The Sad Saga of Bob Greene

When a woman from his past resurfaced, the columnist’s 33-year career crashed; then a family tragedy hit home.

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In March 1978, the Tribune announced that it had hired Greene away from the Sun-Times. In a note to readers, the Tribune described his columns as “often controversial,” and quoted New York columnist Jimmy Breslin as saying, “Bob Greene is one of the two, perhaps three, people alive who can do this impossible thing-write a column for a daily newspaper, and then have the column last through the years.”

Inside the Sun-Times, Greene’s move across the street didn’t come as a big surprise. “I think he was operating from a position of less strength at the Sun-Times than readers-or even the Tribune-might have realized,” says Michael Miner. By then, the Sun-Times was rich with columnists. Roger Simon had joined the paper and was receiving a lot of play; and with the closing of the Daily News the same year, Mike Royko had moved into the pages of the Sun-Times, as well. Some staffers suspected that Johnny Deadline did not feel that comfortable sandwiched between two such heavy hitters.

At the Tribune, Greene’s hiring was spurred by a desire to attract younger readers. “We were primarily concerned at the Tribune with the unavoidable fact that our readers were dying,” says the former editor Jim Squires. “So there was a strong effort made during the late seventies and the early eighties to prove that we were the newspaper of the young and that Jim Hoge was not going to steal all of our readers. Bob Greene went a long way toward doing that. He was just a perpetually young guy.”

Greene worked hard to polish that image. In a column, he wrote about turning 30 and actually being 20-10. He continued to wear blue jeans; if he had to dress up, he might throw on a rumpled jacket and a loosely knotted tie. His biggest wardrobe expansion was a rotating set of toupees in different styles: just got a haircut, growing out, and shaggy long hair.

In the first week his column appeared in the Tribune, Greene hit a snag. He wrote about a phone call that he had received from a 13-year-old girl named Lindy, who had told him that she had been raped at age nine and had become a prostitute at 11. Her friend Barbara, also 13, was a prostitute, as well. “She mostly does the customers who want straight sex,” Lindy explained. “I do everything.” Greene wrote that Lindy had called for help. She wanted out. But the phone line went dead, presumably when Lindy’s pimp showed up. Greene reported that he had later gotten a call from Lindy’s mother. She said that Lindy and Barbara had been killed in California, where they had run away. In a letter home, Lindy had written: “I contacted a man, Mom, a man that tried to help me, but I’m afraid I couldn’t get back to him. . . . The man’s name is Bob Greene.”

In the city’s newsrooms, the column set off alarms-the bullshit meters of hard-boiled reporters. Staffers for the Sun-Times and the Tribune set out to prove-or disprove-the story, calling all over California for a record of the deaths of the two girls. “First of all, the people at the Tribune are pissed at Bob because, hey, they’re jealous of him and don’t want some new hotshot showing up,” recalls Dorothy Collin, a former Tribune writer. “And the people at the Sun-Times are pissed at Bob because they’ve always disliked him. So this column shows up, and nobody-I mean, nobody-believes it.”

Two days later, Greene finished his first week at the Tribune with a column headlined: “Bob Greene Tells How He Fell for a Hoax.” The hoax, he wrote, was “apparently perpetrated by an emotionally disturbed teen-aged girl. The two phone calls to me apparently were placed by this girl. I have spoken with her parents, who feel that their daughter was responsible for the false story.” Greene wrote that he and Tribune editors had met with the mother, father, and daughter.

The incident fueled Greene’s critics, some of whom had long held suspicions about the columnist and his sources. (Greene had once written that to protect the privacy of his sources, he often did not use last names. But no one has ever provided evidence that he has made up sources. His admirers say suspicions that a columnist makes up sources or quotes that are “too perfect” are common for writers whose talents and success are the envy of other journalists.)

The column about the dead girls was a bad start that eventually faded into a small, nearly forgotten bump in the road as Greene turned into a mainstay at the Tribune, one of the paper’s most marketable personalities.

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