Monday, October 10, 2011

Malachy McCourt on Gold Smuggling, Bar Running and Raising Hell



Though Malachy McCourt is famous for being an actor, a memoirist, a storyteller and a gadfly, what he was known for in 1950s and 1960s New York was for being one the city's great bar owners. Malachy ran one of the first singles' bars, and interracial bar in the Village that was destroyed by local Mobsters. His greatest bar may have been the Bells of Hell on 14th Street, where the real drinking went on.
Malachy turned 80 on September 20, 2011. Happy Birthday to a great liberal troublemaker, in the best of senses. Here is my 1998 interview with Malachy, on the cusp of his literary fame:
The New York Observer
March 30, 1998

The Newest from McCourt Inc.

By Dylan Foley
For four decades, Malachy McCourt was the famous McCourt brother, being a fixture on the New York bar scenes and on the TV talk shows as an actor, tavern owner and a talk radio celebrity. His brother Frank changed all that with Angela’s Ashes, his memoir of growing up in desperate poverty in Limerick, which has sold one million copies and has been on the New York Times bestsellers’ list for 18 months.

Frank McCourt’s success has led to a virtual cottage industry of McCourt projects -- Frank’s book is being turned into a movie and Malachy’s own memoir coming out from Hyperion in June. Malachy’s son Conor has also shot a documentary about the four surviving McCourt brothers, which aired on Cinemax on St. Patrick’s Day.


“Frank thought his book would be a modest success, but I knew it would be huge,” said the 66-year-old Malachy McCourt, sitting in the book-lined living room of the cavernous Upper West Side apartment where he has lived for 30 years. Frank’s turn in the limelight, “is the way things are. Frank’s always been my best friend. Do I feel diminished? No, I don’t.”

Famous for his rapid-fire wit, Malachy McCourt had made an early reputation for having a strong grasp and appreciation of the absurd. There is a serious side, though, of this man -- who has stood by his political views at the expense of losing jobs.

Malachy McCourt’s book, A Monk Swimming, covers his first 11 years in New York. Fresh out of the Army, he was a hard-drinking womanizer and barroom brawler. He started as a longshoreman [“the Irish only steal on principle”], 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. He gained fast notoriety by appearing often, and often drunk, on Jack Paar’s Tonight Show. In the fifties, “Malachy McCourt was famous for being famous,” said one radio host.

Malachy’s, a pub McCourt opened the late 1950s, was said to be New York’s first singles’ bar. “Everybody was there, even Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor,” said Jimmy Breslin, New York’s legendary tabloid columnist. “Mostly I remember the laughing and the big, cold beers. He was the one everybody knew. Then I met Frank and saw him around. But who was he? Malachy was the star. Fuck Frank.”

Golden Tours of India

After his disastrous first marriage failed in the early ‘60s and he lost custody of his two small children, Malachy McCourt was desperate for cash. He got involved with a gold smuggler. Eleven times, McCourt trafficked 20 lbs. of gold strapped to his chest from Switzerland to India. The most gripping and comic parts of his book have McCourt lost in New Delhi, looking for a his gold contact.

“Malachy didn’t set out to write a literary effort,” said Dennis Duggan, the Newsday columnist and a friend of McCourt’s for 35 years. “It is a damn good bar story, and I think it will be a bestseller.”

Hyperion is solidly behind A Monk Swimming. The first hardcover run will be 250,000 copies, rare for a first-time author. It is rumored that McCourt received a $500,000 advance for his manuscript.

Though identified as Irish by his brogue and name, McCourt could not stand the established, wealthy New York Irish community. “I never liked the narrowness and bigotry of the Irish in New York,” said 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 WASPS. For them, respect is a killer. They are ashamed they were born in bed with a woman.

“I also call them ‘I.T.’ -- Irish Traitors, who have no idea of human decency and equality.”

In 1970, McCourt got a job as a talk radio host on WMCA. “It was the first station to bring talk radio to New York. The station was owned by Peter Strauss, a pseudo-liberal. The right-wingers always got more air time.” McCourt embraced the controversial ideas of the time -- he was staunchly against the Vietnam War and supported decriminalization of drugs and abortion rights. “It was part of the philosophy of the ‘60s, 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 the Irish ‘shaite’ and ‘feck.’”

