Mary Higgins Clark
Revered as the "Queen of Suspense" by her legions of fans, prolific novelist Mary Higgins Clark sold well over 80 million books, with dozens of her bestsellers adapted for film and television. While raising five children alone after the death of her husband, the aspiring novelist wrote her first book at the kitchen table in the mornings before starting her busy days as a mother and radio script writer. Although her first effort, a historical romance, sold poorly, for her second attempt, Higgins Clark committed to writing the kind of page-turner she herself enjoyed reading. The result was the 1975 bestseller Where are the Children? , which was quickly followed by the equally popular A Stranger is Watching in 1977. As more titles landed on the bestseller list, "A Stranger is Watching" (1982) and "Where Are the Children?" (1986) were adapted into major motion pictures. Soon, scores of made-for-TV movies like "While My Pretty One Sleeps" (Family Channel, 1997) were based upon her novels. Later endeavors included 2000's Deck the Halls, the first in an ongoing series of holiday-themed thrillers co-authored with her daughter Carol, and Ghost Ship in 2002, the writer's first children's book, illustrated by Wendell Minor. The octogenarian author later entered Dan Brown territory with the biblical conspiracy thriller The Lost Years in 2012. In a career that spanned more than 40 years, it was clear Higgins Clark enjoyed crafting her tales of suspense just as much as her devoted fans enjoyed reading them.
Born Mary Higgins on Dec. 24, 1929 in the Bronx, New York, NY, she was the middle child and only daughter born to Luke and Nora Higgins. Even as a child, Mary exhibited an early interest and facility with words, writing her first poem by the age of six and penning skits Mary and her brothers would perform for family and friends. A journal she began at age seven would later serve as an invaluable resource for an eventual autobiography. Raised in a devout Irish Catholic family, Higgins and her brothers grew up comfortably, thanks to Higgins Bar & Grille, the popular Bronx establishment owned by her father. Eventually, the effects of the Great Depression began to take its toll on the business, prompting Luke to let more than one of his employees go and put in longer hours himself. The world changed for young Mary and her family one day when the 11-year-old girl returned home from church to discover that her father had passed away in his sleep. To make ends meet, Mary's 52-year-old mother, who had not worked for nearly 15 years, rented out the children's bedrooms to boarders in order to make ends meet. While attending school at the Catholic Villa Maria Academy, the teenaged Higgins continued to write in her spare time, even as she worked as a switchboard operator at a hotel to help her mother pay the bills. Her older brother Joseph held the same noble intention when he joined the Navy after high school. It was both tragic and ironic then, when six months later, he died from spinal meningitis, leaving his struggling mother with a lifetime pension as his next of kin.
Having graduated from high school and intent on entering the workforce, Mary enrolled at a nearby secretarial school for a one-year course of study. From there it was on to an assistant's position at an in-house advertising department at the corporate offices of business machine manufacturer Remington Rand. Although Higgins acquitted herself well at the job, within three years, she was ready for a new adventure. On a whim, the 19-year-old Higgins applied and was accepted for a stewardess position at Pan American Airlines, working the international run out of nearby Long Island Airport. Just as she was about to embark on her new career, however, Higgins received a marriage proposal from her neighbor Warren Clark, 10 years her senior, whom she had admired for some time. After nearly a year of traveling the world, Mary left Pan Am to become Mrs. Higgins Clark in December of 1949. Suddenly finding herself with a great deal of time on her hands, Higgins Clark returned to her interest in writing, enrolling in classes at New York University and joining a weekly writers' workshop. Then, after years of rejections, Higgins Clark sold her first short story to Extension Magazine in 1956 for $100. Throughout this period, she and her husband began and expanded their young family with four children by the time Higgins Clark had sold that first tale. Armed with a sense of confidence, the budding writer began to sell stories with more frequency and attracted a literary agent in the process. As good as life was for Higgins Clark in the late-1950s, an all too familiar catastrophe was lurking on the horizon.
Not long after giving birth to her fifth child, Higgins Clark's husband Warren was diagnosed with advanced angina, a chronic heart condition. In the years that followed, Warren suffered a series of heart attacks and his health deteriorated. Sensing that he would not be able to work for much longer, Higgins Clark contacted a friend who wrote short scripts for a syndicated radio program and inquired about opportunities. Soon she was proving herself an adept writer for the station and was eventually offered a contract for a lengthy assignment. Sadly, this significant achievement was eclipsed by the death of Warren who suffered a final fatal heart attack in 1964. Facing circumstances similar to those her mother had endured years earlier, Higgins Clark threw herself into her work. Contracted to write four minute segments for the American history radio show "Portraits of a Patriot," she honed her skills considerably as a storyteller and ingratiated herself with her employers. With the magazine short-story market having dried up by the mid-1960s, Higgins Clark's agent encouraged her to try her hand at a full-length novel. Using material close at hand, she mined recent "Portraits of a Patriot" research she had done on George Washington to create a fictionalized account of the American president's love affair with his wife, Martha. Published in 1969 under the title Aspire to the Heavens. Though sales were poor, it proved to Higgins Clark that she could, in fact, write a novel.
