By Erin L. Cox
Sunday marked the passing of Pulitzer Prize-winning memoirist Frank McCourt. Best known for his internationally bestselling memoir about his poor, Irish childhood, Angela’s Ashes, Frank was also a beloved New York City schoolteacher, playwright, and a fantastic storyteller.
What I worry about is that people will think of Frank only as the poor boy from Limerick, and forget the six decades he lived after that. Even though that story changed many lives, he left that little boy behind years ago and lived a life of New York legend–spending time with writers and actors of note, telling stories and sharing many a laugh and a pint.
I know, because I knew him. I want to tell a few stories of the Frank I knew.
When I interviewed for a job as a publicity assistant at Scribner in 1999, it was just before the release of both Frank McCourt’s second book, ‘Tis, and the film version of Angela’s Ashes.
Pat Eisemann, the Publicity Director and my interviewer, asked if I had ever read Angela’s Ashes. My response was, not only had I read it (twice actually), but I had written a paper on it in college, using Limerick as an example of “place” as character. I would be happy to provide her with a copy if she liked. She didn’t request a copy, but she did give me the job.
My first major role at Scribner was touring with then 69-year-old Frank McCourt. I joined him on the Pacific Northwest and Mid-Atlantic legs of the tour, making sure that the cars and planes and interviews all ran on time. While touring with writers can be exhausting (you get up before them and go to bed after them and run around making sure they are fed, hydrated, prepared, and running on schedule), touring with Frank was fun. A born storyteller, he would tell me tales of his 50 years of life in New York, the now-famous writers and actors he knew, and more. When we ran out of things to say, we even once went to see a James Bond movie, The World is Not Enough. He liked it, I didn’t.
Because Angela’s Ashes was just about to premiere, Frank was needed for a film junket mid-tour, so Paramount sent a private jet to bring me and Frank back to New York for a day of interviews. Though this was a huge day for me, Frank took it all in stride. I ran around the plane, checking out everything and taking pictures (I even made him take a picture of me in front of it), but Frank just sat back and enjoyed the ride. He never let his fame or success go to his head.
Another time, I went to his house to pick him up for some interviews and, on his coffee table, sat a half-eaten muffin and a cup of coffee. I asked if he wanted to take his breakfast with him and he said, “That’s not mine. It’s Paul Newman’s.” To which, I laughed. Frank always had a rich sense of humor. “No, it really was Paul Newman’s. You just missed him.” I nearly bolted out of his living room and down the hall, but held ground. “He’s doing a film where he needs an Irish accent, so he asked for my help. He brought one for me too, do you want it?” I was tempted to sell it on eBay, but ate it instead. The film was The Road to Perdition and he does sound a little bit like Frank.
When I left Scribner, Frank and his dear wife Ellen took me out to lunch to wish me luck on my way. I had worked with them for a solid five years and we’d become friends. Because I was just a child of 22 when I began working with them, I think they felt a little responsible for me. They always wanted to hear about my life and plans and how I saw my career progressing. They even, once, tried to set me up with a friend of theirs (it didn’t quite work out). I saw them a number of times throughout the next five years, including just a few months ago, and Frank always had that twinkle in his eye that let you know there was much more going on than he let on.
I am glad that I had the opportunity to get to know him and hear all of those stories that he didn’t publish to go with the fantastic ones that were.
Donations can be made in Frank’s name to:
NYU Melanoma Research Fund
c/o Dr. Richard Shapiro
160 East 34th Street
New York, NY 10016
READ: another appreciation from the Irish Independent
LISTEN: to an interview with McCourt from Fresh Air on National Public Radio
WATCH: videos of McCourt discussing his books on YouTube