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“Marry Milly!” Joan Kehoe whispered in my ear. Then she repeated it, more insistently. We were at an Italian restaurant, Riccardo’s, the favorite martini-lunch spot for reporters at the Chicago Sun-Times in the 1960s. This may have been the only dinner I ever had there. Joan had introduced me to Millicent Martinez a few months before. We were a fairly large and noisy group and Milly was sitting out of earshot as Joan importuned me. She also couldn’t see the quizzical look on my face, which betrayed what was in my mind: Marry Milly? Out of the question.
Not that I didn’t like her. I did. She was pretty. She was self-assured. And she was exotic, half-Mexican and half-Jewish. But she did not fit my life’s plan, which was to become a big-shot Washington journalist. I figured that the person I planned to be someday should have a Vassar or Wellesley graduate for a wife, or possibly an heiress—a woman whose family connections and intellectually stimulating company could help me attain the goal.
Eventually Milly overwhelmed this stupid idea. Eventually I realized that, wherever I went in life, I would regret it the whole way if she were not with me. So ultimately I followed Joan’s advice. And thanks to that, I’ve lived a love story. But the decision took a while. And God had a hand in it.
In the first instance, though, Joan Smith, formerly Kehoe, deserves the credit. She eventually got a Ph.D. in sociology and went on to become a professor of women’s studies and a dean at the University of Vermont. In 1964, though, Joan was an Irish American housewife and mother who was finishing college, abandoning her straitlaced cultural roots, and serving as spokesperson for the civil rights movement in Chicago. I was a fresh-faced twenty-five-year-old reporter for the Sun-Times who wanted to cover civil rights and politics—and meet women.
Originally I knew Joan just on the phone. She sounded so warm, I wanted to date her and was hugely disappointed to learn she was married—unhappily, as it turned out—and in her thirties. So we became friends. I sympathized strongly with the civil rights movement. The year before, one of my last assignments as a sergeant in U.S. Army Intelligence had been to watch the March on Washington and, if it turned violent, to meet up with troops waiting to be ferried in from nearby Fort Belvoir, Virginia. I listened to Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech with tears rolling down my face.
As a brand-new reporter, my main job was to write obituaries. I was ambitious, though. So, on a day off, I took it upon myself to knock on doors in a white ethnic neighborhood on the Southwest Side to try to understand why people there disliked blacks. They told me that they’d moved from other neighborhoods where, after the first blacks moved in, crime increased and property values collapsed. They alleged that the NAACP and crooked real estate dealers were in cahoots to spread panic. Someone evidently thought I was from the NAACP and called the police, who called my boss, the city editor. He banned me from covering civil rights, though he let me cover politics.
Over the next couple of years, when I covered the Illinois legislature and then national politics, Joan fixed me up with various young women she knew. They included the first African American woman I ever dated and the first woman I ever slept with—the day after which occasion Joan sent me a congratulatory telegram.
In early 1966 she told me she wanted me to meet this friend of hers, Millicent Martinez. Given Joan’s track record, I had every reason to think that Milly would be interesting and, possibly, sexually adventuresome. What Joan told me about her in arranging a dinner date sounded intriguing, too. She was the daughter of two Communists and, like Joan, was a student and anti- Vietnam activist at Chicago’s left-wing Roosevelt University. Joan pronounced Martinez with the accent on the last syllable, not the second. Neither of us knew enough Spanish, or Hispanics, to get it right. In fact, for some months after I met Milly I kept mispronouncing her last name when I introduced her to people, including my parents. Finally she got fed up and corrected me.
Our first date took place at the famous Red Star Inn, a German place on Chicago’s near-North Side that has since closed. Joan was a serious Marxist and yearned for a revolution in America, but her tastes were all upper-middle-class.
What struck me most about Millicent Martinez was that, at twenty-six, she already had a shock of white running along the part in her black hair. Even though Joan had arranged this dinner to fix us up, the dominant subject of the evening was that Joan was giddily in love and had to leave early to meet her new man, Larry Smith, a New York investment banker who was arriving for the weekend. Milly and I drove her to the railway station when we finished with dinner.
Afterward Milly and I went to an unromantic vinyl-and-Formica coffee shop near her apartment in Hyde Park on the South Side. Milly ordered tea. I got interested. Her name is Millicent, and she drinks tea, I thought. This is a classy radical. But it shortly became clear that she was less than radical. She told me that her pal Joan recently had enticed her into joining Students for a Democratic Society and participating in an antiwar sit-in at Roosevelt. Milly and others had been arrested, but Joan hadn’t because she’d left the scene early to look after her children. Milly said she’d given the police a phony name, Rita Torrez, so she wouldn’t have a record and could get a job as a probation counselor with the Cook County Juvenile Court when she graduated from Roosevelt in June. The police had discovered her real identity, though, and two members of Chicago’s notorious intelligence unit, the “Red Squad,” had come to visit her and tried to recruit her to inform on the SDS. She refused. One of them then sent her flowers and tried to call her for a date, she said, but she turned him down.
