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Author Frank McCourt Dead at Age 78

Frank McCourt, the retired high school English teacher who became a best-selling memoirist, liked to say he had disproven F. Scott Fitzgerald's adage about there being "no second acts in American lives."

McCourt, who had been gravely ill with meningitis after recently being treated for melanoma, died Sunday afternoon at age 78. He is best known for the first of three memoirs, "Angela's Ashes," about surviving an Irish childhood of near-starvation. It won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1997 and was turned into a movie in 1999 starring Emily Watson as McCourt's long-suffering mother, Angela.

As McCourt put it, "I refused to settle for a one-act existence: the 30 years I taught English in various New York City high schools."

He was born in New York in 1930 to Irish immigrant parents, but his alcoholic father couldn't make a go of it in the Depression. The family returned to Ireland and settled in a Dickensian neighborhood of Limerick. Unable to keep a job, his father drank the dole money, leaving Frank's mother livid and the children hungry. (In a family of seven children, three died.)

In a 1998 interview with USA TODAY, McCourt couldn't explain "Angela Ashes' " popularity, only repeat what readers told him: that it helped them understand family alcoholism, or it was a triumph over adversity, or "they like the writing; some go on about the Irishness."

His second book, " 'Tis' (1999), picked up with McCourt, at 19, returning to New York, joining the Army and becoming a teacher and barroom raconteur. He later said the book left him with the nagging feeling that "I'd given teaching short shrift."

He called it "the downstairs maid of professions" and tried to turn his classroom stories into a novel but instead ended up with a third and final memoir, "Teacher Man" (2005).

He was 66 before he published a book. What took so long?

"I was teaching, that's what took me so long," he wrote. "Not in college or university, where you have all the time in the world for writing and other diversions, but in four different New York City public high schools."

He would cite novels about professors "so busy with adultery and academic infighting you wonder where they found time to squeeze in a little teaching." But when you teach high school classes all day, he said, "you're not inclined to go home to clear your head and fashion deathless prose. After a day of five classes, your head is filled with the clamor of the classroom."

His books turned him into a celebrity, or as he put it, "the mick of the moment." He was even paid to go on cruises.

"I watched him sign his name in thousands of books," said Patricia Eisemann, former publicity director of Scribner, McCourt's publisher. "But of all the people who came to the readings, he was happiest when he'd hear, 'Hello Mr. McCourt,' and he'd look up and find a former student. That's when his ever present smile grew wider." In 1999, at a book party for " 'Tis," he said he was having the decade of his life - at 69.

That, he added, was a good thing: "If all of this had happened to me in my 30s, I'd be dead by now from all the whiskey and all the fornication. I'd be in a state of paralysis."

Instead, he split his time between an apartment in Manhattan and a farmhouse in Connecticut and frequent appearances at libraries and colleges.

In 2007, he published a children's book, "Angela and the Baby Jesus," about his mother at 6, taking the baby Jesus from an outdoor creche because she thought he looked cold.

McCourt is survived by his third wife, Ellen, and a daughter from his first marriage, Maggie, as well as three brothers, Alphie, Michael and Malachy, an actor who wrote his own memoir, "A Monk Swimming." Frank and Malachy also wrote and performed a musical revue, "A Couple of Blaguards."

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