Malachy McCourt was always the famous McCourt brother–an actor of some note, a radio talk-show host back in the days when talk radio was an experiment, and an all-around man about town. A tall, husky 66-year-old with a shock of white hair and a penchant for the outrageous (see below), Malachy McCourt cast a huge shadow over his siblings, including a certain high school English teacher and would-be writer whose claim to celebrity was his kinship with Malachy.
Shows you how a best seller can wreck an entire family’s dynamic. “That damn book,” Malachy McCourt growls, in a voice that tells you he doesn’t mean it.
For the past two years, Malachy McCourt has exchanged places with big brother Frank, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Angela’s Ashes and arguably one of the most famous writers in America, if not the English-speaking world. Since Angela’s Ashes hit The New York Times best-seller list 19 months ago, it has been Frank McCourt’s world, and Malachy simply has been living in it. That’s not to say that Malachy begrudges Frank his fame. Far from it.
“Frank thought his book would be a modest success, but I knew it would be huge,” he said, sitting in the book-lined living room of the cavernous Upper West Side apartment where he has lived for 30 years. “Frank’s always been my best friend. Do I feel diminished? No, I don’t.”
But now the younger Mr. McCourt is retrieving a share of the limelight. The cottage industry known as the McCourt family is about to launch yet another new product: Malachy McCourt’s uproarious memoir of his first 11 years in New York, beginning in the late 1950’s. A quarter-million copies of the book, for which the Walt Disney Company’s Hyperion imprint reportedly paid $500,000, will hit the stores in June. In keeping with Mr. McCourt’s sensibilities, it’ll be called A Monk Swimming .
A monk swimming? It’s what a line from a prayer sounded like to Mr. McCourt’s childish ears: “Blessed art thou amongst women.” Amongst women. A monk swimming.
The book is not kind to the Catholic Church, which exerted incredible power in the Ireland of Mr. McCourt’s childhood. While Angela’s Ashes didn’t exactly show the Church in a good light, A Monk Swimming is positively vicious on the subject. Mr. McCourt’s anger toward the Church is rooted in the story his brother told in Angela’s Ashes . “The way the priests treated us, they had no obvious feelings for the poor. We were a bunch of people who’d brought it on themselves. They wouldn’t let us serve as altar boys because we couldn’t afford the clothes,” he said.
An Irish Rebel Such sentiments pretty much rule out Mr. McCourt’s chances of serving as grand marshal of the New York St. Patrick’s Day parade. Not that he would have wanted such an honor, anyway. “I never liked the narrowness and bigotry of the Irish in New York,” said Mr. McCourt, “and from the beginning, I deliberately decided to have nothing to do with them. The Irish think that they are assimilating by stepping on other immigrants. It’s a sad situation for these Irish insurance undertakers, as I call them, these would-be WASP’s. For them, respect is a killer. They are ashamed they were born in bed with a woman.”
Famous for his rapid-fire wit, his strong political views (“Conservatism,” he often says, “is a mental disorder”) and his Anglophobia, Malachy McCourt has been entertaining and infuriating New Yorkers for nearly four decades. Born in Brooklyn, he returned to America in 1952 after his now-famously miserable childhood in Limerick, and soon found himself adopted by the city’s actors and writers, who saw him as something of a successor to another Irish artist, rabble-rouser and wit, Brendan Behan.
First, though, he tried to make a living at whatever came his way. He started as a longshoreman, failed as a Bible salesman on Fire Island (“You can’t sell a product you don’t believe in”), then became an actor, bar owner and gold smuggler.
It was as a barman that Mr. McCourt was introduced to New York’s smart set, circa the late 1950’s. His pub, Malachy’s, was said to be New York’s first singles bar. “Everybody was there, even Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor,” said Jimmy Breslin, who was there, too. “Mostly, I remember the laughing and the big, cold beers. Malachy was the one everybody knew. Then I met Frank and saw him around. But who was he? Malachy was the star. Fuck Frank.”
Thanks to his show-business friends and their appreciation of his stage presence and irreverent wit, Mr. McCourt found himself on national television. He gained notoriety by appearing often, and sometimes drunk, on Jack Paar’s Tonight Show . In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, “Malachy McCourt was famous for being famous,” said one radio host.
After a disastrous marriage failed in the early 60’s and he lost custody of his two small children, Mr. McCourt was desperate for cash. So desperate, in fact, that he agreed to act as a courier for a gold smuggler moving metal from Switzerland to India. Mr. McCourt performed this service six times, strapping 20 kilos of gold to his chest. The most gripping and comic parts of A Monk Swimming have Mr. McCourt lost in New Delhi, looking for his gold contact.
After spending the 1960’s bouncing around the city, he landed a television talk show gig with WOR. That led to a stint in pre-Rush Limbaugh talk radio on WMCA. “It was the first station to bring talk radio to New York,” Mr. McCourt said. “The station was owned by R. Peter Strauss, a pseudo-liberal. The right-wingers always got more air time.”
