It was a scene right out of the "Hunger Games."
A young woman who looked in her Darien High School yearbook the picture of the All-American blonde, dead in a shallow grave; her heart pierced with not one, but two arrows, shot from a hunter’s bow.
It was July 4, 1976, America’s bicentennial weekend, and while the rest of Stamford, Connecticut, watched the tall ships parade down the Long Island Sound to New York City’s huge harbor celebrations, 24-year-old Margo Olson had been tied to a tree in the city’s old abandoned cemetery and executed, the buried later.
For those who know 61-year-old author JoeAnn Hart — and in Gloucester, lots of people do — it’s hard to imagine her connected to such a grisly business. But the 18-year-old JoeAnn Hart was. And, as is painfully clear in her just released memoir, “Stamford ’76,” for 40 years it has haunted her.
Hart not only knew the victim, but on the surface, the two had much in common. Both were from privileged suburban homes. Both were white, well-educated, rebellious counterculturists deeply involved in relationships with young black men in coastal Stamford.
But where Margo was also deeply involved in Stamford’s inner city drug scene, Hart was not. “By the time I met Margo,” Hart recalls, “she was more like Janice Joplin. Totally drugged out.” The two were not friends, but their boyfriends were; and Margo’s boyfriend Howie, a streetwise drug dealer, seemed the prime suspect in her death. Which led, at the hands of the Stamford Police, to his own death only weeks after Margo’s body had been found.
That the young JoeAnn could have been — through her charmer of a boyfriend Joe — a party to all this, still seems hard for Hart to wrap her head around. And for those who’ve read Hart’s first two environmentally concerned novels — "Addled” and “Float”— “Stamford ’76,” from which the author will read this Thursday, April 18, at the Sawyer Free Library, will come as a shock.
Gone is Hart’s signature tongue satirically planted in her cheek; absent is the wickedly observed social commentary. As the blurb on this page-turner of a memoir bluntly puts it, this is a “ true story of murder, corruption, race and feminism” in America’s bicentennial summer.
Like Dominicke Dunne, whose career as an investigative journalist began when he sought to investigate the murder of his daughter, Hart’s quest for answers to “how such things could have happened to people I knew” evolved into an obsession. Especially after she returned to the scene of the crime, and came to see the city of Stamford itself complicit in it.
Hart says she wasn’t sure what she was looking for, but what she found through copious research in the archives of the city’s newspaper The Stamford Advocate, was a time capsule of a racially mixed, economically depressed city on the cusp of big, corporate-driven changes that in the 1980s and '90s, would give it the third highest concentration of Fortune 500 companies in the country.
It was also, as news story after news story made clear, in the throes of greed and corruption, with organized crime following the money.
Surrounded as it was by some of the richest real estate in America, and within an hour by train to midtown Manhattan, in 1976, the blacks who inhabited the racially mixed inner-city of Stamford had an unusually close perspective on extreme white wealth. For poor blacks such as Howie, drugs seemed the only available equalizing currency.
What had probably gotten Margo her killed, says Hart, were her escalating demands for a bigger share of the profits from her boyfriend’s Howie’s drug dealing.
But what had gotten Howie killed, and by who, was another story. In trying to tell it, to make sense of it, Hart creates a narrative in which Stamford, Connecticut, circa 1976, becomes a metaphor for an America that Americans of a certain age will recognize. An America where white privileged youth such as Margo and JoeAnn were in rebellion against their very privileges. Where, like Margo and JoeAnn, a young Patty Hearst went rogue. And paid the consequences.
It’s a small book, just 188 pages. But it’s a big story. A hard story to tell. It was years in the research and writing, but as anyone who knows Hart knows: she persisted.
Joann Mackenzie may be contacted at 978-338-2670 or firstname.lastname@example.org
IF YOU GO
Who and what: Gloucester author JoeAnn Hart speaks about and reads from her new book, “Stamford ’76,” a memoir.
When: Thursday, April, 18, from 7 to 8:30 p.m.
Where: Friend Room, Sawyer Free Library, 2 Dale St. in Gloucester.
How much: Free.