Skip to main content

Frank McCourt: A Responsibility To Write

In a 1996 interview, the late memoirist shares richly detailed memories of his Limerick childhood and his adult life in the United States.


Other segments from the episode on July 20, 2009

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 20, 2009: interview with Frank McCourt; Commentary on Walter Cronkite; Interview with Walter Cronkite.


Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
Frank McCourt: A Responsibility To Write


This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. We’re going to listen back to an interview
with the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, Frank McCourt. He died yesterday of
metastatic melanoma. He was 78.

McCourt spent most of his career teaching writing at Stuyvesant High School in
New York, but in his 60s, he decided to write a memoir about his miserable
childhood in the slums of Limerick, Ireland. That book, “Angela's Ashes,”
became a surprise bestseller in 1996. It remained on the bestseller list for
two years and won both a Pulitzer Prize for Biography and a National Book
Critics Circle Award.

McCourt wrote two more memoirs, “'Tis,” about his early years in New York, and
“Teacher Man,” about his experiences teaching. “Angela’s Ashes” was adapted
into a film.

I spoke with McCourt in October, 1996. I asked him first to read a passage from
“Angela’s Ashes.”

Mr. FRANK McCOURT (Author, “Angela’s Ashes”): My father and mother should have
stayed in New York, where they met and married and where I was born. Instead,
they returned to Ireland when I was four, my brother Malachy three, the twins,
Oliver(ph) and Eugene(ph), barely one and my sister Margaret(ph) dead and gone.
When I look back on my childhood, I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of
course, a miserable childhood. The happy childhood is hardly worth your while.
Worse than the ordinary, miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood,
and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.

People everywhere brag and whimper about the woes of their early years, but
nothing can compare with the Irish version: the poverty, the shiftless,
loquacious, alcoholic father, the pious, defeated mother moaning by the father,
pompous priests, bullying schoolmasters, the English and the terrible things
they did to us for 800 long years. Above all, we were wet.

Out in the Atlantic Ocean, great sheets of rain gathered to drift slowly up the
River Shannon and settled forever in Limerick. The rain dampened the city from
the Feast of the Circumcision to New Year’s Eve. It created a cacophony of
hacking coughs, bronchial rattles, asthmatic wheezes, consumptive croaks. It
turned noses into fountains, lungs into bacteria sponges. It provoked cures
galore. To ease the catarrh, you boiled onions and milk blackened with pepper.
For the congested passages, you made a paste of boiled flour and nettles,
wrapped it in a rag and slapped it sizzling on the chest.

From October to April, the walls of Limerick glistened with the damp. Clothes
never dried. Tweed and woolen coats housed living things, sometimes sprouted
mysterious vegetations. In pubs, steam rose from damp bodies and garments to be
inhaled with cigarette and pipe smoke laced with the stale fumes of spilt stout
and whiskey and tinged with the odor of piss wafting in from the outdoor jakes
where many a man puked up his week’s wages.

The rain drove us into the church: our refuge, our strength, our only dry
place. At mass, benediction, novenas, we huddled in great, damp clumps, dozing
through priest drone while steam rose again from our clothes to mingle with the
sweetness of incense, flowers and candles. Limerick gained the reputation for
piety, but we knew it was only the rain.

GROSS: Frank McCourt, thanks for reading that excerpt. I want you to describe
the house that you grew up in in Limerick.

Mr. McCOURT: There were a number of houses. When we first arrived in Limerick,
it was a one-room affair with most of it taken up with a bed. It was about a
half-acre of collapsing bed, and then the rest of it, there was a table. There
were two chairs, which my mother and father sat on it. There was a fireplace, a
small fireplace with two little hobs where you placed – on which you placed the
kettle. And there was – in that particular house, there was a backyard and a
lavatory, and we shared the bed with about a million fleas.

But then we had to move out of there. One of the twins got sick and died there.
So we moved to another place, another room similar to the first one, where
another twin died. Oliver and Eugene were their names.

Then we finally got out of there, and we went to a house in a place called
Roden Lane up in Berryhill near the soldiers’ barracks. It was a house at the
end of a lane. It was called two up, two down, that kind of house: two rooms
downstairs, and two rooms upstairs except these houses had no indoor plumbing
and no backyard. So there was one lavatory for the whole lane, about 11
families sharing this one lavatory, and the lane sloped. So when it rained,
when it rained, a lake formed down at the end of the lane, and of course, we
were down at the end of the lane, and the lake of rain seeped under our door.
We tried everything to keep it out. We used rags, everything, sods of grass,
but the rain came in, and it was so damp downstairs that we moved upstairs. We
called downstairs Ireland, and we moved up to Italy, which was warm, upstairs.
My mother said this is like Italy up here, it’s so warm and dry.

GROSS: Here’s a sense-memory question. What do you remember the smells of your
house as being?

