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WEEKDAY MAGAZINE – Mary Higgins Clark

Mary Higgins Clark at BookExpo America, 2018 at the Javits Convention Center in New York City. (Rhododendrites / Wikimedia Commons)

This piece is by the Travelin’ Cousins, a little blog about the travel adventures of a couple of cousins.

by Elisa Valentino

March 15, 2019

Women’s History Month Celebration: Mary Higgins Clark – Bronx Native and Fordham Graduate 

The month of March celebrates women all over – their accomplishments, their spirit and their contributions to the world. One such woman who has made her mark in the literary world, known to readers around the globe is Mary Higgins Clark.

If you have not heard of this best-selling American author of suspense novels, whose books have sold more than 100 million copies, you’ll be delighted to know that the ninety-one year old creative force has humble beginnings that hail from the Bronx.

The acclaimed author was born Mary Theresa Eleanor Higgins on Christmas Eve 1927 to an Irish-immigrant father and an American mother of Irish descent. In spite of the difficult financial times she was born into, her family enjoyed a good life as a result of her parents’ Irish pub, which afforded them a home in the Bronx as well as a summer cottage on the Long Island sound. 

Unfortunately, the depression took its toll on the Pub’s clientele, unable to pay their bar bills, forcing Higgins Clark’s father to reduce his staff and put in extra hours. His death was untimely and left his wife alone to raise and support three children, forcing her to take in boarders and do babysitting to keep the family afloat.

Through it all, young Mary always showed talent for writing, and as early as seven years old she composed her first poem. At that same age, she began keeping a journal, noting in her first entry, “Nothing much happened today.” Her story telling abilities were well on their way as a little girl, developing short plays for her young friends to enact. 

Beginning her education at St. Francis Xavier grammar school, in the Morris Park section of the Bronx, Higgins Clark would eventually graduate with a scholarship to Villa Maria Academy, an all- girls school at the time. (In June of 1969, the high school’s last class graduated, becoming an exclusively co-educational grammar school). The young writer had much encouragement from her teachers and even the principal and began her career endeavor with her first story submission at age 16 to True Confessions, a magazine targeted to young women readers. Her submission was rejected, but, her desire to be a great writer was not.

Even though it was necessary for her to work and contribute to the family’s finances, Higgins Clark notes in her book “Kitchen Privileges” how, on her days off she would window shop, mentally choosing the clothes she would wear when she finally became a famous writer.

With yet another scholarship (partial), the young writer attended the Wood Secretarial School and secured a job as the secretary to the head of the creative department in the internal advertising division at Remington Rand and expanded her knowledge of advertising and promotion by enrolling in evening classes. Her growing skills were matched by her natural beauty and the combination of her gifts did not go unnoticed by her superiors, who broadened her responsibilities to writing catalog copy and modeling for the company brochures. Interestingly enough, in both of these new roles, she worked alongside two individuals who would also receive acclaim – Joseph Heller, the future novelist and a young unknown model named Grace Kelly.

With growing success in her job, Higgins Clark was hit with the desire for a bit of adventure and decided to follow in the footsteps of a flight attendant acquaintance, in an effort to see the world. Pretty daring for a woman in 1949! And with that, she decided to leave her job at Remington Rand, spending more of that year globetrotting for Pan American as an international flight stewardess (as they were called in those days), with a number of exciting encounters and experiences.

Taking her all through Europe, Africa, and Asia, this soon to be best-selling author worked on the last flight allowed into Czechoslovakia before the Iron Curtain fell and was also the stewardess to escort a four-year-old orphan down the steps of the airplane to meet her longingly waiting adoptive mother, a moment that was massively televised.

Her thrilling year of roaming the globe was further enhanced by her marriage to Warren Clark. They would have five children together, during which time, she would hone her skills as a writer by taking classes at New York University and joining a writer’s workshop, for which she was a member for forty years. 

Her experience with rejection, submission after submission was adding up, as was her unsuccessful attempts to find a literary agent. After six years and forty rejections, finally, in 1956, Extension Magazine agreed to purchase one of her first stories called “Stowaway” about a stewardess who finds a stowaway from Czechoslovakia on her plane. She was paid $100 and following its publication, the work began to flow, as did the author’s securing of an agent. Through her writer’s workshop, she met an agent, Patricia Schartle Myrer, who represented Higgins Clark for twenty years until her retirement.

As is the case with most successful individuals, Mary Higgins Clark’s climb to success was filled with its share of challenges and obstacles to be overcome. In 1964, after her husband Warren had suffered his third heart attack, she began looking for work to allow him to stay home. As fate would have it, on the day she accepted a job writing the radio segment “Portrait of a Patriot,” for which a friend assisted her in securing, Warren would have another heart attack, which was fatal.

With five small children, under the age of 13, Higgins Clark found herself a widow, only to lose her mother-in-law the same day, in reaction to the death of her son. This extraordinary woman would persevere through this personal tragedy and further through the collapse in the short story market, for which she had become quite proficient. In fact, in 1960, The Saturday Evening Post, named Higgins Clark’s short story “Beauty Contest at Buckingham” one of their ten best of the year! But, because her short stories were no longer able to find a publisher, Higgins Clark’s agent suggested that she try writing a full-length novel.

Although her first novel, a fictionalized account of the relationship between George and Martha Washington, Aspire to the Heavens only commanded a small advance, it provided her with the confidence to pursue a new avenue for her writings. Unfortunately, the book did not do well in the market and it would take Higgins Clark a number of years before she would, under the encouragement of her agent, write another book. 

This time around, she decided to return to the genre she loved so much as a child – suspense stories – which incidentally had provided her first success as a short story writer.
Having suffered a great many years of financial stress, raising her children and losing both her beloved mom and brother, Higgins Clark was finally at the pinnacle of a great return! 

Her first novel, Where are the Children? was completed, and publishing giant, Simon & Schuster agreed to purchase it for the small sum of $3000. Three months later, in July 1974, Higgins Clark received word that the paperback rights for the novel had sold for one hundred thousand dollars. Where Are the Children? became a bestseller and was favorably reviewed. Two years after its publication Higgins Clark sold her second suspense novel for $1.5 million.

It is from this point, that the expression, “the rest is history” well applies.

In the U.S. alone, her books have sold over 100 million copies and at ninety-one, she is still going strong. Her most recent suspense novel, All By Myself, Alone, was published by Simon & Schuster in April 2017. In total, Mary Higgins Clark is the author of thirty-seven previous best selling suspense novels, four collections of short stories (the most recent, Death Wears A Beauty Mask), an historical novel, a memoir and two children’s books. As a mom, I’m sure she is so proud to have co-authored, with her daughter Carol Higgins Clark, five suspense novels. Two of her novels were made into feature films and many of her other works into television films. 

But that’s not all. Her success is not just in her writing. For, as a mom, she wanted to ensure that her children would not have to struggle financially, and was, therefore, determined that they should have good educations. To provide a good example she entered Fordham University at Lincoln Center in 1971, graduating summa cum laude in 1979, with a BA in philosophy.

Truly a role model woman to be celebrated during Women’s History Month!

References

  • Wikipedia
  • Higgins Clark, Kitchen Privileges,
  • “Mary Higgins Clark Interview”. Book Reporter.2007
  • Levitsky, Jennifer; Niloufar Motamed (April 21, 1998).
  • MaryHigginsClark.com

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Elisa is co-founder of Travelin’ Cousins travel blog, A native New Yorker, Fordham graduate, and world traveler, she is passionate about The Bronx as a travel destination for locals and tourists.

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