Frank McCourt: A Lifetime Revisited
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JIM LEHRER: Finally this St. Patrick’s Day, Media Correspondent Terence Smith talked with Irish Author Frank McCourt about his new book, which is due out this fall.
TERENCE SMITH: It was opening night at the Irish Film Festival in Manhattan last week, and the star attraction was the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Frank McCourt. And getting top billing, “The McCourts of New York,” a documentary about the four McCourt brothers and their experiences as Irish immigrants in New York City.
MAN: (singing) Our grandparents did it. They scrubbed and they scoured; they shoveled and tunneled so we’d be empowered.
TERENCE SMITH: “Angela’s Ashes,” Frank McCourt’s memoir of growing up poor in Ireland, is a publishing phenomenon. It hit the best seller list in 1996, and remained there for 115 weeks. The book has sold more than four million copies worldwide and made McCourt, a retired New York City schoolteacher, a wealthy man.
A film version comes out this fall, along with a sequel to his memoir, entitled “‘Tis.” The McCourts have turned their hard-scrabble immigrant experience into a cottage industry. At this cocktail party celebrating the HBO film release of “The McCourts of New York,” Frank’s three brothers, Malachy, Michael, and Alphie, were being interviewed by CBS’s “60 Minutes.” Meanwhile, a play that Frank and Malachy McCourt wrote a decade ago was being revived in an off-Broadway theater.
MEN: (singing) It sweeps down by the brave old town so pure in depth and tone, as when Sartsfield swept the Saxons from the walls of Garryowen.
FRANK McCOURT, Author: I don’t think I could have got in here myself, because of the mathematics.
TERENCE SMITH: We took Frank McCourt back to the old Stuyvessant High School in New York, where he taught English for 18 years, to talk about his new book.
Now, “Angela’s Ashes” ended as the young Frank McCourt arrived in the United States, and the last word of the book was “‘Tis.”
FRANK McCOURT: Yes.
TERENCE SMITH: And the title of the new book?
FRANK McCOURT: “‘Tis.”
TERENCE SMITH: So you’re picking right up?
FRANK McCOURT: I’m picking right up, yes. Just going on into my — the menial jobs I had around New York, various menial jobs — when I was a bird keeper in the Biltmore Hotel, and then I was drafted into the Army, and into the Canine Corps – this a natural progression from canaries to German Shepherds. And then I came home, and I became a teacher. So it was birds, dogs, and kids.
TERENCE SMITH: So it’s a story that carries your life, and carries it up to the present.
FRANK McCOURT: No, not quite. No. Probably up to the day I retired from teaching.
TERENCE SMITH: Do you remember your first impressions when you came to this country?
FRANK McCOURT: Of New York?
TERENCE SMITH: And of New York, but -
FRANK McCOURT: Oh, God. Gold– that was the main thing, because I sailed in on an October morning, one of those glorious autumn mornings, coming in — that’s before the Verrazano Bridge was built. You sail into the harbor, and Staten Island is on your left, and then you see the Statue of Liberty. This is what everyone in the world has dreams of when they think about New York. And I thought, “My God, I’m in heaven. I’ll be dancing down Fifth Avenue like Fred Astaire with Ginger Rogers.” That was going to be my life.
TERENCE SMITH: How much money did you have in your pocket?
FRANK McCOURT: $50. Less than $50. I had spent some of it.
TERENCE SMITH: And today, a mere 40 years later -
FRANK McCOURT: Yes.
TERENCE SMITH: — it is made of gold.
FRANK McCOURT: It is made of gold, but it took a long time. And what has happened to me is beyond the wildest imagination of any screenwriter, any novelist. It’s certainly beyond my imagination, because I never expected this. I never expected to write a book about a slum in Ireland that was going to catapult me, as they say, into some kind of — onto the best seller list.
TERENCE SMITH: In the excerpt that was published in the “New Yorker” of “‘Tis,” of the new book, you describe going into Tim Costello’s famous Irish saloon.
FRANK McCOURT: Yes.
TERENCE SMITH: Tell me about that.
FRANK McCOURT: Tim was a very famous character, I think, and he was very cranky. And I was just off the boat, practically. And I went in there, and he came out, and I suppose the bartender was gone to the toilet or something — very good. And he said, “You,” he said, “You 18 years old?” Because at that time, you only had to be 18. I said, “I am.” “Well, how would I know that?” And I said, “I have my passport.” And he allowed me to have two beers, two of these little miserable beers they used to serve in those days. “What you do now,” he says, “go to 42nd Street there.
Go west on 42nd Street, and you’ll see two big stone lions. Go between them lions, and get yourself a library card.” And then he said, “Read Samuel Johnson’s ‘The Lives of the Poets,’ and stay away from the Irish dreamers them bunch of bog trotters, these dreaming Micks. Read your Samuel Johnson, and it will give you some strength in your mind.”
TERENCE SMITH: The library was a wonderment.
FRANK McCOURT: Oh, that 42nd Street library. If I had millions and millions and millions of dollars, I’d leave a large portion to the 42nd Street library. That’s why — that was my hangout, the reading rooms, the North and South reading rooms. I’d go there, and my God, I couldn’t believe I had access to all of these books. That was my university.
TERENCE SMITH: You describe, in the excerpt, one of your early jobs, which was at the Hotel Biltmore?
FRANK McCOURT: Biltmore, yes.
TERENCE SMITH: Were you a bellhop?
FRANK McCOURT: No, I wasn’t even — I wasn’t that high in the -
TERENCE SMITH: Too exalted.