Mr. McCourt embraced the controversial ideas of the time–he fiercely opposed the Vietnam War and supported decriminalization of drugs and abortion rights. “It was part of the philosophy of the 60’s, but I was a bit raw for AM radio. We were forbidden to say things like ‘fart’ or ‘piss,’ but I would press the boundaries by saying ‘shite’ and ‘feck.'”
During his days at WMCA, he started a campaign to shut down Willowbrook, the notorious state hospital on Staten Island, where his own stepdaughter was living. “I called it the Auschwitz of America. We went to a back ward where there were 80 people. They were lying in their own shit, some were banging their heads against the wall. The only people who made money there were the drug companies, who shipped in massive amounts of sedatives,” he said. Mr. McCourt made radio broadcasts about the conditions at Willowbrook, but they were ignored. Then he, his wife Diana and other Willowbrook parents went to a young television reporter named Geraldo Rivera, and the story blew up in the press. Willowbrook was shut down, and Mr. Rivera’s career took off. “We were called Communists for exposing the conditions there,” said Mr. McCourt.
Gas Crisis At this time, Mr. McCourt was hanging out with a group of boozing Irish-American journalists and writers at bars like the Lion’s Head on Christopher Street. It was the height of the antiwar protests, and Mr. McCourt joined a contingent of writers to a demonstration in Washington.
“A bus picked us up at the Lion’s Head at 2 A.M.,” said Newsday columnist Denis Duggan. Among the passengers were Mr. McCourt, Pete Hamill, Doug Ireland and novelist Joe Flaherty. Things got a bit rowdy on the peace bus–in fact, a fistfight broke out. “We were fueled by booze, rage and liberalism,” said Mr. Duggan. “When we got to D.C. at 7 A.M., we were gassed. Then the National Guard gassed us again. You could say it was a badge of honor.”
Even before the Watergate scandal began to unfold, Mr. McCourt used his radio show to attack Richard Nixon, referring to him as “future former President Nixon.” When Nixon fired special prosecutor Archibald Cox, Mr. McCourt summoned his wit and outrage to create a special moment in the history of live radio. “Where I come from, getting fired is called ‘getting the sack,'” said Mr. McCourt on the air. “Should we call Nixon a ‘Cox Sacker?'”
“Malachy was never afraid to express his opinions,” said Bob Rein, Mr. McCourt’s producer at WMCA. “Just before Watergate, Nixon was very popular. For someone to go on the air and blast the Administration, to blast Vietnam, that was unpopular.” Mr. Rein said he believes that the station tried to muzzle Mr. McCourt, without actually giving him the sack, by scheduling his show on Saturday and Sunday nights.
“The station cringed when Malachy would hit the airwaves,” said Mr. Rein. “The Nixon supporters would call him vile and disgusting on the air, but Malachy’s listeners were loyal.”
Mr. McCourt received hate mail and death threats. “At one point, somebody called me up and gave me the address of the school my children were attending,” he said.
Serial Firings Besides his radio show, Mr. McCourt was again dabbling in the bar business, running a place he called the Bells of Hell, his last and most famous bar. It was a swirling pool of journalists, actors and Irish republican activists. Mr. McCourt, of course, was the star of the place. “At the bar, Malachy was a larger-than-life character, living without fear or modesty,” said Mr. Duggan. “He was Falstaffian. But for all his bluster, he was a caring, kind man who wanted a better life for those around him.”
And he was willing to show that kinder side, even when it cost him. He picketed the offices of WMCA in 1973 when a colleague was, in Mr. McCourt’s view, unfairly fired. That led to Mr. McCourt’s own dismissal. He bounced around other stations, including WBAI, WOR and WABC. “I got fired from all my jobs,” he said, laughing.
In the mid-1980’s, he stopped drinking and joined Alcoholics Anonymous. Friends say Mr. McCourt has mellowed since he stopped drinking, but he is hardly a shell of his former self. Indeed, he appeared on WNET-TV during a recent fund-raising drive and immediately launched into a diatribe against Irish-American conservatives. The telephones lines to the station were burning, all right; not with pledges, but complaints.
“Post-A.A., Malachy is much more subdued, but he still has the ability to surprise you,” said Mr. Duggan. “We were at Gracie Mansion–Frank was getting some award–and Malachy started roaring out critical things about the Mayor. He’s not a fan of any conservative.”
“Giuliani?” asked Mr. McCourt, his eyes narrowing. “He’ll wind up like Nixon. The next few years are going to be a disaster. He thinks to himself, ‘Why did they all vote for me? Why are they doing this to me?’ These driven people are nuts. It is the savagery of the inferiority complex.”
Nobody has ever suggested that Mr. McCourt suffers from such maladies. His bluster is that of a successful man who remembers exactly what it was like when times were not so good.
Ironically, Mr. McCourt seems almost wistful for the days before the success of Angela’s Ashes . “I’m looking forward to the day when Frank and I will be able to spend more time together again,” he said.
Given the wild success of McCourt Inc., he may have to discover the virtues of patience.