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Once More, with Feeling

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EVEN AT AGE 5, PATTY CLARK displayed keen matchmaking instincts. Her mother remembers the day in 1964, not long after Patty’s father had died, when the little girl, clutching a pair of her dad’s pajamas, approached the postman at the door of the family’s Washington Township, N.J., home and asked, “Would you like to stay the night?” Says her mother, Mary Higgins Clark: “Patty proposed to everyone. She wanted a man in the house.”

On Saturday, Nov. 30, Clark’s Cupid got her wish. At a Catholic church in tony Saddle River, N.J., before 250 guests including Patty and her four elder siblings, the country’s top-selling female suspense writer pledged her troth to 67-year-old John Conheeney: widower, retired Wall Street executive, possessor of a winning Irish wit and, most important, handpicked choice of Patty Clark Derenzo. “My heart told me they’d be perfect together,” says Derenzo, 38, an executive assistant at the New York Mercantile Exchange, who served as her mother’s sole bridal attendant. “John is generous, good-looking, successful—the man for Mom.” Says Clark, 68, who beamed through the ceremony and danced into the wee hours at the Ridgewood Country Club afterward: “Well, Patty finally did it.”

Derenzo’s matchmaking techniques have improved with the years. Last February, when she met Conheeney—who lost his wife of 40 years to cancer in 1994—and suggested he get together with her mom, whose Saddle River spread is just four miles from Conheeney’s home in Ridgewood, the widower was reluctant. “I thought, this is what happens in small towns—the surviving mate is kind of fair game for widows and divorcées,” he says. At that point he hadn’t been filled in on Derenzo’s mother’s identity, but learning who she was didn’t help. He had read Clark’s novels, he says, “and I thought maybe she was too sophisticated for me.”

Sophisticated enough not to wait by the phone. Assured by her daughter that this former CEO of Merrill Lynch Futures Inc. was “a 10,” as she recalls Patty’s putting it, Clark invited Conheeney to her St. Patrick’s Day bash. “If you’re well-known, everyone assumes you’re terribly busy, but when you look for romance, it doesn’t seem to happen,” says Clark, who will earn $12 million for each of her next three novels and whose 17th bestseller, My Gal Sunday, is now climbing the charts. “I wasn’t looking—I have a career and a lot of friends—but I knew I was missing something important in my life.”

Smitten on St. Patrick’s Day (“I thought, ‘He is a 10,’ ” Clark remembers), she eagerly accepted when Conheeney invited her to dinner soon afterward. “Mary is so easy to talk to. I felt at ease right away,” says Conheeney. His bride concurs. “He’s fun,” she says, “and close to his family, as I am to mine.” Her youngest daughter, in fact, called after every date during their courtship “to get the dirt,” Derenzo admits. So dazzled was Conheeney, though, that the best scoop nearly reached the papers before it reached Patty. At a dinner last June, when columnist Cindy Adams asked if Clark and Conheeney were a pair, “he said, ‘Get out your notebook. We’re getting married,’ ” remembers Clark. “I looked at him—because the kids didn’t know yet—and said, ‘For the love of God!’ ”

They called the kids, and their blessings were immediate. “Dad doesn’t take a nap every day anymore. He has a bounce in his step,” says Trish Conheeney, 34, an advertising saleswoman. (Her siblings are John, 40, a commodities broker, and Barbara, 37, and Nancy, 31, both homemakers.) Says Clark’s daughter and fellow mystery writer Carol Higgins Clark, 39: “I’ve never seen Mom so happy.”

For Clark, romantic contentment has been a long time coming. Her first husband, Warren Clark, a charter-airlines salesman she married when she was 21, was diagnosed with severe angina in 1959, and the couple spent the next five years “knowing there was an ax over his head.” Having lost her father, a Bronx pub owner, to a heart attack when she was 10, she says she felt “grateful for every day Warren and I had.”

Warren died of a heart attack at 45, leaving Clark to fend for herself and their five children (Patty, Carol, Marilyn, now 46 and a superior court judge; Warren, 44, a municipal court judge; and David, 42, president of Celebrity Radio). Adversity brought out her strengths: While working as a radio scriptwriter, she wrote fiction from 5 to 7 every morning, and by 1977, when the paperback rights to her third novel, A Stranger Is Watching, sold for $1 million, she was able to quit and write full-time. Dating was a low priority: “My kids were much better with the memory of a father who loved them than with someone new who might resent them,” Clark says. A six-year second marriage, to lawyer Ray Ploetz, reinforced her wariness. “Everyone’s entitled to one colossal mistake,” says Clark, who prefers not to discuss the union, which ended in annulment. “That was mine.”

Conheeney looks to be anything but. At the wedding reception, where they sipped Moët Chandon, feasted on crab and caviar crepes and danced to big-band music (Mary sang “I’ll Be Loving You Always” softly in his ear), the groom confided to a guest, “I’ll never be bored being married to Mary.” As for Derenzo—she’s shelving her quiver. “Mom has that glow that had been missing,” she says. “The picture is complete.”


LIZ McNEIL in Saddle River