During his days at WMCA, he started a campaign to shut down Willowbrook, a notorious mental hospital, 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.” McCourt made radio broadcasts about the conditions at Willowbrook, but they were ignored. McCourt, his wife Diana and other Willowbrook parents recruited a young TV reporter named Geraldo Rivera and the story blew up in the press. Willowbrook was shut down and Rivera’s career took off. “We were called Communists for exposing the conditions there,” said McCourt.

Gassed on the Washington Commons

At this time, 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 during the height of the anti-war protests, and a trip down to a large Washington demonstration was planned.

“A bus picked us up at the Lion’s Head at 2 a.m.,” said Duggan. Among the riders were McCourt, Pete Hamill, Doug Ireland and novelist Joe Flaherty. Things were so rowdy on the peace bus, a fight broke out. “We were fueled by booze, rage and liberalism,” said 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 Watergate began to unfold, McCourt directed his fire at Richard Nixon, referring to him as “future former President Nixon.” In 1973, during the Saturday Night Massacre, where Nixon fired special prosecutor Archibold Cox and several other administration officials, McCourt got in serious trouble over his commentary on the matter.

“Where I come from, getting fired is called ‘getting the sack,’” said McCourt on the air. “Should we call Nixon a ‘Cox Sacker?’”

“Malachy was never afraid to express his opinions,” said Bob Rein, McCourt’s producer at WMCA in the early 70s. “Just before Watergate, Nixon was very popular. For someone to go on the air and blast the administration, to blast Vietnam, that was unpopular.” Rein said he believes that the station tried to stunt McCourt’s radio career by keeping him in the less popular Saturday and Sunday night slots.

“The station cringed when Malachy would hit the airwaves,” said Rein. “The Nixon supporters would call him vile and disgusting on the air, but Malachy’s listeners were loyal. 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.

Besides the radio, McCourt was running the Bells of Hell, his last and most famous bar. It was a swirling pool of journalists, actors and Irish republican activists. The phone company refused to put the bar’s infernal name in the phone book. “One day, Malachy called the phone company, “ said a former republican patron. “I’ve decided to change the name of my bar...I’m going to call it ‘The Bells of Fuck.’”

McCourt was finally fired by WMCA in 1977 when he picketed the station over what he saw as the unfair firing of a colleague. “I did some work on the soap “Ryan’s Hope”... I played a bartender. Nothing stereotyped or cliched in that character.” He also bounced around other stations, including WBAI, WOR and WABC. “I got fired from all my jobs,” he said, laughing.

Big Guns and Poisoned Altar Boys

The advance buzz on McCourt’s book is that it blasts the Catholic Church a great deal. Much of his anger at the Church comes from the way he and his family were treated in Limerick. “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 would let us serve as altar boys because we couldn’t afford the clothes,” said McCourt. The Christian Brothers also literally slammed the door in Frank’s face when he tried to apply to their secondary school, rejecting him for coming from the slum lanes.

In his book, McCourt mocks the hypocrisies of the late Cardinal Spellman, especially his trip to Vietnam to bless the guns used against the Viet Cong. Spellman was the target of an assassination attempt in Saigon, wrote McCourt: “they sent him a poisoned altar boy.”

In the mid-80s, McCourt stopped drinking, going to Alcoholics Anonymous. “At the bar, Malachy was a larger than life character, living without fear or modesty,” said Duggan. “He was Falstaffian. But for all his bluster, he was a caring, kind man who wanted a better life for those around him.”

“Post-A.A., Malachy is much more subdued, but he still has the ability to surprise you,” said 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 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.”

At times in his long career, McCourt has been labeled a “stage Irishman.” “If people don’t understand a situation, they slap a label on you,” responded McCourt. “I don’t take myself too seriously, but I take my causes seriously. I find myself moving further to the left all the time.”

Over the past few years, McCourt has had roles in various films, including “The Devil’s Own” and “She’s the One.” He has also played an Irish terrorist on “One Life to Live.” He is also restaging “A Couple of Blaggards,” the two-man play he and Frank wrote in the 1970s.

“I am now vastly unemployed,” he said. “Maybe I’ll write another book.”

Part of McCourt seems wistful for the days before the success of Angela’s Ashes. “I am also looking forward to the day when Frank and I will be able to spend more time together again.”

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