What a creep! I thought. But then, how did his interview differ from what I’d done, using her like some disaster mannequin? I’d given no thought to what it really must have been like jumping out of that car, venturing alone into an apartment for a botched abortion. I felt deeply crummy for caving to Hagerty, using her name, and her city. He’d said the story would have lost credibility without those details, but I should have argued, “So what?”
The years rolled by. I left Newsweek, became a magazine writer, and taught journalism. Now and then I’d think of the Marcy story, and the tape: “Please, Momma, please still love me when you read it.” Sometimes I’d play it for my class, as an ethics exercise, always hoping students would find some saving grace in what their professor had done. I mean, parents had to hear this stuff, didn’t they? I got few takers.
Then, a couple of years ago, after retiring as a professor at Columbia Journalism School, I ran into the documentary filmmaker Dan Loewenthal at a party in New York. I forget why, but I told him about Marcy, that I couldn’t get her out of my mind. “Well, why don’t you go out and find her?” he said. “And apologize.” He’d help me. And he’d make a film about our search.
Other than her first name, all we knew was that she had a brother, Arthur, and a sister named Jeanie. And there was that telephone call over the old rotary phone. We thought if we slowed down the tape and counted the clicks, we could come up with her number. Then, we’d look that up in a reverse phone directory from 1967, find the family’s name and address. They’d be long gone, of course, but we could nose around the neighborhood, locate someone who knew them, and maybe learn what had happened to Marcy. Piece of cake.
Not actually. There are no audible clicks. Rather, it’s a time-lapse thing—the number of milliseconds that elapse between dialing a nine, say, and when the rotary winds back to zero. The nine and zero are easy to distinguish, but not the nine from an eight, or a five from a four. Computer experts we found on Craigs-list translated the sound impulses to digital images, but none was confident he had the golden number.
There were other avenues, one of which was her high-school yearbook. A Flint librarian told us that back then she would have attended one of three high schools, and been listed as Marcy somebody-or-other in the freshman class entering the fall of 1965*, when she was 14. That intrigued us enough that in January 2011, we flew to Detroit, rented a car, and drove the 50 miles up to Flint. It was cold, with about a foot of snow on the ground. Before leaving, we’d called the Flint Journal and convinced them to do a story about our search, hoping to reach someone who had known Marcy. We got to Flint on a Friday, and the story was scheduled to run that Sunday.
One of Flint’s misfortunes was to have been the birthplace of Michael Moore, whose documentaries regularly paint it as the unhappiest place to live in America. Beyond a couple of ritzy neighborhoods filled with Tudor mansions, it’s dominated by one-story frame bungalows that house the former work force from the abandoned Chevrolet and Buick plants. Aside from unemployment numbers, bad news in Flint comes in the form of arson and violent crime. The city averages 300 to 400 fires a year. And as Dan and I drove around, we saw plywood signs nailed up on trees saying things like, “No Hoes Allowed. Children At Play.”
At the Flint Central Library, the yearbook gambit also proved a dead end. No Marcys in the 1965* books, or the classes on either side. “Marcy,” we figured, could well be a nickname for Marsha, Martha, Marjorie, Margaret, or Mary. It seemed hopeless. We also tried checking the “Marcy” birth announcements that the Flint Journal used to run in the ’40s and ’50s. No luck.
We ended Friday in low spirits.
Saturday morning, we were back at the library. I was up in the microfilm room, and Dan was downstairs at a table poring over more yearbooks, when a presence loomed in his peripheral vision. He looked up to see this aging biker dude with a gray ponytail, his wallet secured to his blue jeans by a chain. “You the guys looking for Marcy?” he asked in a challenging voice. He’d seen the story in the Sunday issue of the Journal, which had appeared online that day, ahead of schedule. “I knew her back in the ’60s. Her real name is Margaret. The last name is *Bachmann.”