Mr. McCOURT: Oh, there was a general smell of dampness, and I don’t think we
ever noticed that dreadful thing that’s so feared in America called body odor
because if we had, we’d all be dead by now. There was none of that.

The lavatory, when people emptied their buckets, some families were worse than
others. Now I’m going to get very gross and vulgar, but some families were
worse than others with those buckets, especially if we had any kind of a warm
summer. Then that lavatory was foul. That was the overriding smell all through
the house because we were unfortunate enough to have our front door at a right
angle to that lavatory. That was the prevailing smell, and that eventually, I
think, is where I got typhoid fever, from that lavatory.

GROSS: And you spent, what, about 14 weeks in the hospital with typhoid fever.

Mr. McCOURT: Oh yeah, yeah. That in a sense was – that was at the onset of my
adolescence, and in a way, it was a gift because I discovered my first lines of
Shakespeare, and I discovered there the poem “The High Women” and books in
general. I was given access to books.

GROSS: In the hospital, you were expected to die. The priest came to give you
extreme unction. Did you think you were going to die?

Mr. McCOURT: I didn’t know at the time. I was so sick, I didn’t give a damn
whether I died or lived, or lived or died. I had no idea what was going on. I
just knew somewhere – somehow I was aware of the priest over in the corner
saying mass, and I knew that was – something told me this was significant, and
then he came over, and they pulled the sheets down, and they anointed me with
the extreme unction oils. So I think I knew enough. We were good little
Catholics. We were well-trained. I knew enough. I think the nurse told me,
anyway, that I was going to be anointed, and…

GROSS: Well, you were probably used to death. You had already had siblings who
had died.

Mr. McCOURT: Well, we had people all over. Malachy and I used to – my brother –
we used to go to funerals all the time. We belonged to the Death of the Month

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. McCOURT: A funeral was a great form of entertainment. A wake was a great
form of entertainment. I mean, if somebody – we’d wander around the streets. We
had nothing else to do. We were street urchins, and we’d wander around the
neighborhood looking to see if anybody had died. You could tell by a mourning
wreath on the door, on which was pinned a purple-lined memorial, purple-
bordered memorial card announcing the death and so on, and RIP at the end. And
that was the signal for us to knock at the door and say we were very sorry for
your troubles, ma’am, because there was a tradition around that if children
prayed for the dead, the dead were assured, guaranteed, entrance to heaven. So
we were guaranteed entrance to the house to kneel by the bed and say a prayer
for the deceased. They were always kept in the house until they were taken to
the church. There was no embalming, no funeral homes.

So we’d kneel by the side of the bed, and when we were finished with our little
prayers, we could go out to the kitchen, and they’d give us lemonade and
biscuits or lemonade and buns, and then we were sent home, unless it was a
family we knew, and then we’d stay on for the wake, which went on all night,
and then there was Guinness, and there was whiskey, and there was sherry for
the women, and sometimes there was ham and bread. And we’d go around, even
though we were only six or seven years old, we’d go around creeping under
tables and chairs, emptying the glasses, the jam jars and the cups or whatever
was in it, sherry or whiskey or Guinness.

GROSS: How did all the death that you were exposed to and the association
between death and free food affect your feelings about death?

Mr. McCOURT: Well, we prospered. We didn’t mind having somebody die in the
neighborhood if it wasn’t our own family, but we got excited. We’d go to
people’s houses and knock on the door.

Except one time, one of my friends, a kid named Clement O’Hanlon(ph), died of
TB, which we called the consumption. He had been in and out of the sanitarium,
and he was a big, fat kid who shrank away to nothing and then blew up again,
and everybody said well, that’s the end of Clement. You know, when they blow up
like that, that’s the end.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. McCOURT: The healthier you looked, the closer you were to the grave in our
lore, our local lore. So when Clement died, he shrank again. And we went to his
house, and we went in to pray for him, and Mrs. O’Hanlon, his mother, was
weeping and carrying on. And she said - and there he was in the bed, and he
looked all yellow, and he looked like a little monkey, and I was frightened
because I didn’t – that was not the Clement that I recognized, and she says to
me: Kiss him, Frankie, kiss him. Kiss your poor little friend, Clement. I said
oh no, Mrs. O’Hanlon. It’s all right. Come on, kiss him. And I was very
reluctant. So she grabbed me under my shoulders, under the armpits, and pushed
me against him and forced me to kiss him. And I’ll never, as long as I live,
forget the smell of Clement O’Hanlon in the bed, that cold, awful smell, that
smell of rot that you only get from the dead.

GROSS: When you discovered books and got deeper into them, I imagine you
eventually read James Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist.”

Mr. McCOURT: Yeah.

GROSS: And there’s a scene similar to that in there, where he has to kiss the
body of his grandmother, is it?

