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 7 of 15)

 

In the 1980s, Greene stopped being a counterculture boy wonder. He was a full-fledged member of the media Establishment with a tripartite career: his columns for the Tribune, a monthly column for Esquire called “American Beat,” and frequent reports-up to 30 a year-for ABC-TV’s “Nightline.”

Most of those words were unedited. As with many star columnists, Greene’s contract with the Tribune specified that no changes were allowed in his column without his approval. “Bob saw any suggestion as impinging on his ‘voice’ or his ‘style,’” says Clarence Petersen, one of the editors who oversaw Greene’s column. Other copy editors quickly became frustrated with his refusal to change a word.

Greene’s Tribune contract also secured him the front page of the Tempo section. At one point, Paul Camp, then the associate features editor, tried to organize a group of Tribune writers and editors to discuss redesigning the section. “It was an effort to instill a little new life into Tempo,” recalls Camp. One proposed change was to move Greene’s column to the inner pages of the features section. But before the group could even meet, Greene went to management and complained, and he stayed on page one.

At the Sun-Times, Greene had been part of the newsroom, where there was a lively give-and-take between reporters and editors. At the Tribune, he moved into an office in an alcove between the features department and the main elevator. His office had a smoked glass wall, permitting him to be both part of things and yet removed. Inside, his office was littered with the debris of his work: cases of Coke in glass bottles, a personalized Louisville Slugger bat, photos of Elvis, boxes of his books. He did not have a lot of small talk for anyone, and so he did not make many friends. “Everyone was glad when [Paul] Galloway left the Sun-Times to join the Tribune,” recalls one editor. “We all thought, Let Paul try to talk to him.”

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In 1983, Greene published his seventh book, American Beat, a collection of newspaper and magazine columns dating back to the mid-seventies. The superlatives on the dust jacket indicate his standing at the time. From Tom Wolfe: “Bob Greene is a virtuoso of the things that bring journalism alive: literary talent, hard reporting, a taste for mixing it up haunch-to-paunch, shank-to-flank, and elbow-to-rib with people of all sorts, and a willingness to let out a barbaric yawp now and then.” From Dan Jenkins: “Few journalists today can tap-dance on the American pulse the way Bob Greene does.”

Increasingly, Greene’s columns began to include a dateline from another state, or even another country. But while his time on the road increased, the subjects of his columns narrowed. He wrote about hotel rooms, faxes or soaps in hotel rooms, airplanes, airports, the life of a chauffeur (Greene gave up driving in the 1970s). When he crossed the ocean on the Queen Elizabeth 2, he wrote about eating in his stateroom and watching television.

Although he still produced funny columns, his writing began showing signs of nostalgia. He wrote about the enduring love of his parents, about his memories of family dinners. “I always felt there was something very calculated in who Bob became at the Tribune,” says the Reader’s Michael Miner. “It was like he realized he could no longer be Johnny Deadline, and so he recalibrated his life.” Robert Feder agrees: “At the Sun-Times, he had had a rock ‘n’ roll sensibility. What he turned into at the Tribune was the exact opposite. He celebrated being out of step, out of touch. It was a shocking transformation.”

Foreshadowing the Greene to come, one section of American Beat focuses on his own departing youth. The column tells the story of his visit to Lindy Lemmon, his first love. This was a relationship of a few months’ duration when he was 16 and she was 13. “Sometimes when I was on the road in some strange hotel room, or typing a story on deadline on a borrowed portable Olivetti set up on an airplane tray table, it would strike me that the boy I had been during the summer of ‘63 would be worth looking for, if I could ever find the time,” he wrote. “That’s when I would think of Lindy.”

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