“The characters in my books are resilient and resourceful. When calamity strikes, they carry on.”–Mary Higgins Clark.
There are times in our lives when we hit that proverbial fork in the road… when our feelings of self worth are shaky and we’re in need of a reminder of how incredibly blessed our lives have been. Mary Higgins Clark’s recent passing did that for me. January 31, 2020 was a sad day for her millions of fans around the world for sure. For me, news of her death hit closer to home.
Remembering Mary and the impact she had on my life as a writer and friend also reminded me of the many other remarkable people I’ve been fortunate to meet and work with during the course of my career. Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award recipients; Newbery and Caldecott honorees; Oscar, Emmy, Golden Globe, Peabody, and Christopher Award winners… super achievers, icons, legends in the publishing, film and TV industries.
In the case of Mary Higgins Clark, I not only interviewed her several times as a journalist and PR professional, but was delighted to work with her during my Corporate Communications stint at her career-long publisher, Simon & Schuster, and during my 11 years as Director of the Christopher Awards. We also met and mingled at various charity events in Manhattan.
During my tenure at The Christophers, we honored Mary with a Life Achievement Award at our 54th annual Christopher Awards gala on February 27, 2003. Five years later, she graciously accepted my invitation to present a well-deserved Life Achievement Award to her friend and fellow Simon & Schuster author, historian David McCullough, at our 59th annual Christopher Awards gala on April 10, 2008. It was a spectacular evening in Rockefeller Center, made all the more memorable by Mary’s presence and her charming, heartfelt speech honoring her pal, David McCullough.
At the time of Mary Higgins Clark’s death at age 92, the perpetual #1 New York Times best-selling author had written 40 suspense novels, four short story collections, a historical novel, a memoir and two children’s books. She collaborated with another best-selling author, Alafair Burke, on the Under Suspicion series; and co-authored five suspense novels with her daughter, author Carol Higgins Clark.
With more than one hundred million copies of her books in print in the U.S. alone, Mary Higgins Clark consistently topped both The New York Times Best Seller Hardcover and Paperback lists simultaneously, which, needless to say, was a remarkable and singular achievement in the publishing world.
But reaching that pinnacle wasn’t easy. Not surprisingly, her protagonists were invariably feisty women who prevail in the face of unexpected adversity. Raised in the Bronx, Mary, an Irish-Catholic, lived that plotline firsthand.
Her father died suddenly when she was 10, and her husband’s untimely death in 1964 left her a young widow with five children, ranging in age from five to 13. Like her mother before her, Mary struggled to keep her family afloat. But she never lost sight of her goal to write books.
As a teenager, Mary Higgins window shopped her way past pricey Fifth Avenue department stores, fantasizing about the glamorous dresses she’d wear someday as a famous author. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Young Mary Higgins’ compulsion to write paid off handsomely. She grew up to become Mary Higgins Clark, America’s “Queen of Suspense.”
The interview with Mary Higgins Clark that I share with you below is edited and condensed from the original published in the Fall 2007 issue of Healthy Edge magazine. We chatted by phone, she from her seaside home in Spring Lake, New Jersey, on July 24, 2007. It was a beautiful summer day that found her hard at work on her latest novel. This was not to be our last interview; but it proved to be the most intimate, focusing less on specific career highlights that we’d covered in the past and more on the personal life experiences that strengthened her faith and shaped her life’s work.
With refreshing candor, Mary revisited a series of heart-rending family tragedies and personal challenges as a daughter, sister, wife, widow and single mother with career aspirations that would have broken the best of us. But she was born and bred in the Bronx, afterall. This witty, street smart Irish storyteller of deep faith made it abundantly clear how and why she’d surmounted these personal setbacks… and flourished. Despite its often dire subject matter, this remains one of the most enjoyable and inspiring interviews I’ve ever conducted. I will never forget her and, believe it or not, how much she made me laugh on that sunny summer day in 2007.
Judith Trojan: As a young woman, with a budding literary career, you had five school-age children and your terminally ill husband, Warren, to care for. How did you cope?
