Bestselling author and former high school teacher Frank McCourt has died at the age of 78.
Frank McCourt, the retired high school English teacher who became a best-selling memoirist, liked to say he had disproven F. Scott Fitzgerald’s adage about there being “no second acts in American lives.”
McCourt, who had been gravely ill with meningitis after recently being treated for melanoma, died Sunday afternoon at age 78. He is best known for the first of three memoirs, Angela’s Ashes, about surviving an Irish childhood of near-starvation. It won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1997 and was turned into a movie in 1999 starring Emily Watson as McCourt’s long-suffering mother, Angela.
As McCourt put it, “I refused to settle for a one-act existence: the 30 years I taught English in various New York City high schools.”
He was 66 before he published a book. What took so long?
“I was teaching, that’s what took me so long,” he wrote. “Not in college or university, where you have all the time in the world for writing and other diversions, but in four different New York City public high schools.”
He would cite novels about professors “so busy with adultery and academic infighting you wonder where they found time to squeeze in a little teaching.” But when you teach high school classes all day, he said, “you’re not inclined to go home to clear your head and fashion deathless prose. After a day of five classes, your head is filled with the clamor of the classroom.”
His books turned him into a celebrity, or as he put it, “the mick of the moment.” He was even paid to go on cruises.
“I watched him sign his name in thousands of books,” says Patricia Eisemann, former publicity director of Scribner, McCourt’s publisher. “But of all the people who came to the readings, he was happiest when he’d hear, ‘Hello Mr. McCourt,’ and he’d look up and find a former student. That’s when his ever present smile grew wider.” In 1999, at a book party for ‘Tis, he said was having the decade of his life — at 69.
That, he added, was a good thing: “If all of this had happened to me in my 30s, I’d be dead by now from all the whiskey and all the fornication. I’d be in a state of paralysis.”
I totally believe that, based on my remembrance of the man. He was an unconventional teacher – I don’t know that he had a set lesson plan when he taught creative writing at Stuyvesant High School. We spent a fair amount of time talking about children’s books – “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret” was the first book he had us read. He also had us write and illustrate a children’s book, which was evaluated by a group of fourth-graders. I lack artistic talent and was never able to think up a good plot, so I did miserably on that assignment. Some days the class was free-form discussion, with him asking us questions or having us ask him questions. And when the weather turned warm, in May, he’d sometimes just take us outside to the park across the street and let us enjoy the day. It was like being allowed to have a little senioritis, except we were just juniors.
Rest in peace, Frank McCourt. I plan to raise a glass and tell a story in your memory.
UPDATE: My friend Julia shares her memories.