Limerick's slumdog millionaire
As 'Angela's Ashes: The Musical' prepares to open, Barry Egan recalls his time in Rome with author Frank McCourt and how he opened his heart about poverty, God, sex, death - and ex-wives
In a sense, Frank McCourt disproved F Scott Fitzgerald's famous theory that there were no second acts in American lives. In 1997, Frank's memoir Angela's Ashes won him the Pulitzer Prize for biography. Up to that point, the 60-something had been a schoolteacher in New York for more than 30 years. The book's 426 pages changed everything.
"I wasn't prepared for it," he said in 2005 - but no doubt nothing would have prepared him for the all-dancing, all-singing musical adaptation of his infamous novel, which starts at the Bord Gais Theatre next month.
"After teaching, I was getting all this attention. People I had known for years, they looked at me in a different way. I was thinking, 'All those years I was a teacher, why didn't you look at me like that then?'"
The answer was perhaps that they were unaware of the full extent of the grim Dickensian tale that had been hiding restlessly in his subconscious. The tale that began: "When I look back on my childhood, I wonder how I survived at all." Lines like this led The Guardian to dub him "the father of the misery memoir".
Some alleged that Frank's tale-of-woe and the near-Biblical suffering of starving slum children in 1930s Limerick was pure fiction. Limerick broadcaster Gerry Hannan said: "As far as I'm concerned, he's a conman, a hoaxer."
The book, which became a global best-seller, also inspired parodies (Kevin Myers's Cyril's Cinders) and endless denouncements (among them, Richard Harris banging off self-serving letters to The Times).
There was even an apocryphal story that Angela McCourt - the Angela of the title - disputed her son's memories of his childhood, turning up at Frank and brother Malachy's stand-up show A Couple of Blackguards at a downtown theatre and shouting up at them: "It didn't happen that way. It's all a pack of lies."
After the publication of Angela's Ashes in 1996, the Limerick Leader published pictures of Frank, looking far from a barefoot starving slum-child in rags - smartly turned out in a scout uniform.
"I told my own story. I wrote about my situation, my family, my parents, that's what I experienced," Frank rallied.
"When the book was published in Ireland, I was denounced from hill, pulpit and barstool," Frank told Slate in 2007. "Certain citizens claimed I had disgraced the fair name of the city of Limerick, that I had attacked the church, that I had despoiled my mother's name and that if I returned to Limerick, I would surely be found hanging from a lamppost."
Far from being hanged from a lamppost, in 1997 Limerick University conferred on Frank an honorary doctorate of letters. In terms of his own education, of which he had very little, Frank used the GI bill (where the US paid college fees for ex-veterans) to enrol at New York University after he came out of the US army. When he graduated, he began teaching in 1958 at a vocational high school in Staten Island.
Born on August 19, 1930, in Brooklyn, Francis McCourt was the eldest son of Irish immigrants, Angela and Malachy. When Frank was four years of age the McCourt family returned to Ireland for a life of particular grimness.
So grim in fact that young Frank - who, when his family didn't receive charity vouchers for food, on occasion stole to feed them - would later say that he dreamed of being sent to jail so that he would be sure of getting three meals a day and a bed.
His brother Eugene died of pneumonia, "cold in the bed beside us". When another brother, Alphonsus Joseph, was born, his alcoholic father spent the baby's christening money on drink. Malachy also did a runner on his wife and children when Frank was 11.
The teachers in school offered no sympathy, he remembered. "They hit you if you can't say your name in Irish, if you can't say the Hail Mary in Irish. If you don't cry the masters hate you because you've made them look weak before the class and they promise themselves the next time they have you up they'll draw tears or blood or both..."
Frank's memories of the priests of his childhood haunted him into his adult life. In the summer of 2002 when Frank invited me to spend three days with him in Rome it had not escaped him, nor should it have, that the beatings he experienced were done on the say-so of the Pope. (He was in the Eternal City to work on a third memoir, Teacher Man, while on a Residency at Rome's American Academy).
The mental scars went far deeper than lumps left by wallops on the skull with sticks. The bruises all had Holy Rome's stamp on them. It was more than a little ironic, Frank laughed, that 60 years later he was now living in the seat of Catholicism.
Or, as Frank put it himself, he was "bringing back the baggage to Rome that they sent me as a child".
One evening as Frank and I walked along the Tiber into a bar in Piazza Navona, he claimed that being Catholic was like being in the Mafia.
"Once you're in, you're in forever. It is the most ingenious organisation ever created. It sets you up and it strikes you down," he said. "The priests, the cardinals, the bishops are all a bunch of f***king gangsters because they have as good a deal as the Mafioso do, and they have as much control." The priests lacked compassion. "They never came into the slums. Only for the last rites, or, once a year, to take up a collection. And they preached poverty, but they never embraced it."
Frank McCourt was to embrace if not embody the Irish American dream. Although, he did it slightly arse-ways. After 15 years of struggle in Ireland he returned to the States on a boat in 1949, when he was 19, before making his fortune 47 hard years later. He had survived terrible poverty and suffering to become rich and famous. A big shot.
A slumdog millionaire, as it were.
An expensive bottle of wine loosened his already famously indiscreet tongue a little that night in Rome. Frank talked about being drafted into the American army after he arrived to New York and ending up in Europe.
"I was like a beast as far as sex was concerned. I'd jump on anything that moved. I didn't know how to talk to women. It was an all-boys school in Limerick and we knew nothing about girls..."
The working girls of post-war Germany soon educated him. Frank mentioned Janet, a Nordic girl about the same age as him (20), and a German girl, Madeline, "not very attractive but I didn't care. No foreplay or after-play or talk on the pillow...