Mr. McCOURT: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: Did you really relate to that when you read that?

Mr. McCOURT: No, I didn’t remember. I think I put everything out of my head
when I was writing the book. Of course, when I read Joyce, I related to all
kinds of things, especially the religious stuff, which we all suffer from.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. McCOURT: There’s nothing in the world like being an Irish Catholic,
nothing. I can’t – I have Jewish friends who go on about the guilt and all
that. They haven’t the foggiest notion of what guilt is and fear and the rest
of it because the difference between Judaism and Catholicism is – in
Catholicism, we have the grand institution called hell, and if you’ll remember
in “A Portrait of the Artist,” hell is described very vividly. I have never
come across anything like that in Jewish literature, the walls a million miles
thick and the heat a million degrees and so on, and imagine being there a
million, million, million years and so on, and devils chasing you with
pitchforks, ready to ram them up your behind for eternity. Eternity, boys,

GROSS: So do you think of your Irish Catholic childhood as being a particularly
bad one because your family was so poor, or do you think of yourself as being

Mr. McCOURT: Oh, I don’t think it was – well, we were poor, but there was a lot
of poverty around, and ours was desperate. I think on the hierarchy of poverty,
we were at the absolute bottom. There was the added ingredient of my father’s
alcoholism, which a lot of the families were poor, but they didn’t have the
problem, that problem, the alcohol disease that we suffer from because he was
uncertain. He was a crazy man when he drank. He just drank everything. So we
had the Catholicism to poverty and my father’s alcoholism. We were unique…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. McCOURT: …in the annals of poverty.

GROSS: We’re listening back to a 1996 interview with Frank McCourt. He died
yesterday at the age of 78. He wrote the bestselling memoir, “Angela’s Ashes.”
We’ll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: We’re remembering the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Frank McCourt. He
died yesterday of metastatic melanoma at the age of 78. He was best known for
his 1996 memoir, “Angela’s Ashes,” about his childhood in the slums of
Limerick, Ireland. Here’s more of the interview I recorded with McCourt after
the publication of “Angela’s Ashes.”

Your mother used to beg for money, borrow money, get money from charity, and
then your father would accuse her of not having pride because she’d beg for
money. On the other hand, he’d drink all the money she could have had
legitimately. He’d drink that away. What did marriage seem like to you watching
your parents?

Mr. McCOURT: It didn’t seem like much because I had – I think the marriages,
the couples that I knew, the married couples I knew, were always remote from
each other, the husband from the wife and so on, because one of the paradoxical
things, the stereotype of the Irish that – here we are a merry, mercurial,
drinking, singing race.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. McCOURT: The fact is, we were a bunch of petty solemns. We didn’t – we were
not demonstrative like the Italians. That’s one race that I always admired when
I came to New York, the Italians, for their gusto and their lust for life and
the way they demonstrated their affections.

Well, we didn’t. You were not supposed to show any kind of love. I think it was
a kind of weakness. You never saw men embracing each other. You never saw
husbands kissing wives. You never – I saw my father kissing my mother when he
was leaving to go to England, and I was appalled. I thought it was as if they
were copulating right in front of me, although it was all right to go to the
Limerick cinema.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. McCOURT: It was all right to go to the Limerick cinema and see Clark Gable
kissing people and so on. That was all right, but that’s only on the film. And
I thought, when I was nine or 10, they weren’t really kissing. What they do was
got two films and put them together. They slice it and then put them together
somehow in the projector so that they weren’t really kissing because people
wouldn’t do that in public or for a camera.

GROSS: Gee, it must have been hard for you when you came of age.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. McCOURT: You have no idea.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. McCOURT: The things – my innocence when I came to New York was formidable,
epic, that I had to flounder along because – when I became a teacher in New
York, I looked at the kids in my class, high school kids at Stuyvesant High
School, with an easy relationship back and forth, comparing myself with them
when I was a teenager, and I was a pathetic character.

GROSS: Well, you got out at the age of 19…

Mr. McCOURT: 19.

GROSS: …in 1949. Where’d you go?

Mr. McCOURT: I came to New York. That was the only place. This is where I was
born. So I came back here, and I was on a ship, a freighter called the Irish
Oak. They had a small fleet of freighters then, the Irish, and we were supposed
to set sail for – our first destination was New York. Then they told us two
days out we were going to Montreal. Then they changed that to New York again.
Then they changed it again to Albany, and I was very peeved at that because I
wanted to get off in New York City.

So we sailed right into New York Harbor on a gorgeous October morning, and
there was Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty and the skyline beyond, and I was
in heaven. I had seen the skyline so many times in the movies and in books. I
thought I was walking on air. I thought all I had to do now was land in New
York City and go dance down Fifth Avenue like Fred Astaire, and Ginger Rogers
would be waiting for me in Washington Square. That’s all I was going to do for
the rest of my life. The music would play everywhere I went.

