November 22, 1993 12:00 PM

WHEN TOM CRUISE WAS IN MEMPHIS LAST YEAR FILMING The Firm, he raved about the cherry royale pie. Director Sydney Pollack was so impressed with the Glory Hallelujah pie, he left a $100 tip. Cruise, Pollack or anyone else who has tasted one of Sarah (The Pie Lady) Clayborne’s creations knows her baking comes straight from the heart. What’s not so obvious is that it’s rooted in tragedy.

On Sept. 29, 1987, before Clayborne had made baking pies her livelihood, her 18-year-old daughter, Eugenia Binkins, and Eugenia’s boyfriend, Mark Jones, were robbed and shot in the head by three teenagers in Memplis’s Glenview Park. (The assailants were later sentenced to life imprisonment.) Mark died instantly; Eugenia was paralyzed for life and could no longer speak or swallow. Doctors also discovered she was two months pregnant. Seven months later—three of which were spent in a coma—she gave birth to a son, Ahab. “When I saw this beautiful brown head come out of her body,” says Sarah, “I knew I was blessed.”

Eugenia entered a nursing home in the summer of 1988. To pay for her care—and to support Ahab, his brother, Carmi, now 8, and Sarah’s daughter Hadassah, now 11—Clayborne, a trained chef, started selling the prize pies she had learned to make at her grandmother’s side in Chicago. Her first break came when an ecstatic customer offered her two months free rent in a south Memphis building after tasting one of her pies at a fund-raiser for disabled people. Another customer loved her peach pie so much that she bought Clayborne a new oven. So in September 1990, Clayborne opened a luncheonette, specializing in pies with names like Hosanna Hosanna (chocolate, almonds and coconut) and Glory Hallelujah (pears and apples with a lemon glaze). And this month she is moving to a larger location downtown. Her goal is to make enough money with her pies to open a rehabilitation center for indigents. “There is a higher thing going on here,” says Sarah. “Pies are my calling.”

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