Mary Higgins Clark: Well, of course, you know what you start with. I had 14 years and nine months of a wonderful marriage. A lot of people don’t get that. For five years, we knew that Warren was dying. Every Christmas and every birthday, I was so grateful we had one more. In fact, I wrote an article, “The Five Years that Taught Me How to Live,” for Redbook magazine. I had to work because Warren had changed jobs. It was exactly the job he wanted. Before he took the new job, he said, ‘If I have a physical, I won’t get it.’ I said, ‘You can’t live as though you’re going to die. Tell them you have so much money, you don’t want to know anything about their pension plan,’ which was the biggest joke in the world.
Trojan: His illness must have been terribly difficult for you both.
Higgins Clark: He had constant chest pains. The doctor told him ‘Get a lot of rest. Don’t run for a bus, don’t pick up the baby, don’t wrestle with the boys.’ Don’t. Don’t. Don’t. They told us he would have a major heart attack and die because all the tests showed that his arteries were almost totally clogged. That was before bypass surgery.
Trojan: Did you ever have hope for a positive outcome during that time?
Higgins Clark: Warren had said, ‘If I can last 10 years, there will be an operation.’ So, there was always that little peephole of hope. He died in 1964, and the first bypass operation was done a year later. How many lives has it saved? Warren looked healthy. He had always been a terrific athlete. He turned 45 less than two months before he died. I was 36.
Trojan: Did heart disease run in his family?
Higgins Clark: His father had a stroke in his 50s. Warren was a heavy smoker. You couldn’t get him off it. In the end, when we got that verdict from the doctor, he said, ‘Of course, no smoking; it’s a nail in the coffin.’ I gave up smoking, but Warren couldn’t kick the habit. I told him, ‘The prescription was not that I give it up while you keep it up.’
Trojan: What advice would you give to moms today who find themselves widowed at a young age?
Higgins Clark: Be grateful you have your children. I wasn’t sure if I was pregnant when Warren died. I wasn’t, but I was secretly thinking I could handle six as well as I could handle five. I remember running into a very nice man I knew in town who said, ‘You’re handling Warren’s death very well.’ I said, ‘Do I have a choice?’ When you really look at it, you do not have a choice. You have to accept what you can’t change.
Trojan: You suffered through an inordinate number of losses in your early life—first your father, both brothers, your husband, your in-laws—one after another. The death of your husband and your mother-in-law, both on the same day, must have been devastating.
Higgins Clark: My mother-in-law loved her son so much. She knew how bad Warren was and said, ‘I don’t want to survive him.’ She was sitting by his bed. He had one of those crushing heart attacks that you hear the pain. I was downstairs and heard his ‘Agh’ all through the house. I thought the oxygen tank had exploded. I raced upstairs, and his mother was trying to hold the oxygen tube over his face. I started CPR. When she saw that he was dead, she just said, ‘Oh Warren,’ and collapsed and died. Really, they died together. Her heart simply gave out.
Trojan: What a tragedy.
Higgins Clark: Four months later, her second son died. I thought God gave her a break that she died before she would have to see another of her sons die. She was a very good woman, a most charitable woman.
Trojan: During WWII, your older brother, Joseph, joined the Navy. I’m sure you and your mother feared for his life in combat, but instead he died during basic training.
Higgins Clark: It certainly was not something we expected. He got spinal meningitis and had a fever of 104 and violent headaches. They had him in sick bay for a week before they took him to the hospital. He was only 18.
Trojan: Your younger brother, John, lost his wife and child in quick succession and then died an untimely death from a fall. How did you get through all that?
Higgins Clark: There were so many at one time that it just seemed as though there was blow after blow after blow. Of course, you have a constant sadness. You can’t lay that on other people. But a fact of life is that people die out of their time.
Trojan: In reading your memoir, I was intrigued by your mother. No matter what tragedy befell her, she forged ahead.
Higgins Clark: I think the great grief of her life was Joseph. The loss of my father was, of course, devastating; but there’s something about losing a child. He had been a ‘preemie,’ and she never left his side during that first year; she was so afraid he would slip away. She would have thrown herself across the tracks for any one of us, but there was something so tender about her relationship with Joseph.
