An Innocent No Longer: Ann Leary

Ann Leary recounts her son’s difficult entry into the world in her first book
By  Pamela  H.  Sacks

TELEGRAM & GAZETTE
2004

ROXBURY, CONN. – Ann Leary stands in the driveway calling to her Irish wolfhound, Clancey, while a couple of other dogs bark at the rustling trees.

“It’s out of control,” she says with a laugh, referring to a menagerie that includes five horses, four dogs and a cat. “It was my childhood dream to own a horse. Denis bought me my first horse 10 years ago.”

Yes, she’s talking about that Denis – Denis Leary, the actor, comic and Worcester native.

Mrs. Leary, with her blond hair, high cheekbones and flawless skin, looks as though she could be the family celebrity. Yet it is clear that she is no prima donna. Her first book, “An Innocent, A Broad,” which was published last month by William Morrow, reveals a woman with an open nature and a refreshing sense of humor about herself, even in difficult and confusing circumstances.

“An Innocent, A Broad” chronicles the premature birth of the Learys’ son, Jack, when Mrs. Leary was about five and a half months pregnant. Her water broke while she and her husband were walking down a street in London, where Denis had a gig. She gave birth to the two-pound infant several days after a mad dash to University College Hospital.

What started out as a weekend visit in 1990 turned into six-month stay for Mrs. Leary, who kept vigil for nearly four months over her tiny son through his ups and downs in the neonatal unit. After Jack’s release, the Learys lived in an apartment in London until their infant’s lungs were strong enough to withstand the flight home. Without much to do, Denis worked on a one-man comedy act called “No Cure for Cancer” that would soon catapult him to stardom.

Mrs. Leary was 27 at the time and terrified. She was often alone in a strange city – her husband traveled back and forth between London and New York – and she did not know if Jack, who is now a strapping lad of 14, would survive. Yet even back then, she had an inkling that she had the material for a good book.

“Being in the neonatal unit in London felt like being a guest in someone’s home for too long,” Mrs. Leary says. “I was constantly doing the wrong thing. They were constantly making fun of me.”

In one chapter, Mrs. Leary offers up amusing details about her typical American tendency to mind everyone else’s business. With a good ear for dialogue and a remarkable memory for details, she recounts meeting a young, attractive woman named Faith, who had a dreamy, mystical quality. Faith’s newborn was full-term and yet was being held in the unit. Mrs. Leary thought he might have a serious heart defect. The two women became friends, and Faith would express confusion about why the doctors refused to release her infant, Alexander.

“After the doctors finished their rounds each day, I’d tell Faith, `Don’t let them leave. Go ask them why Alexander can’t go home today. Go on! Ask them why!’” Mrs. Leary writes.

Finally, a nurse told Mrs. Leary to stop pestering Faith, that she knew exactly why her child was being held: He was born addicted to heroin and was being weaned off the drug through the methadone in his mother’s breast milk.

“Unfortunately, this experience is a sad but accurate example of my pitiable abilities at character assessment,” Mrs. Leary writes amiably. “I am constantly mistaking shyness for arrogance, for example, and in this instance I mistook a junkie for a highly evolved spiritual guide.”

On this early spring day, Mrs. Leary, clad in jeans and a dark blue shirt, exhibits similar good spirits as she escorts a visitor into her home. The Learys moved seven years ago to tony Roxbury from the Upper West Side of Manhattan. They bought an old farmhouse on 48 acres, and they have gradually added rooms. The house is comfortable and sprawling, a blend of old and new.

Mrs. Leary leads the way through the living room, with its huge stone fireplace and elegant country-style furnishings in burgundy and cream. We settle down in the sunroom, which has only recently been completed. It offers a spectacular view of wooded hills and has quickly become Mrs. Leary’s favorite place to work and relax.

A red barn just up the hill is visible from one window. Nearby, Jack and a friend are jumping on a trampoline, hooting at their own antics. The Learys also have a 12-year-old daughter, Devin, engaged elsewhere on this day.

