Bitter feud between fellow Limerick men over destiny of 'Angela's Ashes'
Hollywood actor Harris accused author McCourt of losing his mother's remains, writes John McEntee
One person will be spinning furiously in his grave at the unveiling of sculptor Seamus Connolly's bronze bust of Frank McCourt in Dublin's Writers Museum.
If the Man Called Horse actor was still living and breathing in his £2,000-a-week suite in London's Savoy Hotel he would mouth the words 'chancer' and 'fraud' before dissolving into mischievous laughter and decanting to the nearby Coal Hole pub for a foaming pint of Boddingtons ale.
The feud between the Hollywood actor and the Pulitzer-winning author of the prototype misery memoir was a gossip columnist's dream. But, alas, Harris died in 2002 aged 72 and McCourt seven years later aged 78. So neither is on hand to badmouth each other.
To his dying day Harris was convinced McCourt had exaggerated his impoverished childhood on the banks of the Shannon. Before fame swept McCourt to riches and fame, Harris knew him as a thirsty New York lecturer he occasionally encountered when touring with his lucrative earner, the musical Camelot.
I had no idea of the antagonism when, as said gossip columnist, I had one of my regular encounters with Harris in the Coal Hole one afternoon in the late Nineties.
We talked rugby and drank Boddingtons.
At about 6pm he asked me to join him in his suite atop the Savoy where he was planning to watch the Sky transmission of a football match involving his beloved Chelsea.
"I'm sorry, Richard," I explained. "I can't, I'm going around the corner to Penguin Books where they're having a party to celebrate the millionth copy of Angela's Ashes in paperback. Why don't you come?"
His demeanour changed dramatically. "Angela's Ashes? Frank McCourt? Will he be there?"
"Of course," I replied. "He has flown in from New York especially."
Then Harris said: "You ask McCourt what happened to his mother's ashes. I know he f**king lost them.
"When his mother died he hadn't a bob to rub together. He wanted to ship her ashes to Limerick to be scattered over the family grave. I was touring in Camelot and helped him out with cash to pay for the shipping.
"Frank went to a cheap shipper in Queens and he lost his mother's ashes. He f**king lost them. You ask him."
We finished our drinks and agreed to reconvene the following week at the Coal Hole. I meandered to the Penguin HQ and glass of wine in hand gravitated towards McCourt. He was surrounded by the usual meteorites of literary female totty who looked at him with unrequited adoration.
I introduced myself. He was charm itself. Then apropos of nothing I asked: "Tell me Frank, what happened to your mother's ashes?"
The transformation was instant and extraordinary. He grabbed me by the throat and pushed me up against the boardroom wall.
"Harris sent you," he screamed. "Richard Harris f**king sent you. You tell Harris I found my mother's ashes. You go and tell him that."
Having upset the famous author I was asked to leave the soiree. A badge of honour in my profession, I was unfazed, though my neck was a little sore.
A week later over more pints of Boddingtons in the Coal Hole I told Harris that McCourt had tried to strangle me. He was helpless with mirth. He couldn't stop laughing.
"He's a f**king chancer. He made up his childhood and he lost his mother's ashes. What a fraud!'
Then Harris died. And before McCourt joined him on the banks of the celestial Shannon I caught up with him at an Irish embassy party for his second last book Teacher Man (his earlier follow-up to Angela's Ashes, Tis was described by one reviewer as Tisn't).
He recognised me and had the good grace to apologise for grabbing me by the throat when I turned up as Harris's unwelcome emissary at Penguin. "I can tell you now. Yes, we did lose our mother's ashes. I had too much to drink in a Manhattan bar and we left them behind. . . but we did eventually retrieve them."
I hope Harris has given him a good ribbing in Paradise.