REAL-LIFE DRAMA: Berwyn-based mystery novelist Barbara Clement has led quite a life of her own. //photo by tessa marie images
“That’s when the men in black suits and hats recruited me for the National Security Agency … Would you like sugar?”
Barbara Clement delicately pours a glass of iced tea and hands it to her guest. It’s how she speaks, dropping tantalizing nuggets of information that lead from one chapter of her life to the next.
Which makes sense. Clement, after all, is a writer. She channels her fabulously interesting life into Jessica Rawlins, the savvy, globe-trotting protagonist of the five novels that compose her Main Liners mystery series. But, as it turns out, the real heroine is Clement herself. She survived two bouts with breast cancer, built two successful careers for herself, and endured an unhappy first marriage that led her to the true love of her life, Charles Clement, scion of one of the Main Line’s oldest families.
Photos of Charlie and Barbara line the walls and bookshelves of their Berwyn home, each capturing beautiful moments in their 27-year marriage. But only she can tell their story now. Clement’s husband died in February, after an ugly battle with lung cancer. Now, she’s busy figuring out the next chapter of her life.
Her story begins in the Midwest amid World War II. Born in Kansas and raised in Minnesota, Clement is of a time and place where most women who went to college were seeking their “Mrs.” degree. She, on the other hand, was set on law school, attending the University of Minnesota and graduating in just three years.
Just before her graduation in 1961, the “suits” recruited her for the NSA. Clement passed a battery of tests and was offered a position as an analyst—a conveniently vague job title. “But the pay was substantial,” she says. “When I came back and told my father, he said, ‘That must be a mistake.’”
It wasn’t. The 21-year-old went off to Washington, D.C., which was bristling with the excitement ushered in by John and Jackie Kennedy. “There was a group of young people in Washington at the time that were really a lot of fun,” Clement recalls. “We socialized with groups of Young Republicans, Young Democrats, young whomever.”
Two years later, when Clement was 23, she married a Navy officer. They moved to Boston so he could attend Harvard Business School, and she landed a job in the corporate office of fashion giant Jordan Marsh. After her husband earned his MBA, he was recruited by McKinsey & Company, a management consulting firm. “In those days, the wives of potential employees were interviewed,” Clement says. “My interview was with the chairman of McKinsey. I put on my white gloves and went to meet with him.”
Clement rolls her eyes and adopts a hilarious patrician tone. “He advised me of the importance of my husband’s career and that there were certain rules I had to abide by,” she says. “One of them was that McKinsey women did not work.”
The couple relocated to New York to be near her husband’s Manhattan office, and Clement played the good wife—for a while.
She began writing a fashion column for the Staten Island Advance newspaper. It was supposed to be a part-time job. Within six months, Clement was writing five columns a week. Her bosses decided on syndication, and Clement’s byline appeared in newspapers across the country. Then her husband received a transfer to Amsterdam. “You’ll have to quit your job,” he told her.
She followed him to Amsterdam, but she didn’t quit. Sam Newhouse, the media mogul who owned the Advance and Condé Nast, ensconced Clement in the company’s office in Paris, flying her back and forth from Amsterdam. She met everyone who was anyone, attended the best parties, and dined at the finest restaurants. She did it all without her husband, who was tending to his own business.
What did he think about her glamorous, high-profile career? “I became less and less concerned about what his attitude was toward my work,” she says.
The marriage soon ended.
THE WRITE STUFF: BARBARA CLEMENT IS THE AUTHOR OF SEVERAL NOVELS SET ON THE MAIN LINE.//PHOTO BY TESSA MARIE IMAGES
Divorced at age 31, Barbara Clement kicked off the 1970s with a new career as vice president of advertising and creative services at Leslie Fay, a multifaceted fashion company. In 1979, she became vice president of international public relations for Estée Lauder International, a position she held for 15 years. Clement’s work took her all over the world. She lived in Manhattan and vacationed at a home in Saint Martin.
It was through one of her Saint Martin neighbors that she met Charlie Clement. Both of them were divorced and in their late 40s. Being older and wiser helped the marriage succeed, Clement says, but the real difference was her.
“I always knew who I was and what I wanted,” she says. “But for too many years, I tried to be what other people wanted me to be because that’s what women did then—and that’s probably why so many [women] were unhappy.”
When Charlie came along, she adds, “I was living the life I had always wanted, so the woman that he met was the real me. He loved me for who I really was.”
So much so that when her husband asked that they move from Manhattan to the Main Line to care for his ailing father, Clement agreed to give up her job.
Of course, she found another one.
In 1994, Clement became assistant vice president for communication and public affairs and director of constituent publications at Villanova University. She loved the job and the area, quickly establishing a new circle of great friends. In 2008, she retired from Villanova to pursue yet another dream: becoming an author. Clement’s first novel, Main Liners: Legacy of Deceit, was published by Kay Square Press in 2009.
Though it may seem as if Clement has lived a charmed life, she’s lived through pain. She’s not talking about her battles with breast cancer. It’s her husband’s illness and the pain he endured that bring tears. She waited a long time to find Charlie, and 27 years didn’t seem like enough.
Still, Clement is quick to say that she considers herself blessed. And now, she’s working on the next chapter of her life. She’s begun writing a new Main Liners book. It’s an international escapade that involves the Mafia and a pope with unsettling visions. The plot and setting are new, but the spirit of what will be Clement’s sixth book is the same.
“You bloom where you’re planted,” she says. “If you’re intelligent and have at least a modicum of self-confidence, you’ll succeed no matter where in the world you find yourself.”