FRANK MISSES FRANK
At the time, I was only vaguely aware of Angela’s Ashes and had not gotten around to reading it. I mean, who couldn’t be aware of the existence of a book with such a catchy title? To tell the truth, I didn’t even realize it was a memoir. Hmmm…a book about somebody’s ashes…was it perhaps some ghoulish tale about witchcraft?
Then I was forced to read it. Well, not forced, but I just had to.
Because I found out I was going to spend a week with the chap who picked up a Pulitzer Prize for writing Angela’s Ashes – Frank McCourt.
Now, here’s where I must ask you to pay attention. My time with Frank McCourt was to be on a week’s cruise on which he was to be a “special guest” and speaker.
But, here’s the thing: It was not a humongous cruise ship where I was to be one among a cast of thousands. Instead, it was on the famous Sea Cloud sailing ship with a capacity of just over 50 passengers. Indeed, I spent a great deal of time with McCourt, dining at the same table with him most of our nights, and hoisting a number of “pints” with him while standing at the ship’s solitary bar.
We became fast friends.
In fairness, it was somewhat predictable because he was on the lookout for me. A charming lady named Annemarie Victory who does a marvelous job of arranging author cruises on the Sea Cloud – more about the ship and Annemarie in a moment– told Frank McCourt all about me and even sent him one of my books.
Frank McCourt was a published author and so am I, and my wife says we resembled each other physically. But that’s where the similarity ends.
The differences are vast. For openers, I’m still working on my first Pulitzer Prize! (Don’t worry, I’ll keep you posted – you’ll be the first to know but I wouldn’t be afraid to leave town). For another, Frank’s memoirs and my thrillers are as different as oil and water. I mean anybody with a compelling personal story to tell has to have a leg up on a fiction writer who has to rely on imagination for content, right?
When I got to know Frank, despite having sold millions and millions of books, he had just been through some frustration as a writer. He told me he had worked for a year on his first novel (as opposed to his series of memoirs, “Tis and Teacher Man, which followed Angela’s Ashes). He said he let the new book rest for thirty days after completing it, went back and re-read it, and promptly tore it up in disgust.
But I wondered why he even tried it. Frank, who lived the agony he described in Angela’s Ashes commands such respect for going through it all and the accolades for such a stellar job of telling it. So his attempting a novel instead of the memoir genre with which he had such smashing success seems to me analogous to Phil Mickelson deciding to play next year’s Masters tournament right handed.
Back to the Sea Cloud and the classy Annemarie Victory, she’s Austrian and was a downhill skier back in the day. She has a connection with the owners of the Sea Cloud, books the entire ship, and then packages cruises, often with authors. The ship, built in 1931, was Marjorie Merriweather Post’s and E.F. Hutton’s private 300 foot long sailing yacht. We boarded in Venice and sailed the Adriatic and Mediterranean to Malta. We didn’t “sail” every day but the days we did were special and everyone came on deck to watch the crew rig the huge rectangular canvasses.
As wonderful as the Sea Cloud voyage was with my wife and four other couples, its true highlight was the beginning of my friendship with Frank McCourt. We talked at great length about the craft of writing. He explained that he patterned his punctuation-free dialogue after his writing hero, James Joyce. He explained many other things about writing but there’s not room for all of it here.
Mainly, we just enjoyed each other on personal level and kept in touch until his death four years ago this week. His delightful wife, Ellen, was with us on the trip and she was a treasure to Frank. He told me often how blessed he was to have her in his life.
So, on this anniversary of his death, this Frank misses the far more famous Frank. I have included a picture of us together at the bar lifting a “pint” (actually a glass of champagne).
We lifted numerous “pints” that evening which was the one the Sea Cloud chose to have a little musical combo on deck. They played popular tunes and when they for some reason launched into Let me Entertain You from Gypsy, my man, Frank McCourt, launched into an impromptu male strip tease.
Oh, he didn’t get very far – he stopped himself; no one else had to – but he brought the house down and provided a warm memory for me which I enjoy to this day.