“An Evening of Reminiscence, Music, Poetry and Laughter” was promised for the memorial to Frank McCourt held at Symphony Space on Tuesday night, and it was amply delivered. A crowd of more than a thousand jammed the auditorium for an event that spanned two and a half hours and featured a four-part program that covered McCourt’s teaching career in the New York City public schools, his roots in Limerick, his spectacularly productive retirement and the sensation that was Angela’s Ashes.
Introduced by Symphony Space artistic director Isaiah Sheffer--a longtime friend whose annual Bloomsday readings at Symphony Space had been graced by McCourt for 25 years--and emceed by author and good friend Peter Quinn, the event warmed and moved the crowd with good storytelling, video clips, Irish music and dance, and fitting tributes.
Of particular note was New York City Schools chancellor Joel Klein’s announcement that the Frank McCourt High School of Writing Journalism and Literature will open next fall on West 84th Street in Manhattan. A former student and now a bestselling author, Susan Gilman, and former teaching colleague Tom Allon, testified to McCourt’s now-legendary presence in the classrooms. Of course, McCourt’s internationally bestselling memoir about his brutal yet remarkably comic upbringing in Ireland, published by Scribner in 1996, was referenced by many, including the three surviving McCourt brothers, Alphie, Malachy and Michael. The key role of Frank’s widow, Ellen, who challenged Frank to convert his wonderful pub stories into a manuscript, was attested to by several speakers.
Agent Molly Friedrich told of being sent parts of the manuscript by a friend. She said, “When Frank died I received dozens of e-mails expressing sympathy. Many mentioned that I had ‘discovered’ Frank. I did not discover Frank; he discovered me.” Nan Graham, the Scribner editor to whom Friedrich sent 159 pages, told of “loving it immediately,” but worrying about whether its author would be up to a two-week tour. “So he came to our office in a pale blue shirt and a twinkle in his eye and said he was ready to do a 15-year tour.”
And that he nearly did, working tirelessly not only on behalf of his three books, including ’Tis and Teacher Man, but on behalf of a writing community that he supported just as he did his writing students. Peter Quinn quipped that McCourt “never turned down a request for a blurb, and I can see the 347 blurbees out there in the audience right now.” Longtime friend and novelist William Kennedy quoted from Frank’s self-effacing request for Kennedy to provide a blurb for Angela’s Ashes in the spring of 1996, “whether positive or negative it’s no matter, since we have a place for negative blurbs too, just not on the cover of the book.”
The evening concluded with Irish step dancing, music from the musician and musicologist Mick Moloney, and a sing-along led by Malachy McCourt.