The Detroit Auto Show got underway yesterday, and in the way I have lately of linking these things, the show always makes me think of a woman named Michele and the romantic, embarrassing mess of an encounter I had with her so many years ago–an encounter that defined my naïve adolescence and which to this day, at this time of the year, makes me shake my head.
She said she spotted me as I wandered through the auto show. She was one of the models employed to make the cars look better, I suppose. But I didn’t meet her until a few days later when I attended a party in Detroit for author Harold Robbins. No one much talks about Robbins now, but back then he was the world’s bestselling author of such sex-saturated tomes as The Carpetbaggers and The Adventurers.
By the time I met him, Robbins had started to run out of gas on the bestseller list, so he was hitting the road promoting his latest novel. Michele—although she called herself Mickie then—was one of the models hired for the occasion to help promote Robbins as the real life incarnation of the irresistible sexual stud he wrote about. The deception did not work. Robbins turned out to be a charmless blowhard who grabbed at 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–thanks apparently to that first sighting at the auto show. Even Robbins sensed there was something happening here, and stayed away.
She was from Chicago, she said, and worked part-time as a model and also as a ticket agent for American Airlines. Ah, youth. I was smitten. After that first night with her, I called her regularly for several weeks. We had great phone conversations, that deep, purring voice late at night on the line from Chicago. Finally, she invited me to visit for a weekend. I couldn’t wait to get on a plane.
Mickie picked me up at O’Hare 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, this being the first time I had been in Chicago or been on a weekend date.
Saturday afternoon we met some of her friends. They invited us to a party that was happening that night. Mickie looked nervous and immediately demurred. Man of the world that I was, everyone’s pal, I insisted we attend. Her friends were delighted. Mickie looked more nervous.
The party was held in a well-to-do, snow-covered Chicago suburb full of grand two-story homes. As soon as I walked in the door I understood why Mickie might have been trepidatious. 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 across the country. America was a much different place back then—a fact I should have been a lot more aware of than I was.
Still, everyone was friendly, and the evening seemed to be unfolding pleasantly. Then 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. Then he got nastier, always in a friendly tone, but increasingly unpleasant. I tried to move away. He followed me. Mickie tensed, but she said nothing. In fact, no one said anything. No one tried to stop the guy. It was just me and him.
To say I was unprepared for this verbal assault is to severely understate the case. I was aware that I had been transported out into the suburbs with no idea where I was, and with no car. Mickie and I 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. Her face had become a lovely mask, showing nothing. I was numb. No one spoke on the way back into town.
They dropped me off at my hotel and then drove Mickie home. I spent a sleepless night playing out scenarios that had me responding to the confrontation a whole lot better than I actually had.
The next morning, I called Mickie’s apartment. No answer. Then came a knock on the door. I opened it to find her standing there looking perplexed. She wanted to talk. She came in and sat down and said she was distressed about what happened the previous night. She was particularly upset by the way I handled it. “Why didn’t you do something?” she demanded. I was stunned. What was I supposed to have done?
“You should have done something,” she insisted.
But I hadn’t, and it was obvious she thought much less of me for it. The rest of the day passed in blur. In retrospect, I can’t imagine why we did, but for some reason we drove to her mother’s place. She had been active in Chicago’s civil rights movement, a lovely woman in an apron, probably wondering what the hell this complete stranger was doing in her living room.
Later, we went back to the hotel. I collected my bag, she kissed me perfunctorily, and I got in a cab to the airport—devastated.
I never heard from Mickie Clark again.
Two years later, Michele, as she now called herself, had graduated from the Columbia School of Journalism and become a reporter for WBBM-TV, the CBS affiliate in Chicago. Shortly after that, she was hired as a correspondent for CBS News. Beautiful, assured, articulate, with that deep, resonant voice I remembered from our phone conversations, she was a rising star on Walter Cronkite’s newscast.
She was one of the reporters covering the Watergate scandal that would destroy Richard Nixon’s presidency. In December 1972, she boarded a United Airlines flight from Washington to Chicago accompanying Dorothy Hunt, 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 was among those who died.
So was Mickie Clark. She was twenty-nine years old.
Officially, pilot error caused the plane to go down. But over the years there has been speculation that the CIA wanted to silence Mickie and Dorothy Hunt and thus somehow orchestrated the crash.
Of all the Watergate figures the Nixon Administration might have conspired to kill, they would seem to have been marginal players at best. But who knows?
Mickie certainly is not forgotten around Chicago. They have even named a school after her–the Michele Clark High School.
And every year about this time, I do think of my brief, fumbling encounter with her. I think of what a short a short distance I have come, what a long distance she might have traveled. To her, I was probably a mistake one weekend in Chicago. For me, it remains the romance brought down by youthful shortcomings.
Age hasn’t given me much insight as to what I would do differently. Maybe today 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?
I still wonder.