A conversation with Mary Higgins Clark seems like a catchup with an absent aunt, or a proverbial long lost friend.
On a book tour, the top-selling 83-year-old mystery maven is crisscrossing the country hawking her newest novel, I'll Walk Alone, dealing with identity theft, which debuted in early April. It is her 30th, if you exclude the five holiday thrillers she has co-authored with her daughter Carol, a historical novel, a children's book, three sets of short stories, plus a memoir. Between appearances and interviews, during a pit stop in St. Louis, she picks up the phone in her hotel room to chat.
As she tells about her hardscrabble youth and current success—there are more than 100 million copies of her books in print in the U.S. alone; she produces one each year with advances in the stratosphere, and there have been 25 movie and TV adaptions of her work—you realize that the Bronx-born "nice Catholic girl," who decided early on she would become a writer, has evolved into major publishing force. The Betty White of the literary world.
"Thank God for Betty, she makes me look like a kid," chuckles the prolific author noting that the celebrated comedienne is six years her senior. "Did you know I wrote a radio show for her many years ago?"
To support her family, she also wrote copy at an ad agency with the young Joseph Heller, posed for an ad with Grace Kelly during the putative movie star's early modeling years—she still has the photo stashed away , "somewhere"—and worked as a Pan Am stewardess during its glory years in the late 1940s. "That was extraordinarily glamorous in those days," she recalls. "I had never been out of the tri-state area before and my first trip was to London. The first thing I saw was the back of Prince Philip's head in a car. I still can't believe it."
Another unforgettable moment occurred many years later when Clark was in Washington attending a writers' convention on the day Ronald Reagan was shot. After hearing the news on the radio, the inveterate sleuth grabbed her large red conference pass and muscled her way into the press conference at GW Hospital, and managed to ask a question. "It was fascinating," she says, describing reporters so hungry for a story they zeroed in on a hapless caterer.
The ideas for her 43 bestsellers usually come from newspapers and snippets of conversations. She says to "suppose, if and why. Then you go beyond that," she explains. "It's like having the DNA of an idea, a true case and then adding the what-ifs." (Her childhood inspiration came from classic whodunits like Agatha Christie's, her favorite current novelists include Linda Fairstein and Harlan Coban and she loved The Help and Water for Elephants.
Her religion, its values to be exact, are at the core of both her life and work. Do unto others, go the extra step form her belief. And she eschews explicit sex and violence. "I'm no prude, but I think there's a way you can tell a story that will grip you without that... the story should be one that makes you jump. Like Alfred Hitchcock, you know the footsteps on the stairs, the knob that turns, reaching for the cellphone that slips out of your hands. I like to write like that. It still works for me."
Her main character—she hates the word heroine—is independent, strong, and, despite forbidding circumstances, solves her problems and makes it on her own. She is often Irish Catholic. Like Mary?
"Knowing a subject very, very well is a great big leap into telling a good story, " she observes.
“Look, my father came over from Ireland at 21 with 5 pounds in his pocket and was listed as a laborer. And I thought ‘my God what would he be thinking?’”
As each book lands on the bestseller list, she heads to a jewelry store near her home in Saddle River, New Jersey (she shares this and other properties in Manhattan, on Cape Cod, and in Spring Lake, New Jersey, with her husband John Conheeney), to snap up some serious bling.
"From Mary to Mary with love and admiration," she laughs. Each piece is different and over the years she has amassed a stunning collection of gems. With three daughters and two granddaughters, she considers these purchases a good investment. "Jewelry is actually something, if you are broke, you can always slip the ring off your finger and get money for awhile." She knows from past experience. There were times in her life when, in order to pay a bill, she would hock some pieces she inherited from her mother-in-law. "I would say 'there go the bracelets again,'" she reflects matter of factly.
For her first mega hit, the paperback version of Where Are the Children? in 1976, her priorities were far more basic. She and two of her five children celebrated with a bottle of Champagne.
It was her second blockbuster, A Stranger Is Watching, with an advance of $1 million plus that allowed her to start acquiring the extravagant baubles.
She has another children's book due out in October and her next mystery with a biblical background (and a working title of The Lost Years) is well under way.
Of all of her accomplishments, riding in carriage up Fifth Avenue as the grand marshal of this year's St. Patrick's Day Parade is the most indelible. "It was the 250th anniversary and it was once in a lifetime," she says. "Absolutely wonderful. Look, my father came over from Ireland at 21 with 5 pounds in his pocket and was listed as a laborer. And I thought 'my God what would he be thinking?' He knows, I swear I think he knows, so it was a lovely experience."
Sandra McElwaine is a Washington Correspondent for The Daily Beast. She has been a reporter for The Washington Star, The Baltimore Sun, a correspondent for CNN and People, and Washington editor of Vogue and Cosmopolitan. She has also written for The Washington Post, Time, and Forbes.