Despite the fact that she was about to become a millionaire, Mary continued on to school that night (graduating summa cum laude in 1979, with a B.A. in philosophy.) “I had three classes that night and all I did was write ‘a million dollars’ in roman numerals across the page. Later, as I got in my car to go home — it was 11 o’clock and I had 146,000 miles on the car — the muffler fell off. I tried to tie the damn thing up with the belt of my jacket. And of course it fell off again just as I was getting on the West Side Highway, so for 21 miles I hear ‘cerplunk, cerplunk’ the whole way home while other drivers beeped at me and waved at me. Did they think I was too stupid or that I didn’t hear the racket? The next morning I bought a Cadillac.”
Mary’s advice to young writers is not to give up. “There are people who have a talent for writing, and people who have a need to write. And when you have a need to write you won’t give up.”
Not giving up is something she has applied to life, not just to her writing. She has had more than her share of knocks. Her father, an immigrant from Roscommon, who owned a popular bar in the Bronx, died when she was 11. Her oldest brother enlisted during WWII and died shortly after shipping out. Her first husband, Warren Clark, whom she’d known since she was a child, suffered a heart attack and died in his 40s leaving her with five young children.
“You have to keep going,” she says, “especially when you have children.” She cites the example of her mother who after her husband died, turned the family home into a boardinghouse. (Mary writes eloquently about all of this in a heartwarming memoir called Kitchen Privileges.)
It was her mother, a first-generation American with Irish parents who encouraged Mary to write. “Oh, I wrote my first poem when I was six. And of course it was terrible. I still have it on a yellowing sheet of paper. She thought everything I wrote was wonderful. And she’d make me recite it for the relatives when they came. I wrote skits and I’d have my brothers perform. And I wrote plays for the neighborhood kids. I was always writing.”
After high school Mary took a secretarial course and found a job in advertising. Her descriptions of this time could have won an Emmy for the TV series Mad Men, but despite the tough working environment, it proved a good start. Or perhaps Mary was becoming adept at turning lemons into lemonade.
“It was a blessing as it turned out. Because I worked as a secretary at eighteen to the creative director of the agency. So I was in all the meetings taking notes about why this campaign worked, why this caption worked, why the inside front cover of Life was the best buy, so I had a three-year tutorial in advertising. Served me very well when I went to work at the radio show.”
In between the advertising firm and the radio show, Mary worked as a Pan-Am airline stewardess for a year. She retired when she married, but when her husband died in 1964, she worked for many years writing four-minute radio scripts.
When she’d married Warren, she started writing short stories, and she continued to write every chance she could get after he passed away, which often meant getting up at five o’clock in the morning and writing for an hour or so before getting the children off to school.
“As soon as Warren and I came back from the honeymoon, I said I’m going to be a professional writer and I started taking a writing course at NYU. And my professor taught me everything I needed to know about writing. After two weeks he said, I want all of you in with a short story next week. And I looked at him and he said ‘Mary, you’ve been a Pan-American hostess. Take the most dramatic incident that occurred when you were a flight hostess, ask yourself two questions: Suppose? And what if? And turn it into fiction. And since then I still do suppose and what if. And I still do why.
Because there’s going to be a guilty party, a murderer or somebody who’s committed a major crime. Well who’s the why? Four people might’ve done it. One was psychotic enough, angry enough, vengeful enough to go over the line and commit that crime, take that life. So of the four who might have done it, only one would have done it. So I’ve been doing that ever since.”
Stowaway, the short story she wrote about a stewardess who finds a stowaway from Czechoslovakia, received 40 rejection slips. “It went out 40 times before it sold six years later,” she recalls.
She also remembers that at one time she had 11 short stories in the mail and received 11 rejection slips. In one of them the editor from Redbook had written “Ms. Clark, your stories are light, slight and trite.”
“I thought, I’ll get you, baby. I will get you. Later on when Redbook requested a story I said to my agent, ‘Make them pay.’”
These days Mary is counting her blessings, and rejection slips are long a thing of the past. On St. Patrick’s Day, 1996, her daughter Patty introduced her to John J. Conheeney, the retired CEO of Merrill Lynch Futures, who was a widower. They married the following Thanksgiving.