I met her in Detroit a long time ago at a party for author Harold Robbins.
Michelle—although she called herself Mickie then—was one of the models hired for the occasion to promote Robbins as the real life incarnation of the irresistible stud he wrote about in his bestselling novels. The deception did not work. Robbins was a blowhard who grabbed his crotch a lot and made lewd comments. The women stampeded away.
Mickie was sleek and doe-eyed, African American, and, to my astonishment, interested in me. She was from Chicago, she said, and worked part-time as a model and also as a ticket agent for American Airlines. I was smitten. I called her every other night for several weeks. She invited me to Chicago. I couldn’t wait to get on a plane.
Mickie met me at the airport and checked me into a hotel on Chicago’s South Side. Her apartment was nearby. She was warm and welcoming. I was nervous and trying to act a darn sight more mature and worldly than I was.
Saturday afternoon her friends invited us to a party that night. Mickie immediately demurred. Man of the world that I was, everyone’s pal, I insisted we attend. Her friends were delighted. Mickie started to look nervous.
The party was held in a well-to-do Chicago suburb full of grand two-story houses. As soon as I walked in the door I realized I was the only white guy there.
Everyone was friendly enough, but you could not help but feel a certain tension. This was 1970. Martin Luther King had been assassinated barely two years before. There had been race riots.There was a rage in the land. America was a different place—a fact I should have been a lot more aware of than I was.
A well-dressed middle-aged man sauntered over and said something about Mickie. I didn’t think I had heard him properly. Must be nice, me being a white man out with a black woman. Something like that. It got worse. I tried to move away. He followed me. The snide comments kept coming, increasingly nasty. Mickie tensed, but no one said anything. No one tried to stop the guy.
I was totally unprepared for this verbal assault. I didn’t know what to say. I had no idea where I was. We were trapped in a house full of people I didn’t know, with no means of escape.
Finally, the people who brought us decided to leave. Mickie no longer seemed present. I was numb. No one spoke on the way back to town.
The next morning, I called her apartment. No answer. Then came a knock on the door. I opened it to find her standing there. She wanted to talk. She was distressed about what happened the previous night. She was particularly upset by the way I handled it. I was stunned. What was I supposed to have done? You should have done something,she said.
But I hadn’t. The rest of the afternoon passed in blur. We drove to her mother’s place. She had been active in Chicago’s civil rights movement. Later, we went back to my hotel. I collected my bag, she kissed me perfunctorily, and I got in a cab to the airport—devastated.
I never heard from her again.
Two years later, Michele, as she now called herself, had become a correspondent for CBS News. Beautiful, assured, articulate, she was a rising star on Walter Cronkite’s newscast. She was one of the reporters covering the Watergate story in December, 1972 when she boarded a United Airlines flight from Washington to Chicago with the wife of E. Howard Hunt, one of the Watergate burglars.
On its descent into Chicago’s Midway Airport, the plane crashed, killing forty-three of the sixty-one passengers on board. Hunt’s wife and Mickie were among those who died.
I am back in Chicago this weekend. It has become one of my favorite cities. Inevitably, though, each time I’m here, I rethink that first visit nearly forty years ago.
I was a kid then, twenty-one years old and naive beyond words, barely out of the small Ontario town where I grew up, a long way from cities like Chicago and the complications of race and relationships.
All these years later, I’m still not quite sure what I would do differently. Maybe I would be smart enough to read Mickie’s signals and not go to the party in the first place. Would that have made any difference?
As I wandered Michigan Avenue this weekend, past the Emerald City towers that are the shining testaments to the town’s renaissance, I still wondered.