August 19th – Frank McCourt

“You might be poor, your shoes might be broken, but your mind is a palace.” 

Frank McCourt

Memoirist Frank McCourt was born on August 19th, 1930, in Brooklyn, New York. In 1934, during the Great Depression and just after the death of his infant sister Margaret, McCourt’s family moved back to Ireland, eventually settling in Limerick, where the family suffered greatly under poverty and their father’s alcoholism. McCourt’s twin brothers, born in 1932, died during early childhood due to the severe conditions of the slum the family was living in. His father went to England to find work when McCourt was 11, but stopped sending money and didn’t return, leaving his mother to try and provide for her surviving four children. McCourt felt obliged to steal bread and milk to help his family, until relatives stepped in. His schooling ended at 13 and he went to work delivering telegrams from the ages of 14-16, then delivering newspapers and magazines while writing debt collection letters in secret on the side. He saved up enough money for a ticket to New York, and at the age of 19 left Ireland. McCourt worked at the Biltmore Hotel, sending money home to Ireland, and in 1951 he was drafted into the Korean War, serving for two years in Bavaria. He used his G.I. Bill to fund an education, convincing New York University to let him in although he had no secondary schooling. He graduated in 1957 with a BA in English and went to teach in New York High schools. In 1967 he earned a master’s degree at Brooklyn College then went to Trinity College pursing a Ph.D, but didn’t complete it. He returned to New York at taught at Stuyvesant High School. 

McCourt was married three times – first to Alberta Small in 1961, whom he met at NYU. They had a daughter, Margaret, and divorced in 1979. In 1984 he married psychotherapist Cheryl Floyd, they divorced in 1989. Then in 1994 he married Ellen Frey, who he met five years prior at a bar in New York when she was 35 and he was 59. He had retired from teaching high school, and Ellen is said to have helped open up his creative side and write his books. 

In 1996 McCourt published his memoir Angela’s Ashes, detailing his childhood. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1997 and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1996. It was released as a film in 1999. 

McCourt wrote two subsequent memoirs,Tis (1999), and Teacher Man (2005), and a Christmas book that was released in both adult and children’s versions Angela and the Baby Jesus.

Frank McCourt died on July 19, 2009 at the age of 78, after being treated for melanoma. 

Lesson From McCourt

McCourt didn’t write his Pulitzer winning memoir until he retired from teaching, and even to earn the right to teach he had to hustle and bargain across the ocean and into college. The years teaching students and getting to know the craft intimately, along with coming to terms emotionally with a troubling childhood prepared his heart and his head for the magic needed to build the palaces he did that not only record history, but provide comfort and inspiration for readers everywhere.

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