GROSS: Well, did you hop off the freighter in Manhattan, even though it was
destined to go into Albany?

Mr. McCOURT: No, I didn’t, went right up to Albany.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. McCOURT: They wouldn’t let us out.

GROSS: So the skyline just passed you by.

Mr. McCOURT: The skyline passed me by, and we were all angry. But the ship had
to dock, because of the tide, in the middle of the Hudson up near Poughkeepsie,
and this is in the book, so I’m not going to say any more about it. A man came
out in a little boat, a putt-putt, and took some of us ashore. We went to a
party in Poughkeepsie, and that’s – my first night in America was heavenly.
There was a party given by a group for women whose husbands were away hunting.
So they had us, me and some of the ship’s officers, and it was a wild night,
thank God.

GROSS: An antidote to the repression.

Mr. McCOURT: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You made it to Manhattan finally.

Mr. McCOURT: Finally, I took a train down, and I met a priest on the ship, and
he helped me find a room, and he helped me find a job. And I wound up working
in a hotel that’s famous in American literature, the Biltmore Hotel, where John
Cheever often has his characters meet under the clock or Updike or J.D.
Salinger. There was that large clock then.

All the Ivy League types would come in to Grand Central on Thursdays, I think
mostly, or Fridays, to have the wild times in New York. You’d have those
Harvard boys and Yale boys, and girls from Radcliffe and Bryn Mawr and so on,
all the golden people, I thought, and I would go around.

My job was to clean up in the lobby with a dust pan and a broom and empty the
ashtrays or so on, and I moved among them, feeling oh, humble – not humble,
feeling humiliated because there were these absolutely beautiful girls whose
legs went on forever and golden hair and so on, God’s chosen, and I promised
myself that someday, I’d have one of them, and I did…


Mr. McCOURT: …unfortunately.

GROSS: Unfortunately, did you say?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. McCOURT: Yeah.

GROSS: Why do you say…?

Mr. McCOURT: The Chinese said be careful what you ask for, you might get it.

GROSS: Right.

We’ll hear the final part of my interview with Frank McCourt in the second half
of the show. He died yesterday of metastatic melanoma. He was 78. His Pulitzer
Prize-winning memoir, “Angela’s Ashes,” was published in 1996. It was adapted
into a film in 1999. From the soundtrack album, here’s Billie Holiday with
narration by Andrew Bennett, who was the voice of the older Frank McCourt. I’m
Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of film, “Angela’s Ashes”)

Mr. ANDREW BENNETT (Actor): (As Narrator) What I needed was a miracle, and it
happened right there, outside the Our Lady of Liberty pub. I looked up at her.
She smiled, but when I looked down, there was a penny.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. BILLIE HOLIDAY (Singer): (Singing) Oh every time it rains, it rains pennies
from heaven. Don’t you know each flower contains pennies from heaven? You’ll
find your fortune falling all over town. Be sure that your umbrella is upside

Trade them for a package of sunshine and flowers. If you want the things you
love, you must have showers. So when you hear it thunder, don’t run under a
tree. There’ll be pennies from heaven for you and me.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross.

We’re remembering the writer Frank McCourt. He died yesterday at the age of 78
of metastatic melanoma. McCourt spent most of his career teaching at Stuyvesant
High School in New York.

But in his 60s he wrote a memoir about his miserable childhood in the slums of
Limerick, Ireland. That book, "Angela's Ashes," became a bestseller and won a
Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Critics’ Circle Award.

I spoke with McCourt in 1996 after the publication of "Angela's Ashes." When we
left off, he was describing arriving in New York City at the age of 19 and
getting a job sweeping the floors at the Biltmore Hotel in Manhattan.

Now how'd you get from doing, you know sweeping and cleaning jobs in Manhattan
to teaching English at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan?

Mr. FRANK MCCOURT (Author): I owe it all Mao Tse-tung.

GROSS: To who?

Mr. MCCOURT: Mao Tse-tung.

GROSS: Oh, Mao Tse-tung?

Mr. MCCOURT: Yeah.

GROSS: Oh. What did he do for you?

Mr. MCCOURT: Well, and there I was in the Biltmore Hotel cleaning up and so on,
and basically miserable because I knew I was better than that, that I could do
other jobs. That I could sit at an office or something like that. But I
couldn’t get anything because I didn't have a high school diploma - the sacred
high school diploma.

I left school when I was 13. Every time I went for a job, oh no you have to
have the high school diploma. You have to have evidence that you're with - that
you had a high school diploma. So I waited and waited and waited. And then I
toiled away with my broom and my dustpan at the Biltmore Hotel till the Chinese
attacked Korea in 1951, or 1950, I think, and America got nervous and turned to
me and drafted me.

