In her long-awaited memoir, Mary Higgins Clark, America's beloved and bestselling Queen of Suspense, recounts the early experiences that shaped her as a person and influenced her as a writer.
Even as a young girl, growing up in the Bronx, Mary Higgins Clark knew she wanted to be a writer. The gift of storytelling was a part of her Irish ancestry, so it followed naturally that she would later use her sharp eye, keen intelligence, and inquisitive nature to create stories about the people and things she observed.
Along with all Americans, those who lived in New York City's borough of the Bronx suffered during the Depression. So it followed that when Mary's father died, her mother, deciding to open the family home to boarders, placed a discreet sign next to the front door that read, FURNISHED ROOMS. KITCHEN PRIVILEGES. Very shortly the first in a succession of tenants arrived: a couple dodging bankruptcy who moved in with their wild-eyed boxer; a teacher who wept endlessly over her lost love; a deadbeat who tripped over a lamp while trying to sneak out in the middle of the night...
The family's struggle to make ends meet; her days as a scholarship student in an exclusive girls' academy; her after-school employment as a hotel switchboard operator (happily listening in on the guests' conversations); the death of her beloved older brother in World War II; her brief career as a flight attendant for Pan Am (a job taken after a friend who flew with the airline said ever so casually, "God, it was beastly hot in Calcutta"); her marriage to Warren Clark, on whom she'd had a crush for many years; sitting at the kitchen table, writing stories, and finally selling the first one for one hundred dollars (after six years and some forty rejections!) -- all these experiences figure into Kitchen Privileges, as does her husband's untimely death, which left her a widowed mother of five young children.
Determined to care for her family and to make a career for herself, she went to work writing scripts for a radio show, but in her spare time she began writing novels. Her first, a biographical novel about the life of George Washington titled Aspire to the Heavens, found a publisher but disappeared without a trace when the publisher folded. (Recently it was rediscovered by a descendant of the Washington family and was reissued under the title Mount Vernon Love Story.) The experience, however, gave her the background and the preparation for writing Where Are the Children? which went on to become an international bestseller. That novel launched her career and was the first of twenty-seven (and still counting!) bestselling books of suspense.
As Mary Higgins Clark has said when asked if she might consider giving up writing for a life of leisure, "Never! To be happy for a year, win the lottery. To be happy for life, love what you do."
In Kitchen Privileges, she reflects on the joy that her life as a writer has brought her, and shares with readers the love that she has found.
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Simon & Schuster
November 18, 2002
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Excerpt from Kitchen Privileges by Mary Higgins Clark
My first conscious memory is of being three years old and looking down at my new baby brother with a mixture of curiosity and distress. His crib had not been delivered on time, and he was sleeping in my doll carriage, thereby displacing my favorite doll, who was ready for her nap.
Luke and Nora, my father and mother, had kept company for seven years, a typical Irish courtship. He was forty-two and she pushing forty when they finally tied the knot. They had Joseph within the year; me, Mary, nineteen months later; and Mother celebrated her forty-fifth birthday by giving birth to Johnny. The story is that when the doctor went into her room, saw the newborn in her arms and the rosary entwined in her fingers, he observed, "I assume this one is Jesus."
Since we weren't Hispanic, in which culture Jesus is a common name, John, the first cousin of the Holy Family, was the closest Mother could get. Later when we were all in St. Francis Xavier School and instructed to write J.M.J., which stood for Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, on the top of our test papers, I thought it was a tribute to Joe and me and Johnny.
The year 1931, when Johnny made his appearance, was a good one in our modest world. My father's Irish pub was flourishing. In anticipation of the new arrival, my parents had purchased a home in the Pelham Parkway section of the Bronx. At that time more rural than suburban, it was only two streets away from Angelina's farm. Angelina, a wizened elderly lady, would show up every afternoon on the street outside our house, pushing a cart with fresh fruit and vegetables.
"God blessa your momma, your poppa, tella them I gotta lotsa nicea stringabeans today," she would say.
Our house, 1913 Tenbroeck Avenue, was a semidetached six-room brick-and-stucco structure with a second half bath in a particularly chilly section of the basement. My mother's joy in having her own home was only slightly lessened by the fact that she and my father had paid ten thousand five for it, while Anne and Charlie Potters, who bought the other side, had only paid ten thousand dollars for the identical space.
"It's because your father has his own business, and we were driving an expensive new car," she lamented.
But the expensive new car, a Nash, had sprung an oil leak as they drove it out of the showroom. "It was the beginning of our luck going sour," she would later reminisce.
The Depression had set in with grim reality. I remember as a small child regularly watching Mother answering the door to find a man standing there, his clothes clean but frayed, his manner courteous. He was looking for work, any kind of work. Did anything need repairing or painting And if not, could we possibly help him out with a cup of coffee, and maybe something to eat.
Mother never turned away anyone. She left a card table in the foyer and would willingly fix a meal for the unexpected guest. Juice, coffee, a soft-boiled egg and toast in the morning, sandwiches and tea for lunch. I don't remember anyone ringing the bell after midafternoon. By then, God help them, they were probably on their way home, if they had a home to go to, with the disheartening news that there was no work to be had.