“My father came here with five pounds in his pocket”
“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.
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.
“I was blessed in my marriage to Warren Clark at the beginning of my adult years and now I am blessed in my marriage to John Conheeney in my golden years. Having a prince in the beginning and a prince at the end is pretty wonderful,” she says.
Family is everything to her. “ I have five children and six grandchildren. John has four children and eleven grandchildren. We see the children and grandchildren all the time. Most of them live within a few miles, none more than forty-five 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.”
And this St. Patrick’s Day, she will especially be thinking of her parents and what her Irish heritage means to her. In a freshly updated epilogue to Kitchen Privileges, she writes: “I cannot close without saying how much my Catholic faith has been the raison d’etre of my existence, the core of all that I am. I have tried to live its precepts fully and to always remember that much is expected of those to whom much has been given. HAPPY ST. PATRICK’S DAY to one and all.”