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December 16, 2010

Mary Jane Clark: “It Begins with a P and ends with a T”

Posted by Anonymous

MaryJaneClark.jpgMary Jane Clark, the author of several highly addictive whodunits --- including TO HAVE AND TO KILL, the forthcoming first installment of her latest, suspense-filled series --- remembers the special Christmas surprise that sparked her career as a bestselling author.

We didn’t buy books when I was growing up. It wasn’t because we were poor or that the written word was unappreciated in our house; we were solidly middle-class. My father was an FBI agent. Both my parents had gone to college, and it was taken for granted that my sister and I would go as well. 

Ours was a public library family. My mother would get her novels, biographies and ladies’ magazines there. My younger sister and I would go to story hour and peruse the shelves in the children’s section. It was a very big deal when we actually owned books of our own. For my children, buying books was a given; for me, receiving a brand-new Nancy Drew or Trixie Belden mystery for my birthday or Christmas was a real treat. It was something akin to treasure.

My sister and I would always badger my mother to tell us what we were getting for Christmas. Of course, she never would. But one year, she folded under our relentless pressure and gave us a hint.

“It begins with a P and ends with a T,” she said.

“A parrot?”

“Absolutely not,” said my mother. “That’s all we need.”

“Paint? A paint-by-numbers set?”

My mother shook her head. “No. Not even close.”

For weeks I pondered it. Peppermint? Unlikely. That shouldn’t be considered a Christmas gift. That was just something that would be in our red, felt stockings, along with the oranges my mother insisted on stuffing in the toes every year. (That’s always baffled me. We could just go the refrigerator and get an orange anytime we wanted. Were we supposed to be excited about getting one in our stockings?)

I tried to imagine what the gift could be. A puppet? I hoped not. A plant? Ditto.

Finally, on Christmas morning, I found the package under the tree. It was rectangular, solid and heavy. I sensed it was a book.

The tag read: “For Mary Jane. It begins with a P and ends with a T.”

Tearing off the wrapping paper, I saw President John F. Kennedy smiling from the cover. Over his head, in big letters, was the title: PORTRAIT. The book was a compilation of photographs taken by Jacques Lowes, the official campaign photographer.

Almost five decades later, I still have that book and, while writing this piece, I pulled it out again. There they are. Vibrant Jack, beautiful Jackie and adorable Caroline (John, Jr. was just months old at publication time), along with the Kennedy parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters and cousins. Those eloquent and alluring pictures whetted what became my insatiable appetite for all things Kennedy.

It led to a Jackie Kennedy scrapbook, which I kept throughout grammar school. My grandmother saved every picture of her in the New York Daily News for me. I pounced on Life and Look magazines and searched for photos of the glamorous First Lady and, later, for ones of the magical widow.

The Kennedy images on television during the four dark days of 1963, I know, led to a fascination with broadcast journalism. After that excruciatingly long and tragic weekend, I was sure I wanted to work in television news when I grew up. That belief never wavered, and it eventually led to the years I spent working at CBS News, which led to writing the KEY News media thrillers, which have now led to TO HAVE AND TO KILL, the first Wedding Cake Mystery.

It all started with: “It begins with a P and ends with a T.”

So, be careful when you are picking out that book for a child at Christmastime. You never know where it might lead.

Join us again tomorrow as New York Times bestseller Raymond Khoury muses on books, Jedi mind-tricks and the merits of a virtual Christmas.