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Something about Mary


There’s no stopping this best-selling author, whose 27th suspense novel hit store shelves in April

Story by PATTI MARTIN, 4074mag.com; photography by MIKE SYPNIEWSKI

A seaside colonial that had seen better days. Bones buried in a back yard. A shared name.

The clues, of course, lead straight to Mary Higgins Clark.

For more than three decades, the celebrated mystery writer has taken notice of peculiar details and events and woven them into the framework of 28 best-selling suspense novels.

Novels that were born in a mind that is forever asking “what if ’’ and “suppose that.”

“I’ve always been inquisitive,’’ Higgins Clark acknowledges. “I just never knew where it would take me.’’

The answer – more than 85 million books sold – is, simply, everywhere.

She’s crisscrossed the United States on book tours, and traveled the globe for business and pleasure. Later this year she’ll jet off to France and South Africa and follow those jaunts by returning to France with a cruise down the Seine.

But right now she’s quite happy being home – in New Jersey.

She loves her Saddle River estate and adores the seven-bedroom seaside colonial in Spring Lake.

For an Irish Catholic girl who grew up in the Bronx, having a home in a town that is often referred to as the Irish Riviera is somehow fitting.

And it’s here, in the home just a stone’s throw from the beach, that the idea for the 2001 best seller “On The Street Where You Live’’ was conceived in true Mary Higgins Clark style.

Introduced to the area by her daughter, Carol Higgins Clark, also a suspense and mystery writer, Mary Higgins Clark fell in love at first sight. And when she walked up the steps of the house in 1998, saw the wrap-around porch and heard the roar of the ocean, well, she couldn’t have written a better location herself.

“I had such a feeling about the house when I went into it that I said, ‘I’m going to buy it,’ ” she recalls.

The feeling was reinforced at the home’s closing, when Higgins Clark learned the seller’s name, Eleanor Higgins Lembo. Higgins Clark’s maiden name is Mary Theresa Eleanor Higgins.

An idea took root: “What if – someone were to buy her ancestor’s home?’’

It became even clearer a short time later when Higgins Clark and her husband, John Conheeney, were having dinner at the Spring Lake Bath & Tennis Club.

The former owner’s son introduced himself to the couple and jokingly asked if they had dug up any bones on the property, referring to beloved family pets that had been buried there years earlier.

But to Higgins Clark, the casual comment was just what she needed: “Suppose a person was digging a pool and found the bones of a person or persons.’’

And just like that, the idea for “On The Street Where You Live’’ was born.

Although none of the characters were based on real residents of the seaside town, Higgins Clark did do extensive research, reading old records as well as copies of the Asbury Park Press from the 1890s to get a flavor of the times.

“The social reports in the Press from the turn-of-the-century were just wonderful,’’ she says. “Miss So-and-So relaxed on the veranda – it was a grand and glorious era.’’

With so much attention to detail, it wasn’t surprising that residents would approach Higgins Clark, a familiar face around town, after the book was published in 2001.

“I remember coming out of St. Catharine’s Church one Sunday and having a woman come up to me,’’ Higgins Clark says. “She was so excited that I had used her name in the book – and then she laughingly asked why I had to strangle her on page 50.’’

NEW BOOK RELEASE

At 80, Higgins Clark continues to be a literary force to be reckoned with.

“You do know,’’ she laughingly points out on a recent afternoon in her Spring Lake home, “Eighty is the new 60.’’

Higgins Clark has snuck away with Conheeney, the retired chairman and CEO of Merrill Lynch Futures, for a much-needed Spring Lake getaway.

For months, she’s been hard at work on her 27th suspense novel, “Where Are You Now?’’ – a story about a Columbia University student who disappeared without a trace a decade earlier, calling home only once a year on Mother’s Day – which hit store shelves in April. The requisite book tour and signings begin in a few weeks, and through it all, the house in Spring Lake offers peace and quiet from a hectic world.

Like Higgins Clark, the house is warm, welcoming and inviting.

With its highly polished hardwood floors, open floorplan, soothing hues and cozy furnishings, it’s both elegant and sophisticated, cozy and calming. Family photos share space on shelves with those of famous friends, including President George W. Bush and first lady Laura Bush. Framed book covers share wall space with copies of New York Times Best Sellers lists.

It’s the kind of place you can imagine in a chair, rocking an afternoon away on the wrap-around porch or curling up in front of the fireplace with a good book on a cold winter’s afternoon.

With a second-floor office offering unobstructed ocean views, it’s easy to understand why Higgins Clark willingly gets up at the crack of dawn to start writing.

OUT AND ABOUT IN SPRING LAKE

But it’s not all work and no play for Higgins Clark when she is in town. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. She and Conheeney can often be found on the Spring Lake boardwalk, taking long leisurely strolls on crisp, cool afternoons and balmy nights. She’s a familiar face in many of the Third Avenue shops and attends Mass at St. Catharine’s.

“Mary is really a warm, wonderful person,’’ says Camille Frasco of Another Angle, a clothing store on Third Avenue. “She shops here a lot, and it’s always wonderful to see and talk to her.’’

Higgins Clark has also endeared herself to her neighbors because of her warmth and willingness to help out with a variety of causes – the library, the historical society, the bed-and-breakfasts.

In June, Higgins Clark was one of 15 authors who participated in the first “Authors & Inns: A Spring Lake Event.’’

She was at the Ocean House, talking about “I Heard That Song Before’’ and her first children’s book, “Ghost Ship.’’

For a person who is so well-known and successful, Higgins Clark was a sheer delight, recalls inn owner Nancy Kaloostran.

