Authors share memories of friendship with Barbara Bush

NEW YORK (AP) — Sandra Brown knew she had a friend in Barbara Bush from the moment she heard the story about the 2000 election, when then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush was in a virtual tie with then-Vice President Al Gore for the presidency.

“Laura Bush told me how they were all still counting the chads in Florida and the Bush family was watching,” the author known for novels such as “French Silk” and “Seeing Red” said during a telephone interview this week.

“It got to the point where Barbara got up and left the room, and said, ‘I can’t watch it anymore.’ So after a while everyone was asking, ‘Where’s Barbara?’ ‘Where’s mom?’ So Laura tells how she went up to the bedroom in the governor’s mansion where Barbara was staying and there she was, listening to one of my books on audio.”

Promoting literacy was a longtime cause for Barbara Bush, who died Tuesday at age 92, and books were a balm and a passion. She met many authors during her time in Washington and in the years following. Brown, Mary Higgins Clark and Harlan Coben were among those who became good friends, and shared memories of a former first lady whom Brown said “put her heart and soul” into getting people to read while also being “very funny, very candid with her comments.”

Clark met Bush after hearing that the then-first lady was a fan of her work. She wrote to her and received a prompt and friendly reply, inviting her to a state dinner. Clark and her daughter and fellow best-selling crime novelist, Carol Higgins Clark, both spoke of time spent visiting with Barbara Bush, the wife of former President George H.W. Bush and the mother of former President George W. Bush. The Clarks were in Houston once and Barbara Bush invited them into one of the more private areas of her home — her husband’s closet.

“And she reaches in and holds up a wild-looking shirt and says, with that wonderful twinkle, ‘Is that the ugliest thing you’ve ever seen,” Carol Higgins Clark said. Responded the former president: “Bar, I don’t make fun of your clothes, so don’t make fun of mine.”

Over the years, Bush’s literacy foundation hosted programs that included authors ranging from Brown and Coben to Brad Meltzer and Candice Millard, who learned that when George and Barbara Bush were both hospitalized last year, the family read to them from her book on President James Garfield, “Destiny of the Republic.”

Coben, the million-selling thriller writer, spoke at several literacy events and knew Bush well enough — though he always called her “Mrs. Bush” — to be invited to the family homes in Houston and Kennebunkport, Maine. They talked often about books, and she would send him notes at times, with perceptive comments about his work. She also had opinions about his diet; Coben was at a lunch with the Bushes when he suddenly noticed that a serving of Brussels sprouts was on his plate.

“I put them there — eat them,” Bush told him.

A recent memory was from visiting Kennebunkport in 2016. Coben brought his children, to whom Bush “took a shine” and “gathered around her” as she advised them to “be kind.”

“She said, ‘The times in my life I most regret are the times I could have been kinder.’ If I had said that to my kids they would have completely ignored me,” Coben said.

When Bush turned 90, in 2015, her guests included Brown and Meltzer, who tweeted that he came to know Bush after reading that she was shopping for one of his novels in a bookstore and was told she looked just like Barbara Bush. They began writing to each other and Bush became his “favorite pen pal ever.”

“Her love for literacy lasted so long, she turned her 90th birthday party into a fundraiser for literacy,” he wrote. “When she told me she was asking four authors to entertain there, I was like, ‘Wow! Who’re you getting?’ She was like, ‘Dummy, it’s you.’”