Remembering Frank Conroy

By Michael Sihksnel, Contributor
June / July 2005

1936-2005

Irish-American author of the classic coming-of-age memoir Stop-Time, Frank Conroy died of colon cancer this April. He was 69 years old.

Conroy, who was in charge of the Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa for 18 years, was honored this year by Irish America in its annual Top 100 for his work with the program. Under his guidance, acclaimed writers such as Z.Z. Packer and Nathan Englander came to fruition, and the workshop has produced a dozen Pulitzer Prize winning graduates.

Conroy was born January 15, 1936 in New York City. His father, Phillip, left when he was just a boy, and Conroy was primarily raised by his mother Helga, a Danish immigrant, and stepfather Guy Trudeau. He attended Stuyvesant High School and graduated from Havefiord University in 1958.

He quickly became a regular at Elaine’s, a popular bar among the established and aspiring literary scene, and caused a bit of a ruckus as people did not know who this “brash young kid” was. Conroy quickly put those thoughts to rest when Stop-Time was released. Although it sold only modestly at first, he become one of the few authors commended by both Norman Mailer and William Styron, which catapulted Conroy to literary celebrity.

However, Conroy took an 18-year break between publishing books. He supported himself during this time by writing magazine articles and playing piano in jazz clubs. After the breakup of his first marriage to Patty Ferguson, he moved to Nantucket where he worked as a scallops fisherman and jazz pianist.

His teaching career began as a fluke, when he was a last minute replacement at the University of Iowa. After numerous teaching jobs at different universities, and a stint as the director of the literature program at the National Endowment for the Arts, he returned to the University of Iowa in 1987, as the director of the Writers Workshop, where he was the first and only candidate for the position.

His students have repeatedly brought up his sympathy and regard for the writing craft, and believe that is what made him such a great teacher. Journalist and friend, David Halberstam, said about Conroy, “he was so wounded himself, he had a very good sense for wounds in other people. He knew what a frail business this being a writer is.”

Conroy also mastered the art of jazz, and won a Grammy Award in 1986. He recalled in his essay collection, Dogs Bark, but the Caravan Rolls On, how he played with legend Charles Mingus. His writing has appeared in such publications as The New Yorker and GQ. He is survived by his first and second wives, and his sons Daniel Hand, Will Christian, and Timothy Peabody. ♦

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