Fans of Pat Conroy, author of the semiautobiographical bestsellers The Prince of Tides and Beach Music, know all about his turbulent life: the abusive father, the two broken marriages, the suicide attempts. But how's this for a surprising plot twist? "I am finally happy, yes, happy," says Conroy, 57, repeating the word as if trying it out for the first time. "I am happy. Before this, I don't think I knew what that meant. It never even occurred to me that I would find happiness like this with a woman."
In fact, since his 1998 marriage to Cassandra King—whose critically acclaimed novel, The Sunday Wife, is in its fifth printing—Conroy has been imbibing double shots of satisfaction. His latest bestseller, My Losing Season, a memoir about playing on the 1967 Citadel basketball team, has won some of the best reviews of his career. Yet he insists he finds more pleasure in his wife's success, even chauffeuring her during part of her recent book tour. Says novelist Anne Rivers Siddons, one of Conroy's oldest friends: "I know the first thing everybody thinks is that there must be competition between them, but so far I've seen not one shred. Pat seems so generally joyful for her—and she adores him."
In their home overlooking an alligator-populated lagoon on Fripp Island, a gated community near Beaufort, S.C., they've settled into a comfortable rhythm. While King, 58, props herself up on pillows on a daybed and taps away on her laptop, Conroy writes in longhand on yellow legal pads at a cluttered mahogany table. "When I finish a chapter," says Conroy, "she types it and leaves it back on my writing table." (King offers basic editing ideas but says, "I haven't gotten up the nerve yet to make suggestions on his writing.") "When Sandra is finished with her writing," Conroy continues, "she'll leave a chapter on the pillow of our bed, asking how she can make it better. Sometimes I say, 'Here's what I would do,' sometimes I say to leave it alone."
There also isn't much Conroy would change about his current life—in stark contrast to his past. The oldest of seven children born to Marine fighter pilot Don Conroy (who was immortalized in his son's 1976 book, The Great Santini, and died in '98) and his wife, Peg, a homemaker who died in '84, Conroy says his earliest memory is of "sitting in a high chair in El Toro, Calif., watching my mother attempting to stab my father with a butcher knife."
The turmoil continued after he graduated from the Citadel in 1967 and married Barbara Boiling, now 57, a widow whose two daughters he adopted. (They had one child, Megan, 32.) While writing Santini, Conroy suffered his first breakdown and attempted suicide, but he recovered with the help of a therapist he still sees occasionally. (His brother Tom, who was schizophrenic, killed himself in 1994.) Four years after his 1977 divorce from Boiling, he wed Lenore Gurevitz, now 57. After their 1992 split, Conroy says, Gurevitz kept him from seeing their daughter Susannah, 20, a student at Berkeley. "I've seen her a total of 30 days in the past 10 years," he says, "and this is the heartbreak of my life." (Gurevitz declined to comment.)
But Conroy's luck changed in 1995. He was accepting an award at the Hoover Library in Birmingham, Ala., when he met King, who came to the event with a friend. "I thought she was adorable. Wonderful. Funny," he recalls. "Then, somewhat dampening my ardor, I was informed by the librarian that she was the happily married wife of a Methodist minister."
"Not true, of course," says King, referring to the "happily." Growing up on a peanut farm in Pinkard, Ala.—where her father, Tony King, 87, worked the land, and her mother, Pat, now deceased, raised King and her two younger sisters—she had dreamed of becoming a writer. But that was set aside when she married the clergyman. When not busy caring for the couple's three sons, she read and wrote. "It was my secret vice," says King, who eventually enrolled in a master's program in writing and published her thesis, Making Waves in Zion, in 1995. "My husband considered that frivolous."
Things couldn't be more different with Conroy, whom she began seeing after her divorce. Both have turned the page on bad relationships. "I love marriage," says Conroy. "And I did it. I made it. I finally got it right, pal."
Julie K.L. Dam
Gail Cameron Wescott on Fripp Island
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