.

I know this because for a few enchanted summers in the last century, I shared a summer house with Frank and his wife, Ellen, on the banks of the Delaware River in Pennsylvania. And in that house, Angela’s Ashes was born. I am blessed among godmothers.

I’ll explain: Ellen was a work colleague who had become a great friend, Frank was the retired English teacher who had won Ellen’s heart one night in a Greenwich Village pub. And when Frank came into Ellen’s life, he was the luckiest of men not only because he had found a vivacious mate, but also because he had a whole new audience of Ellen’s friends to dazzle. He was the first Irishman I ever met whose eyes actually rather than metaphorically twinkled as he spun stories of his self-proclaimed miserable childhood. Frank would paint bright portraits of individual students, teachers, and pub crawlers he had known, all the while cooking with Ellen in the cramped little kitchen they shared before fame knocked and money flowed. One Thanksgiving, Frank, his brother Malachy, and a mob of assorted friends and family (among them his nephew-the-cop, a few retired schoolteacher cronies, and me) crowded around a small table and tucked into turkey and cranberries, and then each of us, in turn, sang. Or recited a poem. Or told a joke. (Frank played his Irish pennywhistle.)

When Frank and Ellen and I found our idyllic river bungalow to rent, Frank had been talking about writing down some of the stories he loved to tell, especially the ones he and Malachy used to recount in a loose, intimate cabaret-style theater piece they called A Couple of Blaguards. These were stories of Frank’s “miserable childhood” in Limerick, of his boyhood, and his Pa and his Ma, and his own school days, of poverty and hardship and mischief, and occasional moments of balm in Limerick and Brooklyn, New York.

Oh, do it, do it, yes, yes, I said, yes.

And so Frank began to write, in a sunny back room, on summer afternoons scented with honeysuckle. Ellen and I would swim in the river, or paddle our canoe, or prowl around back roads looking for tag sales, or cook flamboyantly intricate menus devised by Martha Stewart. Frank would later join us in the river, or we’d sit out on the porch holding glasses of wine and watching the bats at dusk as they darted out for bat cocktail hour. The next afternoon he’d be writing again.

And then one day Frank said to me, “Well, I’ve begun something. You’re a writer, would you take a look? Is it anything?” He handed me a small stack of typed pages, maybe 40 in all.

It was the beginnings of Angela’s Ashes. It was all there! His stories danced off the page with the same charm and lilt readers all around the world would come to cherish, the writing brimmed with compassion and honesty, tenderness, and rue. Frank’s voice was sure and true and ….

Yes yes yes, more more more, keep going! That was the extent of my editorial input. He kept going. You know the rest.

Ellen once told me that the day before Angela’s Ashes was published, Frank woke up and announced to his wife, with faux grandeur, “This is my last day as an ordinary man!” Knowing Frank, he was joking at his own expense, sticking a pre-emptive pin in any balloon of literary vanity that might otherwise float loose and carry the schoolteacher to fancy egotistical heights. The laugh deepens, of course, because that might indeed have been Frank’s last day as an ordinary man. International fame followed – fame and the love of millions, each of whom would feel Frank McCourt was telling his stories personally, intimately to them alone. He was just a regular guy who had weathered hardships, worked hard, cherished family, found laughs where he could, and loved words with the gifts of an extraordinary artist.

More Frank McCourt:
Frank McCourt, author of ‘Angela’s Ashes,’ dies at 78

Originally posted July 19 2009 — 7:36 PM EDT

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