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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.

(page 10 of 15)

 

In the aftermath of the Sarah case, the legislature revised the laws to make “the best interests of the child” paramount. There was a clear line from that case, Greene’s first crusade, to the new legislation and directives of the state child welfare agency following Baby Richard. “That’s the effect Bob Greene had on the development of law,” says Boyer, who argued in court against the termination of the biological father’s parental rights. “He was very much at the root of it.”

Boyer contends that the legislation was a political reaction to complicated and extreme cases that should not have been the basis for creating law. But to many people, Greene was a hero. He had accomplished what few journalists can claim: He had embarrassed bureaucrats, changed laws, stood up for children who needed a champion.

Also during this decade, Greene aligned himself with one of the most popular cultural figures in the world: Michael Jordan. In the early nineties, Greene began writing columns about the Bulls superstar. “We all asked him when the book was coming out about Jordan,” says one Tribune colleague. “But he insisted he wasn’t writing a book. He said that he simply ‘wanted to see this great athlete in his prime.’” Then, in 1993, Greene published Hang Time, with a photo of Jordan and himself on the cover.

“I really broke what few relations I had with Bob then,” says another Tribune employee, “because he had lied to his colleagues and lied to his editors. And it was a stupid lie, told for no good reason. But it showed the contempt he had for all of us.” Terry Armour, then a Tribune sportswriter, says that Jordan thought he had given Greene’s career a boost. “Every time something happened with Michael,” says Armour, “Bob was on TV, saying, ‘I think this-.’ Michael always chuckled.”

Champion of abused children. Friend of Jordan. These were not bad comebacks from the beating he had taken in the Spy magazine article. Still, he continued to yearn in print for a simpler, happier time. In 1993, Greene published his first novel, All Summer Long. In it, he writes about three old friends from the imaginary town of Bristol, Ohio, who after their 25th high school reunion decide to spend one more summer together on the road. The character who most resembles Greene is a divorced network TV correspondent living in hotel rooms and scouring the country for human interest stories. He becomes involved with a graduate student prone to wearing tank tops and running shorts, and he eventually moves back to his hometown to write books.

In real life, of course, Greene never moved back to his hometown of Bexley, despite always seeming to pine for it in print. He lived in a Streeterville condominium. And he wasn’t divorced; now he also had a son, and both of his children were attending the Latin School of Chicago. Several times in the early nineties, his wife, Susan, made brief appearances at the Tribune. “She was a quiet woman,” one former colleague recalls, “totally dominated by Bob.” At the Latin School, she was an active homeroom mother. She also became a volunteer and then a board member for Creating Pride, a nonprofit organization that helps inner-city schoolchildren develop confidence by making art. Susan was a nice person who was married to someone who lived a public life, said an acquaintance. But she didn’t; she enjoyed her privacy.

* * *

By the early nineties, Greene had reinvented the way he dressed, exchanging the look of someone on the move for the look of someone who has reached his destination: nicely tailored pants, checked shirts, well-fitting jackets, and ties. But beneath the veneer of this glossy career, when it came to women Greene still seemed to be stuck back in Bexley High School or in the swinging Chicago of the seventies.

As far back as the Ms. Greene’s World Pageant, colleagues had joked about his overheated interest in young women. “In the seventies and early eighties, there was a different, less enlightened perspective,” says Paul Camp. “Many people in newsrooms then-married and unmarried-were doing things with lots of other people. It’s important to remember the context of the times.” But by the late eighties and early nineties, the times were changing. Some observers thought Greene was too persistent in his flirtations.

 

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