FRANK McCOURT: I was a houseman, the lowest. I was just above — in the hierarchy of jobs, I was just above the Puerto Rican dishwashers — just above, so I felt superior to them.
TERENCE SMITH: And you were a houseman?
FRANK McCOURT: A houseman. So I was the one who would go around the lobby, which was a famous place, — it’s often mentioned in Scott Fitzgerald, and writers like that, the Palm Court lobby of the Biltmore Hotel.
TERENCE SMITH: Then you also tell the story, also at the Biltmore Hotel, of your other job there, which was caring for canaries in the cages?
FRANK McCOURT: Oh, canaries, yes. Canaries, yes — in the lobby, and on the 19th- floor ballroom, which they used to turn into a restaurant in the summertime, it was ringed with canary cages. There must have been 60 canaries there. And it was my job to climb up and feed them, water them, clean their cages, look for melancholy canaries. But my social life became so complicated at the time.
I’d stay out too late, and in the morning, when I went in, I wasn’t too interested in taking care of the canaries. Instead of taking care of them, I would take naps. So then I had a three-day — my first St. Patrick’s Day in New York, I had three days off. They were kind to me. In three days I came back, and there was a note on my timecard: “Report to the superintendent’s office, Mr. Carey.” “McCourt, what did you do to the canaries? What did you do to the birds?” I said, “What birds?”
He said, “I’m not talking about the goddamn swallows of Capistrano. I’m talking about 39 canaries, dead in their cages.” But before this happened, I had found them dead in their cages, and I was worried. And so I climbed up, and I glued them to their perches, and this is what he found. I was betrayed by another houseman.
TERENCE SMITH: Dead birds.
FRANK McCOURT: Dead birds.
TERENCE SMITH: Glued -
FRANK McCOURT: On their perches. And I said, “I don’t know what happened to them.” I said, “Maybe they died while I was out.” And he said, “Well, what did they do, get up and glue themselves to their perches?” So that was the end of me in the bird department. Then they put me on banquets, and I was building the daises and the podiums for these big conventions. So there was a lunch one day for an insurance man, big insurance company, and the chairman got up to make a speech, and the platform — I had taken shortcuts with the metal supports — the platform collapsed. He had a heart attack, and he was taken up to the hospital, and he died.
TERENCE SMITH: Oh, yeah?
FRANK McCOURT: I don’t know — if it was nowadays, it would be an $11 million suit. But he died, and Mr. Carey called me back and said, “McCourt, you know, you’re a natural-born killer. Why don’t you get a job as an exterminator?”
TERENCE SMITH: Tell me about teaching in a school like this. This is Stuyvesant — when you were here, this was Stuyvesant High School, which was actually a magnet school, a very -
FRANK McCOURT: This is the jewel in the crown of the New York City educational system. In order to get into in order to get into Stuyvesant, you had to take an exam. There were 700 openings, and I believe 13,000 or 14,000 kids took the exam. So you skimmed the cream.
TERENCE SMITH: But they could be tough, I take it. And what did they think of you?
FRANK McCOURT: Well, they wouldn’t let you get away with anything. You come in, and you have these kids, five classes a day, five days a week. And they see you every single day. And they’re — and by now, at 16 or 17, they are professional psychologists and students of teachers. They know, and they have some instincts. They’re like heat-seeking missiles that go for whatever is vulnerable in you. And they can find it, and they have driven teachers out of the school– not just here, but in other schools.
TERENCE SMITH: We asked McCourt to read an excerpt from his new book.
FRANK McCOURT: “When you’re Irish and you don’t know a soul in New York, you’re walking along Third Avenue, with trains rattling along on the El above, there’s great comfort in discovering there’s hardly a block without an Irish bar. Costello’s, the Blarney Stone, the Blarney Rose, P.J. Clark’s, the Breffni, the Leitrim House, the Sligo House, Shannon’s Ireland 32, the Old Ireland.
I had my first pint in Limerick when I was 16. It made me sick. And my father nearly destroyed the family and himself with the drink, but I’m lonely in New York and I’m lured in by Bing Crosby on jukeboxes singing “Galway Bay”, and blinking green shamrocks, the likes of which you’d never seen in Ireland….”
TERENCE SMITH: Final thought. St. Patrick’s day. It’s different — why do you laugh?
FRANK McCOURT: Well, I laugh — the whole business of St. Patrick’s Day – this is a foreigner who imposed an alien religion on us, but I suppose he brought us civilization and culture. The former governor of New York, Hugh Carey, said of the St. Patrick’s day parade that the Irish march up Fifth and stagger down Third.
That was the stereotype for years ’til they got worried and had to cut out all this drinking in the side streets. When I was a kid in Ireland, there was nothing. It was a Holy Day of Obligation. You went to Mass, and the pubs were closed. It was pretty grim. Now they’ve got all these young American high school students, girls with the short skirts, and it’s disgraceful.
TERENCE SMITH: And you love it.
FRANK McCOURT: Oh, I love it. They all love it. They’ve lightened it up. It’s moving away, in a sense, from the original, like Christmas. St. Patrick, bringing the religion to Ireland, this is what we should celebrate. This is what we did when we were kids. We would wear sprigs of real shamrock on that day, and remember what it was, and sing, “Hail, Glorious St. Patrick, Dear Saint of our isle. On us, thy dear children, look down with a smile.” We did that, and then the rest of it was a holy day. But now, it’s turning into the Fourth of July, practically.
TERENCE SMITH: Frank McCourt, thanks very much.
FRANK McCOURT: Thank you.