The oldest living resident of New York died recently at age 111 and in a New York Times article only months earlier, she told the reporter that she had kept her mind alert by reading Agatha Christie and Mary Higgins Clark.
A Higgins Clark novel keeping someone alive? Usually someone dies in the first few pages, but once you pick up a Higgins Clark book it’s impossible to put it down (or it seems, die) until you’ve found out who done it, and as often as not, it’s not who you think it is.
Higgins Clark is one of the most admired and popular writers alive today – her novels frequently top the best-selling charts. She is also one of the highest paid authors. But it wasn’t always so.
Mary always wrote, but the untimely death of her husband, Warren, made selling her work a necessity in order to support her five young children. Every morning she got up at five and wrote until seven, when she had to get the kids ready for school. She supported her family writing short historical clips for radio and flooded the publishers’ offices with her short stories. She received lots of rejection letters but her stories finally started appearing in popular magazines, and in 1975 her first suspense novel, Where Are the Children? became a bestseller. Some 40 novels later, Higgins Clark is still keeping readers on their toes.
“The Irish are by nature storytellers,” says Mary, whose father was an Irish immigrant from Co. Roscommon and whose mother was first-generation American. She considers her Irish heritage an important part of her life and will serve as Grand Marshal of this year’s New York St. Patrick’s Day Parade. “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,” she wrote in a foreword to her recently re-released memoir Kitchen Privileges.
Mary, whose many honors include the 1997 Horatio Alger Award, numerous honorary doctorates, and the Grand Prix de Literature of France, is married to John Conheeney, a retired Merrill Lynch CEO whom she met on St. Patrick’s Day, 1996. When she is not writing, she likes to spend time with her children and grandchildren. “I have five children and six grandchildren. John has four children and eleven grandchildren. People say we must have great reunions. My answer is, we don’t need them.
We see the children and grandchildren all the time. Most of them live within a few miles, none more than 45 minutes away. But on the big holidays, we’re all collected in our home in Saddle River, New Jersey along with nieces and nephews. We doubled the size of the kitchen/family room so we can set tables for forty with room to spare.”
I sat down with Mary at her apartment in Manhattan in early February. And talk quickly turned to her writing. Her latest novel is I’ll Walk Alone, which will be in stores in April.
Do you write every day, what is the process?
The process is sloppy. Between now and April [when l’ll Walk Alone hits the stores] I don’t write. A, I’m exhausted. B, I want to give my brain a clearing. But I will start the next book by April. In the meantime, I might be writing down ideas, I will do biographies of characters. I’ll give them names and then they often change, because ‘he’ doesn’t look like a Jimmy, he doesn’t sound like a Jimmy. I have pages of notebooks and a bunch of outtakes from other books that I’ve kept because someday I might do a factual book on writing the novels from conception to publication.
You describe yourself as an Irish storyteller.
Yes. I’ll leave it to other people to decide whether I’m a writer or not. What I am is an Irish storyteller. And another thing, I love to go to parties. I’ve said that I’d climb out of my casket to go to my wake. The other thing I’ve said is be sure to put a big spiral notebook, a couple of pens and a glass of wine into the casket with me because I’d miss not writing.
Do you believe in an afterlife?
Of course I do. How can anyone think this all stops? I don’t know what it is but I know there’s a God and his plan is there. And I do think there is perfect peace and perfect happiness [in the afterlife]. I believe in it. I absolutely do.
Does that come from your Catholicism?
Oh sure, my Catholicism is very much a basis for the way I live and think.
Tell me a bit about growing up.
My father had a bar and he worked hard to make it successful. He used to leave at eleven in the morning and come home at five for an early dinner, and then go back to the place. The only night of my life I remember him being home was the night he died. He came home with chest pains and he didn’t say anything but he leaned against the fireplace, which was typical when his chest pains were bad, to put his arm over the mantel. And he died in his sleep that night.
We lost that middle-class security that we had, with my father dying at 54. My mother was the same age and she had three kids, my brother Joseph was 12, I was 11 and Johnny was 7 and she had $2000 and no other money. So that’s when we moved downstairs. For the next five years we had boarders. We had a couple evading bankruptcy, they had had a car dealership and it folded; another guy working on his PhD, and a teacher who couldn’t afford an apartment so she had a room. She tried to teach me the piano but I was lousy at it. I’d ask her to tell me about her boyfriend Howard who had come home from the war and was in a nursing home. His lungs were gone. She always cried when she told me the story.
Your mother encouraged your writing.
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.
Whenever I speak to parents or teachers I always say, “see where the creativity is, whether it’s a drawing, a poem or a little skit, praise it to the skies. Because in the case of the writer, the editors will be happy to tell you how lousy you are later on.”
My mother would’ve thrown herself across the tracks for the three of us but she adored my brother Joseph, the firstborn. I found something that she wrote, a sort of journal that she kept. And in it she wrote, “I never left Joseph that first year, he was the most beautiful baby. I was so afraid he’d slip away. The other two had allergies.” So much for the other two! But then my brother [Joseph] died at 18. He was only six months in the Navy and he got viral meningitis. I remember she said, “God wants him more than I do.” And six months later when I graduated from high school she said, “Joseph had a party last year. You’ll have a party.” So she took off all the heavy mourning and had a party for me.
She was 81 when she died. Her two sisters lived for much longer. They were in our house all the time when I was growing up. That’s where I got the Irish stories. They’d sit around the table with endless cups of tea and it would be, “Oh remember when this one...” or, “Oh poor darling, no wedding dress…” and “She could have had anyone and she married that one.”
My first book, which was about George Washington, was published a few months before my mother died, so she got to see that, which was wonderful.
And she was there for you when your husband Warren died.
Warren was 45, I was 36, when he suffered a heart attack and died. My mother-in-law dropped dead when she saw Warren was dead. She said, “I do not want to survive my son.” They took the bodies out and then the funeral director came back to the house and I was picking out shoes for Warren. My mother said, “Mary, it’s a half-casket [viewing], you don’t need shoes. Someone else could use them.” I said, “Mother I’ll buy them a goddamn pair of shoes if I have to, but I’m putting shoes on Warren.”
You have to see the humor in a situation. And you have to carry on. You don’t have a choice when you have children. I had five children. Also Warren was funny, he was not just witty; he was funny and witty. And I wanted to keep that spirit alive in the house.
And you found love again.
I was very blessed. Fifteen years ago on St. Patrick’s Day, John and I met. As I say, I had a prince at the beginning and a prince at the end.
John had retired as Chairman of Merrill Lynch Futures. And he was invited to be on the board of the New York Mercantile Exchange where my daughter worked. When she met him, she said something about Mrs. Conheeney. And he said, “No, my wife died two years ago.” Then she found out he lived in Ridgewood, which is four miles from where I was living. And she called me and said, “Have I got a hunk for you.” I was planning a cocktail party to celebrate the publication of my novel Moonlight Becomes You and she said, “I know he’ll come, he’s read a couple of your books.” So he came, and ten days later he called me on the phone and said “I want to invite you out but I haven’t had a
date since I was 23.” He was engaged at 23, married at 25. But he took me out and that of course was it. And then in June he said, “Mary, would you like to get married in a couple of years?” I said, “John, how old do you think we are?” So we were married the day after Thanksgiving.