"Germany was in bad shape. It was all women looking for money. It was a sin and I said 'some day I will confess it, some day, but in the meantime I will have a good time'. I expected that if I died I would catch the fires of hell."
Instead the future Pulitzer Prize winner caught venereal disease. He went to a local German doctor, Doc Block, for the cure. "Doc Block will fix your cock," Frank's salty rhyme explained it all. Frank added that he took Dr Block a pound of coffee or a carton of cigarettes, "which were very scarce in those days".
Frank's experiences in post-war Europe did not just educate him sexually but they also educated him about religions other than the one that was beaten into him by the Catholic Church in Ireland.
"I met southern Baptists, Jews, atheists, agnostics. And they looked pretty normal, as if they were enjoying life."
In August 1961 he married his first wife, Alberta Small, a blue-eyed blonde from Rhode Island. A non-denominational with no religion herself, he laughed. "My mother used to warn all of us: 'Marry your own'. Everybody used to say it: stick with your own kind." Frank told his mother (who died in 1981) that he wasn't in New York to stick with his own kind. He and Alberta were incompatible in every way "socially, psychologically, and emotionally".
Still, the marriage lasted 18 years (and produced a daughter, Maggie). "And that is an awful lot of time for the two of us living in misery," he remembered in a bar in Trastevere.
In August 1984, Frank married his second wife, Cheryl Floyd, a long-legged redhead from North Carolina. "It lasted two minutes. I was going through one of my crazy periods." It was finished by 1985. "I don't blame my ex-wives," he said. "We weren't trained or taught or encouraged to think for ourselves, growing up in Limerick.
"The dogma coming out of the church and the other dogma about Ireland and her suffering, you wouldn't dare open your mouth. We knew nothing about women. As far as the priests were concerned, a woman was an occasion of sin. You just look at one, you start getting ideas."
"Limerick had a different form of Catholicism," he added. "Limerick had sins never heard of in Rome. And in Limerick all of the sins were taught to us in school and we learned we would go to hell or purgatory if we committed them. Then there was another strange place called limbo. This was for little babies who died and hadn't been baptised."
I asked him about his ex wives. A rare species of raconteur/philosopher, Frank McCourt tries to put it all into some kind of perspective.
"The first wife I married in August 1961, the second wife I married in August 1984, the third wife," he smiled with the moon high over Rome, referring, happily, to Ellen Frey, "I married in August 1994. I have to be wary when August comes!" he chortled.
There was a picture of his beautiful Californian wife by the telephone of his apartment in the American Academy on the Janiculum when I arrived to pick him up earlier that evening for dinner.
"Ellen and I have a hot thing going," he practically gushed. The object of his devotion was in Florence but was due back the following night. (On that night, we went to a Ray Charles concert in the Colosseum together.)
Frank added that they had an apartment in New York's Upper West Side ("where I like to be") and a converted 18th-century farmhouse in Connecticut ("Ellen would move out there in a minute"), with wild geese, and Arthur Miller as their next-door neighbour.
"Ellen and I met in 1989," Frank reminisced. "I think I moved in with her in 1991 and we got married in 1994. She was very slow in marrying me because she knew what baggage I had. She took her time. I asked her to marry me in 1990. I expected her to just leap at the opportunity."
But leap she did not. "I was an attractive proposition. I thought I was the charming Irishman. I still acted like the husband from marriage one and marriage two."
Frank laughed that his beloved wife stops him - the millionaire internationally acclaimed author -from getting too much of a big head.
"She pricks my balloon," he laughed, "or balloons my prick."
I asked him about his father. Frank said he still couldn't understand how his father (who died in 1986 in Belfast) could walk away from his children, and leave them to starve. He said he never forgave his father for that.
When I pointed out that his brother Malachy talked about alcoholism as a disease, Frank replied: "You can't walk away from cancer, but you can walk away from a bottle. So I don't absolve my father completely of his responsibility for what he did to us."
The cheeky waif who used to wear rags for nappies and beg a pig's head for Christmas dinner is sipping fine vino in a very expensive restaurant in Rome. "I am a big shot now," he laughed, "I'm a millionaire." He talked about the absurdity of poverty, the humiliating ridiculousness of having nothing. To be poor, he said, deprives you of self-esteem.
As for the book that made him a slumdog millionaire, he started writing only after he retired as a teacher in 1987. "It took me two years and all my life to write it," he told Newsweek. When mature student Frank was studying at NYU in the late 1950s to become a teacher, he wrote an essay about the bed he shared as a child with his three brothers and innumerable fleas. It was said that when Frank received an A-plus for his essay, he began to think of being a writer. It was also said that when Frank began to write Angela's Ashes, he battled with certain aspects of its literary style (a novel became a memoir) and that it was only after watching his young granddaughter, Chiara, and noticing the way she talked, that Frank decided to tell the story through a child's eyes.
But back to Rome. The following evening, outside the Colosseum, a young woman approached Frank to congratulate him on Angela's Ashes: its status as holy writ from the Antichrist of Limerick is confirmed by five million sales and fans all over the world.
"I lived with anonymity all my life," Frank laughed, "so I don't mind a bit of attention now."
Later that night he would remark that "it's a good thing fame came late in life. If it had come 25 years ago, I'd probably be dead by now of whiskey and fornication.
"The light is in the clearing," Frank joked about his death one day.
"As long as I don't get some wretched dragged-out illness. I hear all the time 'so-and-so is gone.' Every month there is a new obituary. I don't feel close to any end at all."
Frank McCourt died on July 19, 2009, of cancer.
Angela's Ashes: The Musical will play Bord Gais Energy Theatre, Dublin, from July 18-30.