And even though there was a Korean War going on, they sent me to Germany and I
spent two years in Germany training German Shepherds to be fierce. And then I -
when I got out of the Army after two - I had a great time in Germany, in
Bavaria. There was loads of beer and a surplus of women. So I had a great time.
And when I got out of the Army I went to back to the - I worked at the docks
for a while and I worked in warehouses, merchants refrigerating and port
warehouses and so on, unloading trucks.

And after that… Then one day I was living in the Village, in Downing Street,
and I used to go to the White Horse Bar and sit there in the afternoon before I
went to work. I used to work the 4 to 12 shift. And I was having a knockwurst
and a beer. And I said to myself, is this what you're going to do for the rest
of your life? And I walked out of the White Horse. I didn't know where I was
going. But you know the energy you get sometimes when you feel embattled?

So I walked out in the sidewalk. I didn't know where I was going. Walked across
the Village, across Washington Square, and there was NYU. And this was pure
serendipity. I walked in and I looked for the admissions office. I applied.
They laughed at the idea of me not having a high school diploma. But I told
them I was literate, that I read books and things like that.

So they let - they admitted me on a year's probation. Mainly because I was a
veteran and I had the G.I. Bill and I got my B average for a year. And then I
was matriculated, and then three more years I was ready to teach high school,
in the high - in the schools of the city.

GROSS: And did you retire thinking that you were going to write? Was that the
reason you did it?

Mr. MCCOURT: Oh, I always knew I was going to write. This is one of the things
that turned me into a schizophrenic, practically. Teaching - teach - I liked
the teaching. I loved it. I had some success some days. But I always wanted to
write this book. For some reason I had a responsibility to my family and to the
people who lived around me.

I felt that I had to convey the dignity of the people - the way that they dealt
with adversity and poverty and their good humor.

GROSS: Now you eventually brought some of your family over to America, didn't

Mr. MCCOURT: They all came.

GROSS: They all came.

Mr. MCCOURT: Couldn’t keep them away.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MCCOURT: I sent - Malachy came after me. I was in the Army when he arrived.
Then he joined the Air Force. This was the best time of my mother's life. We
were up to send her allotments from the government so she was able to move to a
new house in Limerick. She had clothes and food, two bedrooms, and sitting
room, the kitchen, and a backyard. So she was doing very nicely.

Malachy came, then Mike came, then she came - my mother with Alfie. So by 1960
we were all here.

GROSS: How did your mother do in America?

Mr. MCCOURT: She didn't do very well. I don’t think she did. I think she
would've been better off staying in Limerick no matter how bad it is. I thought
she was going to come over here and have one big happy family. But we were all
getting married and she didn't particularly care for any of the women in - that
we married because none of them, and she complained about this, not one of you
married a nice Irish Catholic girl. There's nothing in this family but Jews and
Protestants, Protestants and Jews.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MCCOURT: Every time I cross the floor I'm tripping over little Jews and

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MCCOURT: And then kids would come to you, dad what was Nana doing to me in
the middle of the night, pouring water all over my head?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MCCOURT: Baptizing everybody.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MCCOURT: So she - I think she was looking for one of us to marry a nice
Irish Catholic girl, somebody that she'd have something in common with, and we
never did.

GROSS: So she was unhappy?

Mr. MCCOURT: She unhappy. Yeah.

GROSS: Have you ever gone back to Ireland?

Mr. MCCOURT: Oh yeah. Yeah. Well, I've gone back a number of times, but always
with a chip on my shoulder - a feeling of anger. But I went back in May, and I
was back there a few weeks ago with a German television crew. And I felt - I
got a lot of the stuff out of my system by writing the book and I feel much
more comfortable. As a matter of fact, I’m… Ireland, once you live there you're
seduced by it, by the whole, by the climate and the weather, the hills, the
streams and everything. I've always loved it.

In addition to that, you have a sense of history. You're, everywhere you look
something happened there. Something significant happened in Iris history. And
then I'm haunted by Limerick because I go back there and every street corner
reminds me of something. Every street reminds me of something.

GROSS: Frank McCourt, recorded in 1996 after the publication of his memoir,
"Angela's Ashes." He died yesterday at the age of 78.

Coming up, we remember Walter Cronkite with an appreciation from our TV critic,
David Bianculli and an interview I recorded with Cronkite in 1993.

This is FRESH AIR.
Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
A Look Back At Cronkite's Career In Broadcasting


Ever since the news broke Friday evening that Walter Cronkite had died,
journalists and TV critics have been paying tribute to him.

Our TV critic, David Bianculli would like to add his voice to those tributes
and describe Cronkite's place in TV history. After that, we'll listen back to
my 1993 interview with Cronkite.

DAVID BIANCULLI: There are two types of history to consider when trying to put
CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite into context. There's the history of broadcast
news — CBS News in particular — and there's history itself, especially the
tumultuous 1960s.

