On Friday, July 24, 2009, I attended “A Celebration of Frank McCourt,” a tribute held at the Avram Theater on the campus of Stony Brook Southampton, during the Southampton Writers Conference. I had attended the Conference the past three summers, and was lucky enough to have been in Frank’s Memoir Writing Workshop in 2007 (a future post will be forthcoming on that experience).
The latest edition of The Southampton Review (pictured here, the literary magazine published by Stony Brook Southampton MFA program in Literature and Creative Writing) honors Frank McCourt, who passed away on Sunday, July 19, 2009. Contributors to this special edition include: Alan Alda, Malachy McCourt, Alphie McCourt, Colum McCann, W.S. Merwin, and Roger Rosenblatt, and many others. This keepsake issue also contains several pieces written by Frank. Individual photos of Frank and each member of his 2007 Memoir Writing Workshop also grace the pages, of which I am one of the fortunate fourteen.
The evening featured remarks by friends, colleagues, students, and Frank’s youngest brother, Alphie McCourt.
Roger Rosenblatt said Frank was “the centerpiece of our writing program.” Bob Reeves said it is “impossible to overstate Frank’s importance to the MFA program,” and regarding Frank’s passing, “our hearts are broken.”
Alan Alda spoke about his experience of taking Frank’s workshop in 2005, along with actress Anne Bancroft; that Frank’s advice included trying to “find the hotspots” in one’s life to write a memoir. Alan said, “Frank was one of the hotspots of my life.” In conclusion, Alan said, “Wasn’t it glorious that we had him? ‘Twas.”
Laura Sillerman (who, along with her husband, Robert, generously host several authors during the conference each summer at their beachfront home) read a poem by Hafiz:
The small man
Builds cages for everyone
While the Sage,
Who has to duck his head
When the moon is low,
Keeps dropping keys all night long
Laura said, “Frank was the dropper of keys for anyone who wanted to write; how lucky we were to be the rowdy prisoners of his charms.”
Matt Klam shared a story Frank once told about delivering a telegram to a nun when he worked for the Post Office at age fourteen. When she opened the door, he noticed lace knitting. He thought he would compliment her, so he asked if she knitted the lace herself. “Yes,” the nun replied, “with these hands that never touched the flesh of man.”
Poet Billy Collins said that one summer evening at the Sillermans, Frank was getting poetic about the sunset. Billy told Frank, “That’s my territory! I’m the poet here; forests, clouds, mountains, streams…you stick to your misery.”
Lou Ann Walker, the Editor-in-Chief of The Southampton Review, spoke of how colleagues, students, family and friends of Frank’s prepared pieces in a short time frame to create this special issue to honor Frank. “Anything for Frank,” they responded.
Alphie McCourt (pictured on stage) shared heartfelt personal stories about his oldest brother, and remarked, “So many heroes in movies and TV are named Frank,” and that “Frank was our hero.”
Meg Wolitzer, Ursula Hegi, Kaylie Jones, and Melissa Bank read excerpts from Angela’s Ashes. Susan Jane Gilman, Sande Berger, and Kathy Lynch read their contributions in The Southampton Review. Susan was a student of Frank’s at Stuyvesant High School who inspired her to become an author.
Regarding Frank’s storytelling, Colum McCann said, “Step into his stories and you don’t want to step out.”
Throughout the evening, we were treated to photographs, videos, and music celebrating Frank’s life. One of my favorite clips was of Frank reading an excerpt from Angela’s Ashes (when at age fourteen, he got caught wearing his dead grandmother’s dress as he waited for his clothes to dry). Throughout the reading, Frank kept breaking up, laughing. I witnessed those precious moments when they occurred last summer; we howled right along with him.
Frank’s beloved wife, Ellen, attended this special event, and I had the opportunity to express my condolences. We had met several times during the past two conferences. A heartwarming piece by Jim Dwyer appeared in the New York Times on July 26, 2009, featuring how Ellen met Frank and her role in persuading Frank to write Angela’s Ashes. My heart goes out to Ellen, the entire McCourt clan, his “family” at Stony Brook Southampton, his friends, students, and the millions of fans around the world who adored him.
If you are interested in obtaining a copy of the Frank McCourt tribute issue of The Southampton Review, you can order one here.