David Lauderdale

Beaufort book launch: She ‘ran away’ to marry Pat Conroy. Cassandra King tells the story

It’s fun to poke inside the decidedly un-Ozzie-and-Harriet lives of one of Beaufort County’s most famous couples — ever.

Cassandra King Conroy has a big story to tell, and now she’s done it.

She was married to a man so famous that 4 million people clicked onto his website immediately after his death of pancreatic cancer nearly four years ago.

“Tell me a story,” her larger-than-life husband often said.

Pat Conroy did indeed tell Beaufort’s stories, and South Carolina’s stories, and his painful personal stories in bestselling novels and glittery movies, such as “The Prince of Tides.”

Now we have Cassandra’s story.

“Tell Me a Story: My Life with Pat Conroy” — her 400-page memoir published by William Morrow — launches Tuesday in Beaufort as part of the fourth annual Pat Conroy Literary Festival. I will be interviewing her onstage at the free event at 7 p.m. in the University of South Carolina Beaufort Performing Arts Center.

It’s a national story, but it’s a Beaufort story first. This is where she and Pat Conroy were most productive. It’s where they found love, and, for the most part, peace.

We already knew that this daughter of a Lower Alabama peanut farmer also produced her own string of best-selling books during their 18 years of marriage. Most of it happened on Fripp Island, before they moved to town and the banks of Battery Creek.

She tells us that Beaufort is where she wants to stay forever.

Meeting Pat Conroy

It wasn’t a storybook beginning.

When our top couple first met at a literary conference, her mouth was stuffed with food. It’s true that, on that night in 1995, Pat was at the pinnacle of his career. But the story that she met him when groveling for a book blurb is a myth. Her first novel was already at the publishing house. They met by happenstance.

Both of them were coming out of bitter divorces, with her leaving a 20-year marriage to a preacher. It was Pat Conroy’s second divorce.

A courtship mostly by phone didn’t answer all the questions.

Cassandra writes that she was having second thoughts (“Oh, my God. What are we doing? I don’t know this man”) when she “ran away” to get married to Conroy Charleston by one of South Carolina’s greatest characters, Judge Alex Sanders. His wife, Zoe, was the only witness.

None of them could remember the date. It was in May 1998. And it was the beginning of what Cassandra called her spin in a Category 5 hurricane called Conroy.

It’s interesting how they made the marriage work — he the “grasshopper” who indulged in every calorie life has to offer, and she the “ant” worrying with tight fist about the logical thing to do.

But they were too tired to fight. They gave each other room, and respect.

“Lowering my expectations about marriage had exceeded beyond my wildest dreams,” Cassandra writes.

We get from her more of the sweet notes from Pat than his hidden liquor bottles.

We get hilarious looks into his absent-mindedness, and his humor.

One day Cassandra was taken by ambulance to the hospital, while Pat and his best friend, Bernie Schein, upstairs smoking $10 cigars, half-deaf and totally oblivious, missed the whole thing. Eventually, after searching the water down by the dock, the two, sober as monks, drove into a rainy Beaufort night in Pat’s brand new old man’s Buick, trying to find the hospital with no lights and no windshield wipers because they couldn’t figure out how to make them work.

We also get an inside look at the conflicted Pat Conroy, a kind and giving man who also was a stubborn warrior and had the scars to prove it.

Cassandra told me Pat was like an old joke about the Irish: The only thing they can hold better than their whiskey is their grudges.

That plays out in the story of the 16-year estrangement from his daughter, Susannah. Cassandra tells how that long separation ended near the end of his life.

Stairway to heaven

But, with some prodding from her editor, the private Cassandra King now tells her own bold story.

Depression to the point of planning a suicide. Too poor to attend the literary conferences a courting Pat invited her to. A teen pregnancy. Becoming a “Prodigal daughter.” Tarot cards. Creeping her way out of a sheltered life that was focused on appearance and pleasing others. It’s all there.

And so are the details of her famous husband’s final illness, treatment, and death.

It’s here that we learn of Sarah. She was a Gullah woman who came to sit up with Pat on the night before he died, singing hymns and comforting all in the “sickroom.” She told them when Pat’s time came, they would know because a golden bridge would come down from heaven to take him.

In the morning Sarah disappeared. At least they think it was Sarah. They discovered they didn’t really know her name, or how she got there, or how she left. Who was she? Who sent her? Where is she?

That evening, the sunset over Battery Creek was so beautiful that Cassandra’s son Jason took pictures.

And then it hit them. The golden rays bursting through the clouds reached down like a bridge to the Lowcountry waters no one caressed with words better than Pat.

“Early that evening Pat left this world for the next, taking his last breath right after darkness fell,” Cassandra writes.

“He would have appreciated the metaphor. The sunset that day had been a benediction, more spectacular than ever.”

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Senior editor David Lauderdale has been a Lowcountry journalist for more than 40 years. He oversees the editorial page, writes opinion, and tells the stories of our community. His columns have twice won McClatchy’s President’s Award. He grew up in Atlanta, but Hilton Head Island is home.
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