Anyone who was alive then, and old enough to care about current events, will
remember when they heard the news that President John F. Kennedy was shot or
that man had landed on the moon. And in the United States, it was most likely
that you heard that news from Cronkite.

He rose to prominence just as TV news itself did. In an age long before the
existence of 24-hour cable news networks, broadcast TV was where people turned
when news was breaking, and more than anywhere else, they turned to Walter

CBS News has a history that is as simple as it is legendary. On radio, the
concept of responsible news reporting was pretty much invented by Edward R.
Murrow, who brought his excellence and passions to television in 1951 with "See
It Now," that was television's first true newsmagazine.

But when CBS launched a 15-minute nightly newscast in 1948, Murrow didn't want
to be bothered with it, so Douglas Edwards took the job. Walter Cronkite took
over in 1962, expanded the newscast to 30 minutes, and was in place to cover
many of the biggest news stories not only of the decade, but of the century.

It was his voice you heard, for example, breaking in to the daytime soap opera
to deliver the first word of President Kennedy's shooting in Dallas.

(Soundbite of soap opera)

Unidentified Woman: And I gave it a great deal of thought grandpa.

(Soundbite of door closing)

(Soundbite of breaking news from Walter Cronkite)

Mr. WALTER CRONKITE (Anchorman): Here is a bulletin from CBS News. In Dallas,

BIANCULLI: That was very moment television became a grownup. For much of the
next several days, TV broadcast nonstop, acting like CNN decades before there
was a CNN. People watched, breathlessly, as the suspected assassin was hunted
and captured — and as he, Lee Harvey Oswald, was shot and killed on live TV
while being transferred by authorities.

TV broadcast Kennedy's funeral, too, and provided a communal way for the nation
to mourn. Even Cronkite, as he delivered the news, got caught up by emotion at
one point — removing his glasses, and clearing his throat, in a moment anyone
who saw it, surely remembers.

Cronkite, explaining his feelings in a documentary profile, remembered it too.

(Soundbite of Cronkite's newscast)

Mr. CRONKITE: Our man, Dan Rather in Dallas reported that...

(Soundbite from Walter Cronkite's documentary)

Mr. CRONKITE: People ask me about my emotions during that day. Well, most of
the day I didn't have keenly felt emotions.

(Soundbite of Cronkite's newscast)

Mr. CRONKITE: ...right before the assassin. A report has it that the man has
been arrested. That he was operating from a second floor window...

(Soundbite from Walter Cronkite's documentary)

Mr. CRONKITE: The only time was actually when I had to announce that the
president was dead officially, that we knew he was gone.

(Soundbite of Cronkite's newscast)

Mr. CRONKITE: ...are meeting there - from Dallas, Texas, the flash apparently
official. President Kennedy died at 1 PM central standard time, two o'clock
eastern standard time, some 38 minutes ago.

(Soundbite from Walter Cronkite's documentary)

Mr. CRONKITE: And I almost lost it there.

(Soundbite of Cronkite's newscast)

Mr. CRONKITE: Vice President Lyndon Johnson...

(Soundbite of Cronkite clearing his throat)

Mr. CRONKITE: ...has left the hospital...

BIANCULLI: In a decade filled with one major news event after another, two
other Cronkite reports stand out, in my memory, above all others. One was his
1968 documentary on Vietnam, when he took a trip, and a camera crew, to assess
the status of the war. He came back persuaded that the best option was to
withdraw with honor — and the power of his opinion, and his platform, was
enough to mark a major political sea change.

Here's Walter Cronkite in the conclusion of that documentary, then commenting
on its impact years later.

Mr. CRONKITE: For it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody
experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate.

(Soundbite from Walter Cronkite's documentary)

Mr. CRONKITE: So we heard that Lyndon Johnson heard this and said well, if I've
lost Walter Cronkite, I've lost Middle America. And the next week he announced
he wasn’t going to run for reelection.

BIANCULLI: Then, in 1969 — 40 years ago — there was Cronkite's coverage of the
Apollo 11 flight, and the first manned moon landing in history. When the lunar
lander touched down, and astronaut Neil Armstrong descended the ladder in full
view of a global live TV audience, Cronkite, once again, let his emotions get
the better of him. But this time, those emotions were sheer joy, and he was
beaming like a little kid.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. NEIL ARMSTRONG (Astronaut): Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed.

Mr. CRONKITE: Oh boy.

(Soundbite from Walter Cronkite's documentary)

Mr. CRONKITE: On the moon landing, I'd had just as long as the space program
had to prepare for that landing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CRONKITE: And Wally Schirra, the former astronaut who was my technical
sidekick, kept asking me, oh well, what - what are you going to say when they
land? I said well, I - I never plan these things but I'll have plenty to say.
It turned out I was almost speechless for the first time in my life.