I was impressed by her personal involvement in matters I was, at best, only observing and writing about. I liked her politics—idealistic, but not rabidly ideological. She was on the executive committee of SDS, she said, but she was the conservative in the group, counseling others to keep demands reasonable and avoid confrontations with the police. She said that when one SDS radical brought a gun to a meeting, she had told him never to do it again. She told me that another guy’s politics were so insane that he’d punched a businessman in the face on Michigan Avenue just for being a businessman.
I don’t remember exactly what I told her about myself, but I must have tried to impress her with my achievements and ambitions. I was a Dartmouth graduate and now was jetting around the country writing about Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, urban race riots, and national politics and getting reasonably frequent front-page play in the newspaper. My ambition was to become a Washington or foreign correspondent. Milly was not bowled over. She clearly knew nothing about Ivy League colleges. The glamour of journalism did not seem to register with her either.
This definitely was not love at first sight, on either side. She considered me nothing more than “clean-cut.” Even after we fell in love, I didn’t consider her really beautiful, though when I look at pictures taken back then I can’t imagine why. She was slender, olive-skinned, and sloe-eyed. She told me that she thought her nose was too big and her legs too skinny, and I guess I believed her.
But we were interested enough in each other—and respectful enough of Joan’s recommendations—that we dated intermittently over the next few months. We went to movies, had dinner, visited Joan, and went window-shopping downtown—one of my favorite cheap things to do. I dated other women, too, including a Vassar graduate I fell into a maddeningly platonic relationship with. Milly was seeing two other men, a chemist and a professor at a junior college, both of whom wanted to marry her.
Even though this was the mid-1960s, the dawn of the sexual revolution, and even though I’d hoped that Milly might be a believer in free love, the reality was different. The best I got for weeks was a kiss good-night at her door, and a rather unpassionate one at that. She put her hands behind her—in her back pockets when she was wearing Levi’s—leaned forward, and pecked.
At twenty-seven, I was ambivalent about sex. On the one hand, I wanted it desperately and thought about it constantly. On the other hand, I just as desperately feared becoming seriously involved with anyone I wasn’t prepared to marry. Moreover, I was ridiculously inexperienced. I was the product of a Victorian upbringing. I was a fat kid and rarely dated in high school. I was scared of women in college. And in 1966 I was still so caught up in 1950s behavior codes that I couldn’t stand it any longer.
So I let women dictate the rules of engagement. If a woman was willing to neck, I’d gladly neck, sometimes till dawn. If, oh so rarely, one was willing to have sex, I’d gladly oblige when fear of commitment didn’t get the best of me. Or, as with Milly, I’d accept the kiss-good-night routine.
After dating for a few months, we advanced to smooching. Once I decided to press my luck and clumsily planted my hand on the front of her shirt. She shot me a look that said, “Who said you could do that?” I blushed, laughed, and suggested we take a walk.
Since we didn’t have sex early on, we talked. She had a fascinating story to tell. Her mother, Ida Lederman, had had a terrible childhood—she was sexually abused by her immigrant father and kept a virtual slave by her stepmother. She’d escaped by getting married to a Jewish artist. She left her first husband quickly and met Milly’s father, Refugio Martinez, at a United Packinghouse Workers strike rally. Ida was beautiful as a young woman. Pictures remind you of Ava Gardner.
Refugio was a passionate, charismatic man with a sad, pockmarked face and prematurely white hair that he transmitted to his daughters. He’d prepared for the priesthood in Tampico, Mexico, but fled to the United States after being warned that his increasing involvement in radical politics was putting his life in danger.
Because his job as an organizer of meatpacking workers kept him moving around the country, Ida, Milly, and Milly’s older sister, Alexandra, were left alone a lot. Ida was the victim of racial prejudice as an Anglo woman married to a Mexican. Once a brick was thrown through a window and nearly hit Alex in her crib. Ida later alleged that Refugio hit her when they fought and once kicked her in the stomach. They separated.
When Milly was three and Alex five, Ida suffered a nervous breakdown and ran away from home, leaving the girls unattended. They subsisted on breakfast cereal for a few days until neighbors called the police. Juvenile authorities found Alex outside their apartment building and took her to the Cook County youth detention facility, known as the Audy Home. Milly hid under a bed and was not discovered. She stayed with neighbors, who called for Refugio to come back to town. He got sole legal custody of them, and for a while they traveled with him, living in hotel rooms, until he placed them with another union organizer and his family in middle-class surroundings in Kansas City.