“We both wanted country life,” Mrs. Leary says of the decision she and her husband made to leave New York. “The kids were in school in the city. We had two dogs and then Denis bought the horse. We’d rent a house and the kids would relax. As soon as Jack could be out, he was into sports all the time.”

Mrs. Leary remarks that Denis had left only 20 minutes earlier for the city, where he is in pre-production on a new television series about a New York firehouse after 9-11. Leary also will play the star role in “Rescue Me,” which has been picked up by FX Cable.

While writing “An Innocent, A Broad,” Mrs. Leary kept to her own prodigious work schedule. Over the years, she has also authored several screenplays, including “Two If By Sea,” which starred her husband and Sandra Bullock. She would work in the morning, tiring by noon. She found that while writing “An Innocent,” she would be up at 5 a.m., and, if things were going well, she would continue all day. She was driven in part by the hope that her story would help other mothers with preemies.

“When I was going through it, I was desperate to hear about premature babies that had thrived,” she says.

In a telephone interview several days later, her husband said he was glad that she “finally sat down and wrote about the experience.”

“She’s always been a good writer,” Leary said. “I think the book’s great; it’s very funny.”

Mrs. Leary also has written for television, yet in assessing her success in the screenwriting realm, she is without guile.

“The screenwriting is totally on Denis’ coattails,” she says. “I’m not embarrassed to say that. He’s really encouraging and really likes what I do. He’s always positive, and I’m his worst critic. Maybe he knows I need the encouragement.”

On the other hand, Mrs. Leary allows, her husband’s fame can be something of a double-edged sword. A friend wanted to show the manuscript for her book to an editor, whose response was, “Please don’t send it.”

“She thought it would be dumb,” Mrs. Leary says. “The book got published on the strength of the writing and the story. I’m grateful for that fact.”

With an impish grin, Mrs. Leary says that her next book will be about a woman who is “married to this slob who leaves his socks on the kitchen table,” a circumstance she touches on in her current tome, while describing life with Denis and Jack in their London digs.

But for the most part, Mrs. Leary’s life revolves around her family, the animals and close friends they have had for years. Like most mothers, she’s often on the road transporting the children to one activity or another. She helps organize books fairs and works for the PTA. She and Devin exercise the horses themselves.

For his part, Denis has kept his career mainly on the East Coast because he prefers to be near home. An avid hockey player, he converts a riding ring on their property into an ice rink in the winter. Leary said they live in a snow belt, and he devotes a good deal of time to shoveling, resurfacing and scraping the ice.

“He turns down offers so he doesn’t have to be away,” Mrs. Leary says. “He finds his true calling is cultivating and farming ice.”

The family has just returned from a spring vacation in the Bahamas, and they take an annual trip to Ireland to visit Leary cousins. Closer to home, the Learys frequently make the two-hour drive to Worcester to visit relatives. Jack has a particular fondness for the city’s neighborhoods. His mother says he has indicated an interest in living in Worcester when he grows up.

The Learys also devote considerable time to the Leary Firefighters Foundation, a charity Denis founded after the Worcester warehouse fire on Dec. 3, 1999. Denis’ cousin, Jeremiah Lucey, was among the six firefighters who perished in the blaze. Leary established another arm of the foundation, Leary Firefighters Foundation Fund for New York’s Finest, after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

In “An Innocent, A Broad,” Mrs. Leary writes about her childhood and Denis’ Worcester roots and the close family ties she and her husband have had for years. She relates that the two met while he was teaching at Emerson College, his alma mater. She had transferred from Bennington College and wanted to try her hand at writing. The attraction was mutual and instantaneous. They were soon living together.

All these years later, the marriage seems to have lost none of its magical quality. When the Learys are at an event attended by glamorous celebrities, Denis inevitably turns to his wife and tells her she’s the most beautiful woman in the room.

“It’s so not true,” Mrs. Leary says, laughing, “but he still does that. Isn’t that nice?”