NEW YORK — Frank McCourt, the beloved raconteur and former public school teacher who enjoyed post-retirement fame as the author of "Angela's Ashes," the Pulitzer Prize-winning "epic of woe" about his impoverished Irish childhood, died Sunday of cancer.
McCourt, who was 78, had been gravely ill with meningitis and recently was treated for melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer and the cause of his death, said his publisher, Scribner. He died at a Manhattan hospice, his brother Malachy McCourt said.
Until his mid-60s, Frank McCourt was known primarily around New York as a creative writing teacher and as a local character – the kind who might turn up in a New York novel – singing songs and telling stories with his younger brother Malachy and otherwise joining the crowds at the White Horse Tavern and other literary hangouts.
But there was always a book or two being formed in his mind, and the world would learn his name, and story, in 1996, after a friend helped him get an agent and his then-unfinished manuscript was quickly signed by Scribner. With a first printing of just 25,000, "Angela's Ashes" was an instant favorite with critics and readers and perhaps the ultimate case of the non-celebrity memoir, the extraordinary life of an ordinary man.
"F. Scott Fitzgerald said there are no second acts in American lives. I think I've proven him wrong," McCourt later explained. "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."
The book has been published in 25 languages and 30 countries.
McCourt, a native of New York, was good company in the classroom and at the bar, but few had such a burden to unload. His 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; McCourt's father was an alcoholic who drank up the little money his family had. Three of McCourt's seven siblings died, and he nearly perished from typhoid fever.
"Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood," was McCourt's unforgettable opening. "People everywhere brag and whimper about the woes of their early years, but nothing can compare with the Irish version: the poverty, the shiftless loquacious father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests, bullying schoolmasters; the English and all the terrible things they did to us for 800 long years."
The book was a long Irish wake, "an epic of woe," McCourt called it, finding laughter and lyricism in life's very worst. Although some in Ireland complained that McCourt had revealed too much (and revealed a little too well), "Angela's Ashes" became a million seller, won the Pulitzer and was made into a movie of the same name, starring Emily Watson as the title character, McCourt's mother.
Author Peter Matthiessen, who became friendly with McCourt after "Angela's Ashes" came out, said he was "stunned" when he read it.
"I remember thinking, 'Where did this guy come from?" Matthiessen said. "His book was so good, and it came out of nowhere."
The white-haired, sad-eyed, always quotable McCourt, his Irish accent still thick despite decades in the U.S., became a regular at parties, readings, conferences and other gatherings, so much the eager late-life celebrity that he later compared himself to a "dancing clown, available to everybody." His friend and fellow memoirist Mary Karr once kidded him that her idea of a rare book was an unsigned copy of "Angela's Ashes."
McCourt told The Associated Press in 2005 he wasn't prepared for fame.
"After teaching, I was getting all this attention," he said. "They actually looked at me – people I had known for years – and they were friendly and they looked me in a different way. And I was thinking, `All those years I was a teacher, why didn't you look at me like that then?'"
But the part of it he liked best, he said, was hearing "from all those kids who were in my classes."
"At least they knew that when I talked about writing I wasn't just talking through my hat," he said.
Much of his teaching was spent in the English department at the elite Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, where he defied the advice of his colleagues and shared his personal stories with the class; he slapped a student with a magazine and took on another known to have a black belt in karate.
After "Angela's Ashes," McCourt continued his story, to strong but diminished sales and reviews, in "'Tis," which told of his return to New York in the 1940s, and in "Teacher Man." McCourt also wrote a children's story, "Angela and the Baby Jesus," released in 2007.
More than 10 million copies of his books have been sold in North America alone, said Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Inc.
"We have been privileged to publish his books, which have touched, and will continue to touch, millions of readers in myriad positive and meaningful ways," Simon & Schuster CEO Carolyn Reidy said in a statement.
McCourt was married twice and had a daughter, Maggie McCourt, from his first marriage.
His brother Malachy McCourt is an actor, commentator and singer who wrote two memoirs and, in 2006, ran for New York governor as the Green Party candidate. At least one of his former students, Susan Gilman, became a writer.
McCourt will be cremated, his brother said. A memorial service is planned for September.
Associated Press writer Tom McElroy contributed to this story.