Mr. CRONKITE: Whew. Boy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ARMSTRONG: We’re going to busy for a minute.

(Soundbite from Walter Cronkite's documentary)

Mr. CRONKITE: What'd I say? Wow.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CRONKITE: Wow. Golly. Wow.

Mr. CRONKITE: Wally, say something. I'm speechless.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WALLY SCHIRRA: Hmm, I'm just trying to hold on to my breath.

Mr. CRONKITE: Armstrong is on the moon - Neil Armstrong.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Standby. We’re just about land now.

Mr. CRONKITE: Thirty-eight-year-old American standing on the surface of the

Mr. ARMSTRONG: That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite from Walter Cronkite's documentary)

Mr. CRONKITE: I think I was as impressed with the television coverage...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CRONKITE: I was with the feat of getting a man on the moon.

Mr. CRONKITE: Boy, look at those pictures. Wow.

(Soundbite from Walter Cronkite's documentary)

Mr. CRONKITE: I guess sometimes I'm a pessimist but I really hadn't expected we
were going to get that clear of a picture from the moon. We were hoping we
would, the technicians told us we were going to, but I was doubtful and there
it was, this great picture.

Mr. CRONKITE: Look at them.

Mr. SCHIRRA: Mm-hmm.

(Soundbite from Cronkite's documentary)

Mr. CRONKITE: I think it was the first time we really knew of the extreme
capabilities of television, that we could get a picture back from the moon for
heaven sakes. I decided, if we could do that, we could do anything.

BIANCULLI: Walter Cronkite was forced to retire in 1981, when Dan Rather took
over. With or without Connie Chung as co-anchor, Rather held the reins until
the appointment of the current anchor, Katie Couric. And that's it, the entire
history of the "CBS Evening News," four solo anchors in more than 60 years.

It's no disrespect to the others to say that Walter Cronkite was the best of
them all, or that, in terms of all of broadcast news history, Edward R. Murrow
stands at the top, then Walter Cronkite, then everybody else.

There will never be another Walter Cronkite because of the fragmentation of TV
audience levels, there can't be, but when Walter Cronkite was the most viewed
news anchor, he also was the most trusted, which is a proud legacy for any
newsman to leave. And that's the way it is.

GROSS: David Bianculli is TV critic for FRESH AIR and TV
Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
Walter Cronkite, The 'Most Trusted Man In America'


I spoke with Walter Cronkite in 1993 after the publication of his memoir.

GROSS: How did you start saying at the end of your broadcast, and that’s the
way it is?

Mr. WALTER CRONKITE (Former Anchor, Evening News, CBS): Well, that was a very
contrived sign off, obviously. And I’m little embarrassed about it today. Dick
Salant - late Richard Salant, who was president of CBS News when I - when we
went to the half hour, hated it and tried to talk me out of it. But being the
stubborn Dutchman I am, I clung to it and it became so much a signature so
quickly that I was not inclined to give it up. But what happened was, when we
went from a half hour to an - I mean from a…

GROSS: 15 minutes to an hour, yeah.

Mr. CRONKITE: …quarter of an hour, yeah, to a half hour, I thought we’d have
plenty of time. Fool that I was, naive as I was, I thought that doubling our
time would give me time to end the piece with the kind of stories I always
liked when I worked for the United Press and Scripts Howard. I like the irony
of fate stories, the little one paragraphs stories or two paragraph stories
that you put under an italicized head somewhere in the front page. And the
little human interest touches. And if I used that kind of story, knowing that
sign off lines were terribly popular in broadcasting and always have worked for
people, I thought maybe I could use one if I could find one that I could say as
a tagline to either a humorous or a pathetic story. I – and you can say, and
that’s the way it is, almost anyway. And that’s the way it is. I mean, you
know, an ironic touch or a satirical touch, doubting touch or, and that’s the
way it is. A sad touch - a regretful touch. And so that’s why I devised the
line and it certainly has stuck.

GROSS: You say you’re embarrassed about it now. Why are you embarrassed?

Mr. CRONKITE: Because I think Dick Salant was right. It - we didn’t get to use
those irony of fate stories. Almost from the beginning of the “Evening News,”
things were so – there was so much news to cover in the half hour allotted to
us, less than that, unless, you know, subtracting commercials and lead ins and
lead outs and so forth. There was so much to cover, we never got those irony of
fate stories in. As a result, we were loading the broadcast with important news
and I was ending up saying, and that’s the way it is. An arrogant line in a

GROSS: Right. That’s how some people saw it, that you were saying, I’ve told
you what the news is and that’s all there is.

Mr. CRONKITE: And not only that’s all there is, but to say it’s all correct.

GROSS: Yeah, right.