With the 1970s just beginning, Higgins Clark and a pair of coworkers found themselves unsatisfied with their current professional situations. Breaking out on their own, they launched a private business, writing and selling radio scripts for a wide variety of clients. After selling her engagement ring to scrape together the $5,000 she needed to contribute to the venture's start-up costs, money was tighter than ever for the Higgins Clark clan. For several months the working mother took home no salary as she and her partners strove to get the enterprise in the black. Despite the poor performance of Aspire to the Heavens, Higgins Clark's agent urged her to tackle another novel. In choosing her genre, Higgins Clark had only to look to the novelists she had enjoyed for so long herself, suspense authors like Rex Stout, Ngaio Marsh and Agatha Christie. Higgins Clark rose at 5 a.m. every morning to write for two hours before seeing the children off to school and going in to work. By 1973 she had completed a thriller tentatively titled Die a Little Death. The following year, as her agent was shopping the book around town, Higgins Clark embarked on another lifelong ambition by enrolling at the Jesuit college Fordham University in 1974. A short time later, she was informed by her agent that Simon & Schuster had offered to buy the book.
At their suggestion, Higgins Clark retitled her novel Where are the Children?. Published in 1975, it revolved around Nancy Harmon, who loses her two children in a horrific murder, of which she is briefly wrongly accused. She relocates, remarries and later has two more children. The nightmare of her past returns when Nancy's new children suddenly disappear and an unknown blackmailer threatens to expose her incriminating secret. To Higgins Clark's surprise and great joy, Where are the Children? became the author's first bestseller. In the meantime, the writer's agent urged her to begin a follow-up book. In the event that Where are the Children sold well, she reasoned, they should have another project ready waiting in the wings. Higgins Clark returned to her typewriter with understandable enthusiasm and the result was 1977's A Stranger is Watching, for which she was paid an astounding $1.5 million by Simon & Schuster. Using what would become Higgins Clark's signature story element, the novel featured a young, successful and well-intentioned woman forced into a situation where she must rely on her own courage and intelligence to save herself and others. It, too, became a bestseller, an accomplishment possibly only equaled by Higgins Clark - the working mother of five and recent novelist - graduating from Fordham summa cum laude in 1979 with a degree in philosophy. Fully embracing her writing as a fulltime job, Higgins Clark began to churn out a series of successive novels with stunning regularity. In 1980 there was The Cradle Will Fall, which was followed two years later by the equally successful A Cry in the Night.
Not surprisingly, the author's tightly plotted potboilers began to attract the attention of Hollywood. Higgins Clark's first novel to receive the big screen treatment was "A Stranger is Watching" (1982), starring Rip Torn as a psychotic killer who kidnaps the girlfriend and daughter of a man whose wife he had murdered years earlier. The writer's work made its television debut a year later with Lauren Hutton in "The Cradle Will Fall" (CBS, 1983). In theaters the thriller that started it all "Where Are the Children?" (1986) featured acclaimed actress Jill Clayburgh as the misery-plagued mother whose second chance at happiness is threatened by an unknown madman. Armed with six best-selling suspense novels under her belt, Higgins Clark was named president of the Mystery Writers of America for 1987. As more of her growing list of titles found their way on to the screen, the author's actress daughter Carol Higgins Clark made it a family affair when she starred opposite Perry King in the direct-to-video adaptation of "A Cry in the Night" (1992). Despite the demands of raising her family and pursuing a career, Higgins Clark managed to find time for a social life as well. After a failed second marriage that had ended in the mid-1980s, she married John Conheeney, the retired Chairman and CEO of Merrill-Lynch Future in 1996.
The growing list of Higgins Clark's book-to-film adaptations continued with such offerings as "While My Pretty One Sleeps" (Family Channel, 1997), starring Connie Sellecca as a Madison Avenue executive looking into the brutal murder of a best-selling author. In 2000 Clark began a fruitful literary collaboration with daughter Carol on an ongoing series of holiday-themed thrillers, beginning with Deck the Halls, the story of Alvirah Meehan, a former housekeeper who takes up sleuthing after winning the lottery, and Regan Reilly, a police detective whose mother just so happens to be one of America's most popular mystery novelists. One year later, Simon & Schuster announced the annual Mary Higgins Clark Award given to authors of suspense fiction writing in a style and structure adhering closely to that of the prolific author for which it was named. As the new millennium commenced, the 72-year-old author released Aspire to the Heavens as the rechristened Mount Vernon Love Story in 2002. That same year, Higgins Clark published her autobiography, Kitchen Privileges, named for the generous extra access the author's mother gave the boarders in her childhood home. Higgins Clark also published her first children's book in 2002, titled Ghost Ship, filled with breezy watercolor illustrations by artist Wendell Minor. A seemingly inexhaustible market for TV-movie material based on Higgins Clark's work included "The Cradle Will Fall" (ION Network, 2004), starring Angie Everheart as a criminal prosecutor following a deadly trail that leads to a physician and his work in fertility research. Far from scaling back, the prolific author only increased her output, publishing a book a year, sometimes more. Based on the first (of many) holiday-themed collaborations between Higgins and her daughter Carol was "Deck the Halls" (TNT, 2012), starring Scottie Thompson as Det. Regan Reilly and Kathy Najimy as cleaning woman-turned-private eye Alvirah Meehan. Applying her tried and true formula to a popular current literary trend, Higgins Clark's thriller The Lost Years (2012) chronicled a devoted daughter's quest to find a legendary ancient parchment in an effort to clear her Alzheimer's mother's name in the murder of her father.
By Bryce P. Coleman