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Mary Higgins Clark, suspense novelist, dies at 92


Michael Buckner | Getty Images North America | AFP

John Burger - published on 02/06/20

Best-selling author was deeply proud of her Catholic faith and Irish roots.

In the 2015 commencement address at the Catholic University of America, suspense novelist Mary Higgins Clark spoke of her Catholicism, but also displayed a bit of Irish superstition.

“I believe that at our cradles the legendary godmothers come to bequeath a gift,” she told graduates. “Some people receive many, others just one, but everybody does get one special gift. In my case, … one godmother came and whispered, ‘I bequeath you the gift of being a storyteller.'”

Higgins Clark, who died January 31 at age 92, was as proud of her Irish roots as she was of her Catholic faith.

“Let others decide whether or not I’m a good writer,” she said in a 2011 video, the year she was grand marshal of the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Manhattan. “I know I’m a good Irish storyteller.”

So good that her suspense novels were consistently worldwide best-sellers. In the U.S. alone, her books have sold over 100 million copies. She was the author of almost 40 bestselling novels, including Where Are the Children? (1975), The Cradle Will Fall (1980), and Kiss the Girls and Make Them Cry, published just last November.

Her memoir, Kitchen Privileges, was published by Simon & Schuster in 2002. She also began a collaborative series with Alafair Burke in 2014, and was co-author with her daughter Carol Higgins Clark of five holiday suspense novels.

Active in Catholic affairs, Higgins Clark was made a Dame of the Order of St. Gregory the Great, a papal honor. She is also a Dame of Malta and a Lady of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem. She received the Graymoor Award from the Franciscan Friars in 1999.

Mary Theresa Eleanor Higgins was born on Christmas Eve 1927 and reared in the Bronx. Her Irish immigrant father ran a popular pub that “did well enough for the family to afford a maid and for her mother to prepare meals for strangers in need,” according to the Associated Press. But he died when she was 11, and her mother struggled to raise her and her two brothers.

After attending St. Francis Xavier School and the Villa Maria Academy, at the time administered by the Congregation of Notre Dame, she went to secretarial school. After three years of working in an advertising agency, travel fever seized her. For the year 1949, she was a stewardess on Pan American Airlines’ international flights. After flying for a year, she married a neighbor, Warren Clark, nine years her senior, whom she had known since she was 16. Soon after her marriage, she started writing short stories, finally selling her first to Extension Magazine in 1956 for $100. “I framed that first letter of acceptance,” she recalls of the experience. The Catholic magazine recalled the connection in an online history published on its centennial in 2006:

Perhaps Extension’s most famous discovery was suspense novelist Mary Higgins Clark, who has now authored 14 national best-sellers. After 40 rejection slips from other magazines, she credits Extension for giving her the first break. Her first short fiction, “Last Flight From Danubia,” appeared in the March 1958 issue. Based on her real-life experiences as a flight attendant for Pan Am, Clark’s tense tale follows a stewardess who hides a 17-year-old trying to escape a Communist state. On the same flight comes the police commissioner who is seeking the young refugee.

Left a young widow by the death of her husband from a heart attack in 1964, Higgins Clark began to write radio scripts for a living. In addition, she decided to try her hand at writing books. Every morning she wrote from 5 AM to 7 AM, when she had to get her five children ready for school. Her very first book was a biographical novel about George Washington, inspired by a radio series she was writing, “Portrait of a Patriot.” Originally published in 1969 by Meredith Press with the title Aspire to the Heavens, it was discovered years later by a Washington family member and re-issued in 2002 with the title, Mount Vernon Love Story.

Higgins Clark’s first suspense novel, Where Are the Children?, was published by Simon & Schuster in 1975. It became a bestseller and marked a turning point in her life and career. It is currently in its 75th edition in paperback and was re-issued in hardcover as a Simon & Schuster classic.

The success freed her to do some things she always had wanted to do, like going to college. She entered Fordham University at Lincoln Center, graduating summa cum laude in 1979 with a B.A. in philosophy. She was awarded an honorary doctorate from Fordham University in 1998. She is a past trustee of Fordham University and Providence College.

At the Catholic University commencement in 2015, she offered a little insight into her writing process. “When I begin to plan a book, I don’t know exactly who the protagonist is, but I do know that he or she will be a person who combines faith, optimism, intelligence, generosity and a good sense of humor,” she said.

She also offered some advice. “A novel has a goal. Yours I hope will be to lead a fulfilling, giving life,” she said. “In our increasingly secular society, too often traditional values have been replaced by situational ethics. You as graduates of Catholic University have the opportunity to become moral leaders in a world where so frequently moral values are consigned to the dustbin. Don’t be afraid of exercising that leadership.”

In an interview with Catholic News Service last fall, she responded to a question about the intersection of her faith and her art:

A key element in most of Higgins Clark’s work is the presence of a strong, courageous–and Catholic–heroine who, while often accomplished and living the good life, triumphs over violence, intrigue and adversity to make things right in the end. The appearance of priests, churches and Catholic schools is no accident in the Higgins Clark canon. “My novels almost always have at the core of the story a strong young woman who is Catholic,” Higgins Clark said. “Her faith will help her persevere. In The Shadow of Your Smile and The Lost Years, Catholicism was a central element of the story versus the background of the central character.” But does this make Higgins Clark a “Catholic writer” or a writer who happens to be Catholic? “I’m a writer who happens to be Catholic,” she said. “It’s no surprise that the Catholic faith, which has played a large role in my life, will be a key influence on my characters.” Higgins Clark says her characters combine courage and often faith to find a way out of their predicaments. As to her use of Catholic protagonists and heroines, she points to a piece of advice she received as a young writer in a workshop. “My professor said, ‘Write what you know.’ I’d grown up observing examples of Catholic women who were strong figures and persevered against difficult odds. It was natural to model my characters after the people I knew.”

“Her Catholic faith was deep, sincere, and humble,” Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan wrote in a recent tribute. “She publicly remarked frequently how her Irish Catholic imagination and art of storytelling inspired her writing. References to faith and the Church were subtle and natural in her celebrated writings.”

The cardinal added that many people have asked him why she not being buried from St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the Manhattan church she loved and often wrote about.

“That’s no shocker to me at all, as those decisions are quintessential Mary,” Dolan wrote. “She, who never forgot her Bronx-neighborhood roots, and the neighbors and friends with whom she was raised, stipulated years ago her desire to be buried like any other Catholic, from her home parish of the last nearly four decades, [St. Gabriel the Archangel Parish in Saddle River, New Jersey], at a Mass celebrated by her former parish priest, now retired bishop of Metuchen, and loyal friend, Bishop Paul Bootkoski.”

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