Mr. CRONKITE: And as Dick pointed out, we’re not (unintelligible), we make

GROSS: You were the anchor and managing editor of the “Evening News.” When you
became the anchor and managing editor, what were some of the changes you made
or tried to make?

Mr. CRONKITE: Well, I think the most important change was that I insisted on
doing the broadcast from the desk where I worked, so there would not be a delay
in getting from the newsroom to the broadcast location studio. And also, I
would be in control throughout the half hour of the broadcast. The reason for
that was that I really was the managing editor and I did not want to put copy
on the air that somebody had prepared and handed to me. I wanted to see it off
the wires. I wanted to make my own judgment on it before going on the air with

And that was possible if we were in the newsroom operating. They can hand me
the press service copy, the teletypes bringing the press service copy could be
practically at my elbow. And I could have writers and researchers sitting
around the rim of the anchor desk just as they would on a newspaper and I
played it that way.

GROSS: Well, speaking from myself, if I did a broadcast from my office instead
of hearing what I was talking about, listeners or viewers would just be saying
what a mess…

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You must have been under a lot of pressure to keep a pretty neat desk if
you were broadcasting from it.

Mr. CRONKITE: Not really.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CRONKITE: We swept the desk clean about one half minute before going on the
air. My motto was, our deadline is when we leave the air. We changed the
broadcast right through the - to the time I signed off. It very seldom ended up
precisely as we had planned it in advance. It drove producers and directors and
technicians crazy. But that’s the way I believe it should be done. There was no
reason we had to close out the broadcast before we went on the air. If you’ve
got capable people who can handle it on the microphone, on the cameras, in the
control room, there is no reason why you can’t update that broadcast till the
very last second.

GROSS: We’re listening back to my 1993 interview with Walter Cronkite. We’ll
hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: We’re remembering Walter Cronkite. He died Friday at the age of 92.
Let’s get back to my 1993 interview with Cronkite.

Let’s talk about what I think for many Americans was one of your most memorable
moments as a broadcaster and it was shocking moment in broadcasting. I know -
I’m sure you know where I’m getting at. It was the day Kennedy was shot and you
made the announcement on CBS that he was shot and then made the announcement
that he was dead. How did you end up being the one to go on the air?

Mr. CRONKITE: Well, I was the one who carried most of the burden of our
spontaneous or extemporaneous news coverage in those days. I was the anchorman
of the “Evening News” and the - usually the broadcaster of conventions,
elections, things of that kind. So, it would not have been unnatural for me to
do it. But actually the fact was that I was in the newsroom, preparing the
“Evening News” broadcast. We’d - and I was there right when the wires, the
United Press had the beep. Merriman Smith, the White House correspondent for
the United Press got the first break and the bulletin bells rang on the

We all gathered around and there was the news that shots rang out today as
President Kennedy’s motorcade toward the streets of Dallas. Bing, bing, bing,
bing, bing, another bulletin. The motorcade is broken up and it appears it is
on the way to the hospital, President Kennedy may have been hit. And with that,
well, we immediately ordered up the air and went on the air. And we couldn’t
get the camera warm immediately. In those days, we didn’t keep one warm for
those purposes, although after this experience, we did. But they started
warming up a camera and moving it into place in the newsroom. Meanwhile, I went
into an announce booth and went on the air as a voiceover over a bulletin
slide, over a soap opera that on at the time.

GROSS: When you went on to say that Kennedy was dead, your eyes teared. And
that’s something that we’ve seen, replayed so many times on, you know, every
anniversary of the death and, I mean, it’s become one of these historic moments
of broadcasting. Were you concerned about getting emotional on the air? Did you
try to be as emotionless and stoic as possible? And were you concerned when you
realized that your eye was tearing?

Mr. CRONKITE: Well, I wasn’t concerned about my eye tearing. I was concerned
about my voice choking and not being able to speak. And that concerned me quite
a lot. The tearing didn’t matter. I certainly – I didn’t really think about it
except the concern that I wouldn’t be able to get the words out.

GROSS: How close did you come to not being able to get them out?

Mr. CRONKITE: Pretty close, I think. I remember a moment of real terror that I
was going to choke up and fall apart – as it were.

GROSS: As a journalist and broadcaster, did you think it was acceptable to let
some emotion show?

Mr. CRONKITE: Oh yes, I think it is, was then and I think it is now. I don’t
think if one is - happens to be an emotional type and has a little problem with
that perhaps that they should necessarily try to suppress it. I - if -
certainly it could be overdone. I mean, if one were so emotional that every
story broke him up that would be unacceptable, obviously. But to have it happen
once or twice in a broadcasting career is not that exceptional.

GROSS: Walter Cronkite, recorded in 1993. He died Friday at the age of 92. You
can download Podcasts of our show on our Web site, I’m Terry
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.


This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue