“On St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 2011, as the parade goes up Fifth Avenue I will be thinking of the father who came over with five pounds in his pocket and who died when I was only eleven, the mother who encouraged my dreams of being a writer by treating every word I wrote as though it was scripted by the angels, the brothers I loved so dearly and lost so young, the Irish ancestors I never knew who sent their children to seek a better life knowing they might never see them again. They’ll all march with me.”
That is how Mary Higgins Clark, the 2011 Grand Marshal of the New York City parade, the largest in the world, wants to think about this upcoming St.Patrick’s Day as she heads the grandest parade in the world.
On the morning that we meet, at her apartment overlooking Central Park, Mary Higgins Clark had just returned from a television appearance on Fox where she took questions about her new book out in April called I’ll Walk Alone, a thriller based on identity theft.
“I often use song titles, or a line from a song, as my book titles,” she tells me. “And I loved ‘I’ll Walk Alone’ when I was a young teenager during the war. [The war] started when I was thirteen, I never hide my age, it’s useless and unnecessary. But those four years, from the time when I was thirteen to when I was seventeen, that was one of the favorite songs. ‘I’ll walk alone/ because to tell you the truth/ I’ll be lonely/ I don’t mind being lonely/ When my heart tells me/ you are lonely too/ I’ll walk alone . . .’”
On March 17, Mary will certainly not walk alone. As Grand Marshal she will lead the St. Patrick’s Day Parade up Fifth Avenue on the occasion of the parade’s 250th anniversary. In fact, Mary will not walk, she will ride in style, in a horse and carriage.
This is the first time in the history of the parade that the Grand Marshal will not walk the entire length of the parade route, some 40 blocks. Mary, who though she is in fine fettle at 83, told the parade committee that she just couldn’t walk that far. “Look at my ankle,” she says showing me her swollen ankle joint. “I broke it 50 years ago ice skating with the kids and it never healed properly. Twenty years ago I had a triple bone fusion by the doctor who invented the process, only he hadn’t read his own book. It was a horrible job so I went for five years, then I had it done again.”
The committee offered her a golf cart (automobiles are not allowed in the parade) but she suggested another alternative that she thought would be a tad more glamorous. “I said, why don’t you get a horse and carriage? I thought it was appropriate with the 250th anniversary, and they liked the idea.”
The St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New York City has often come under fire from gay activists who want to march under their own banner. As far as Mary is concerned, and she is not without her gay friends, the parade is about Irish pride, not gay pride.
“Catholicism is very much a basis for the way I live and think. [But when it comes to the St. Patrick’s Day Parade] I am not marching as a heterosexual. I don’t see any reason [for people to march] specifically under a gay banner. I don’t think it’s necessary. It [the controversy] takes away what the parade is about, which is a celebration of the Irish – their culture, their achievements, and their struggles. That’s what the parade is about: Irish pride.”
Those who are close to her know that Mary’s Irish pride is never far from her heart. On television that morning she told the host Greg Kelly, co-host of Fox and Friends, and the son of last year’s Grand Marshal NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly, that while others could judge whether she is a writer or not, she was proud to call herself “an Irish storyteller.”
And as a storyteller, Mary Higgins Clark has found great success. She is the best-selling author of more than 40 books – sales in the U.S. alone number over 80 million copies. (Her books are also bestsellers in France.) Ten years ago, in 2000, her $64 million record-breaking five-book deal with Simon and Schuster made publishing history.
Mary remembers her first million-dollar deal. “It was 1978. And my agent called right as I was leaving work to go to Fordham [University] and she said, ‘Mary, are you sitting down?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Simon and Schuster is offering you $500,000 for the hardback and will offer a million for the paperback. Think about it.’ I said, ‘Think about it? Are you crazy? Say yes!’”
Back then Mary was writing radio shows that enabled her to take care of her five young children when her husband died, and putting herself through college at night. Three years earlier she had received $3,000 from Simon and Schuster for Where Are the Children? when other publishers had turned it down. And now, the same publisher was offering her a million dollars for her second suspense novel, A Stranger is Watching.