Trojan: What attributes best describe your mom?
Higgins Clark: My mother never stayed angry, even if she had a reason to be mad at someone. She always had a sense of humor. Her heart was broken, but she was never gloomy. She never said ‘Why me’ to me or my brothers. When you have faith, if someone is sick, you can storm heaven with prayers. And you take comfort that there has to be a reason for all this; there must be a bigger plan that you don’t know about.
Trojan: Was your mom’s resilience following the sudden death of your father a model for you when your husband died?
Higgins Clark: Since I knew how much I missed my own father, I knew exactly how much my kids would miss theirs. I thought it was my job to be a mother who didn’t take the grief out on them, but also to do the best I could because I knew how much they would miss him.
Trojan: In the 1950s and 1960s, most mothers didn’t work or have the kind of goals and drive that you had. Your husband didn’t seem to be threatened by your determination to write. He sounds like a prince!
Higgins Clark: He loved it. Warren’s attitude about it was, ‘Look, so many people try and don’t make it. Go ahead, but think of it as a hobby. Some women bowl, you write.’ When my work started selling, no one was prouder than he.
Trojan: Throughout your career, you’ve given generously of your time to various Catholic causes and to literacy. Why literacy?
Higgins Clark: I’ve always been active in the literacy program in New York and have done a lot with former First Lady Barbara Bush. I think the biggest gift you can give someone is education, and there’s nothing more basic in education than to be able to read.
Trojan: You were a Bronx girl, yet you’ve lived much of your adult life in New Jersey. How have your hometowns impacted your work?
Higgins Clark: All my life I have had to defend the two places that I have lived–the Bronx and New Jersey. This is why I’ve written books specifically set in New Jersey, to try to get people to appreciate our state.
Trojan: Despite all of the responsibilities you’ve shouldered as a single mother of five, you’ve never lost sight of your personal goals. You wanted to write, to travel to exotic places, to wear those gowns you admired in shop windows along Fifth Avenue. You were also determined to graduate from college. How old were you when you got your degree?
Higgins Clark: I was 48. I gave myself a prom. It was a darn good party!
Trojan: How do you manage to maintain your energy level, especially on grueling book tours?
Higgins Clark: Travelling has gotten so obnoxious now with the security and getting there early. There are so many delays. That has made going out on tour less attractive. But it’s really a pleasure when you meet people who say they’ve read every one of your books, or who say how they were able to escape while reading one of them at a time when they were either sick or had terrible grief. I’ve had four generations stand in front of me—13, 35, 57 and 75— and great grandma says, ‘We all read your books, dear!’
Trojan: In retrospect, what stands out most in your life beyond the losses we’ve discussed and the great success you’ve achieved through your writing?
Higgins Clark: I’ve been very blessed. I’ve been married since 1996 to John Conheeney [1929-2018]. So, God gave me a good man at the beginning and a good one at the end! After Warren’s death, I knew I was going to educate my children, that I would never depend on a man to do it, rich or poor. I worked hard to make it happen. I wanted them educated, and I wanted them to do well.
Trojan: Some women have been known to choose a man over their kids.
Higgins Clark: Following Warren’s death, I just thought I would not get involved. Suppose I married a guy with a lot of money who said, ‘I want you to bake cookies, and I like four of your kids and I don’t like the fifth.’ I made a deal with God: ‘Don’t take the kids and, I promise you, I will never ever be one of those ladies who’s sleeping around, promise.’ Better the picture on the wall of a father who loved them, than somebody who might find one or the other a pain in the neck.
Trojan: What life lessons would you most like to pass on to your children and grandchildren?
Higgins Clark: Be aware of how blessed you are. Look around at the education you’ve had, at the home you have, the friends you have, and the health you enjoy. Be grateful because so many people have nothing and some less than nothing. Someone once said, ‘If you want to be happy for a year, win the lottery. If you want to be happy for a lifetime, love what you do.’ Ω –Judith Trojan