March 06, 1978 12:00 PM

Mary Higgins Clark’s life story could have been a tragedy; instead, she has carefully plotted a happy ending. Thirteen years ago she was left a widow at 34 with five children to support. “I had no right to fall apart in a way that the children lost a mother as well as a father,” she says.

A free-lance writer, she got a job cranking out radio scripts for stars like Bess Myerson, Hugh Downs and Peggy Cass. But for her own satisfaction, in the wee hours before the car pool stopped at her New Jersey door en route to Manhattan, Clark sat at her kitchen table and wrote. Her first book, a biography of George Washington, was not a financial success. She had better luck with a 1975 novel, Where Are the Children? The advance for that thriller about a mother whose two children disappear was $3,000. “I was glad to get it published,” says Clark. Then, to her surprised delight, the paperback rights were sold for $100,000. “That changed my life in the nicest way. It took all the choking sensation out of paying for the kids’ schools. I went back to school too.”

Trained as a secretary, Clark enrolled at Fordham and is now, at 47, just two semesters away from her B.A. in philosophy. She is also the proud mother of an assistant prosecutor (Marilyn, 26); a partner in a law firm (Warren, 25); a Dartmouth-educated publishing trainee (David, 23); a senior at Mount Holyoke (Carol, 21), and a sophomore at Oxford (Patricia, 19).

Her devotion to children shows up in her writing. The child-parent relationship was at the heart of her first novel, and the just-published A Stranger Is Watching describes the ordeal of a little boy who sees his mother murdered.

With the financial windfall from Stranger ($500,000 advance, $1 million for paperback), Clark has treated herself to a luxury pied à terre across the street from Central Park. (“Every Irish Catholic girl from the Bronx wants to have an apartment on Central Park South,” she says.) But home is still the suburban colonial in New Jersey where she gets up at 5 a.m. at least three days a week and writes for five hours—”once I’m into a book.” Her next novel, Remember House, will be about reincarnation. “I don’t believe in it, but it’s a wonderfully dramatic premise,” says Clark. “I’ve even taken courses on the subject.”

Clark wants her books to be entertaining but says, “I would like to get across a sense of values. I like nice, strong people confronting the forces of evil and vanquishing them.” She always provides romance too. And now, because of her fame as a novelist, Clark has found romance of her own.

Last August she was asked to speak to the American Bar Association convention in Chicago about her experiences as a single parent. Also on the panel was Raymond Ploetz, a divorced Minneapolis lawyer with four children from 9 to 19. During the question-and-answer session Clark was asked why she had never remarried. Her reply: “There is very little market for package deals.”

Ray Ploetz smiled.

On Aug. 8—the first anniversary of their first date—the Ploetz-Clark bunch will become a family, with all nine children in the wedding party. “The best part about writing a best-seller,” Clark says, “is that it led me to Ray.”

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