“We had more than 500 people waiting to see her, and she sat there all day, talking and signing books,’’ Kaloostran says.

And even though she was only supposed to stay for 2½ hours, Higgins Clark ended up staying an additional 75 minutes because she didn’t want to disappoint anyone.

“She made time to talk to each and every person,’’ Kaloostran says. “She was so patient and giving of her time. She’s really one in a million.’’

And yet for all the glitz, glamour and prestige her stellar career has afforded her, Mary Theresa Eleanor Higgins Clark Conheeney still considers herself a “nice Irish Catholic girl from the Bronx who was sprinkled with stardust.’’

And while she has made a career out of writing page-turning suspense stories, her life is, in many ways, an open book.
“I’ve got nothing to hide,’’ she points out.

Poised on a chair in her living room, she delivers a Reader’s Digest version of her life: father died when she was 11; attended secretarial school and later worked as a stewardess for Pan American Airlines; married Warren Clark in 1949 and had five children; lost the first love of her life to a heart attack in 1964.

Left to raise the children alone, Higgins Clark started writing magazine articles and, later, radio scripts. Forty rejection slips later, she sold her first short story to Extension magazine for $100.

That first book, “Aspire to the Heavens,’’ a biographical novel about George Washington, was published in 1969.

A STAR IS BORN

Six years later, the first Mary Higgins Clark suspense novel, “Where Are the Children?’’ hit store shelves – and a literary star was born.

Higgins Clark still marvels at her successes and accolades – the best seller after best seller; her marriage in 1996 to Conheeney; the honorary doctorate from Fordham University; the numerous honors bestowed upon her, including being named the “Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters’’ by the French Minister of Culture; her children and grandchildren.

So who is Mary Higgins Clark?

At one turn, she’s an author who has never felt the need to include gratuitous violence or sex in her books.

“It’s not that I’m a prude; I just prefer the idea of implied violence – the Hitchcock way. How many ways can you shoot people up? I think footsteps – that can be scarier,’’ she points out. “And I think the sexiest line of the century is, ‘You’ll not shut me out of your bedroom tonight, my dear.’ That’s better than a ‘how to.’ ”

She’s also a fan favorite, not one to turn down a request for a picture or autograph – even when she’s being stalked by paparazzi in France, a common occurrence.

“A woman from France wrote to me and told me that for six weeks she sat by the bedside of her son who had leukemia not knowing whether he was going to make it. She said she didn’t think she could have done it without my books,’’ Higgins Clark says. “That makes it all worthwhile.’’

Higgins Clark is also the type of writer who would rather be remembered as a storyteller than a New York Times best-selling author.

“I’m a storyteller, (and) I think I tell a pretty good story,’’ she says, while sitting in her office. “A good book, whether it’s highly literate or a suspense novel, should tell a good story and care about the people.’’

Higgins Clark is also a sports fan – a big sports fan.

She’s spent many a Sunday afternoon at Giants Stadium, watching this year’s Super Bowl victors play, in a private box with Ann Mara, wife of the late New York Giants owner Wellington Mara. As a part owner of the New Jersey Nets, she and Conheeney were courtside to watch Devin Harris, who replaced Jason Kidd, score 21 points during his Feb. 28 debut.

“(He’s) got talent,’’ Higgins Clark pronounces. “I think he’s really going to help change things around.’’

She’s a family kind of gal, who speaks lovingly and glowingly of family members – of her husband, John, whom she calls her strength and biggest supporter; of her children, including daughter, Carol, with whom she’s co-written four books; of her and Conheeney’s 17 grandchildren, who are each making their way, without trading on their grandmother’s name, and of her friends, many of whom she has known for years.

She talks just as excitedly about a granddaughter who has secured a minor role on a daytime drama as she does about an upcoming dinner at the White House.

“I always knew – from the time I was 6 years old – that I wanted to be a writer,’’ she says. “And I’ve been lucky enough to live my dream, even beyond something I could have written.’’

So does she suppose it’s time to put down her pen and paper?

“Are you kidding?’’ she laughs. “What would I do? I love being busy – and as long as the body and mind are willing…’’

THE AUTHOR … IN HER OWN WORDS

MARY HIGGINS CLARK IS just a nice Irish Catholic girl from the Bronx.

THE PERFECT DAY IS after getting a good night’s sleep, waking up to a pot of coffee and working for four or five hours straight without interruption.

I’M HAPPIEST WHEN I’m in one of the houses with the whole family around. That’s good stuff.

I’M A JERSEY GIRL because this state is so beautiful. It has history, it has mountains, it has the ocean and it’s close to New York. It’s everything I love.

THREE WORDS THAT DESCRIBE ME: optimistic, agreeable, faithful.

I STAY SANE BECAUSE I’m totally aware how blessed in life I am. And, I have John.

I LOVE WALKING on the boardwalk in Spring Lake and sitting on my front porch, rocking, listening to the ocean and watching, just watching everything.

I LOVE TO EAT at Moonstruck (in Asbury Park).

I LOVE TO STOP in Another Angle (on Third Avenue in Spring Lake).

I HAVE nothing to hide.

IN THE SUMMER, YOU'LL FIND me at the pool at the Bath & Tennis Club. I just love the salt-water pool.

WHEN I GO I want to be remem-bered with a smile and I’d love a party. I’ve always said I’d climb out of the casket to join the party.

MY FAVORITE BOOK is the one I’m working on at that given moment.

I WOULD LOVE TO learn how to play the piano and speak French fluently, but it will never happen.

IF I WASN'T A WRITER, I would have loved to have been an actress.

MY FAVORITE QUOTE IS “Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.’’ (William Butler Yeats)
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