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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When Greene's book Good Morning, Merry Sunshine came out in 1984, many of his colleagues at the Tribune were stunned. "We had no idea that Bob was even married, let alone a father," says someone who worked in the paper's features department. The book is Greene's diary of his first year as the father of a baby girl, Amanda. Far from portraying him as a doting new dad, the Greene in the account is incapable of accepting the responsibility of fatherhood. One memorable scene depicts him demanding his dinner even though his wife is trying to comfort their crying infant. Still, the testimonials rolled in. The humorist Erma Bombeck bestowed an honorary membership in motherhood. Phil Donahue called it "the most honest and personal account of the first year of fatherhood I have ever read."
Indeed, the book appeared to be as honest and self-revealing as anything Greene had written. "I have been wondering what this is going to do to my ambition," he wrote. "I have always been a pathologically ambitious person; it is probably the one quality that defines me most clearly."
Greene's wife, Susan, comes across as a lonely mother left at home to fend for herself while the star columnist traverses America, reveling in his celebrity and being perpetually on assignment. There is marital tension in the book, even bitterness. Describing Susan telling their young baby that one day they will go for ice cream, Greene writes, "She's planning some future that I'm only peripherally a part of. She knows that when the time does come to go to Baskin-Robbins, I'll undoubtedly be at work."
He was never much of a family man. In an earlier piece, he wrote of his relationship with his parents: "I have become so proficient at putting words on paper for consumption by large numbers of people that I have lost the ability to communicate privately with the two people who have meant the most to me. . . . I am much better with strangers." In Good Morning, Merry Sunshine, he expands on the theme: "When I visit [my parents] I often make excuses to go into another room and read a magazine, or put a record on the stereo; for whatever reason, I find it hard to just talk and sit around and be close."
Such feelings are not, of course, unique to Greene. What is remarkable is that social awkwardness and marital discord are so familiar to a person who writes sentimentally about an idyllic American life; perhaps it is an existence he always wanted and never had, rather than a life he once had and lost.
In hindsight, another anecdote stands out in Good Morning, Merry Sunshine. Greene wrote that a 16-year-old high school girl had visited him at the paper one day. She admitted her romantic interest in him. "What are you worried about?" she asked. "Well, for one thing, I'm thirty-five and you're sixteen," he replied.
The girl didn't think that mattered. She had had a fling, she told Greene, with a famous comedian-it wasn't a big deal. Greene wrote: "There must be a place where sixteen-year-old girls don't automatically turn for companionship to thirty-five-year-old men whom they've seen in the newspapers.
"If there is a place like that, I'd like to find it for Amanda. The one thing that scares me is that such a place may exist only in my memory."
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By the late eighties, Greene's impact on popular culture was solidly established. He was credited in an Esquire column with disseminating the term "yuppie." His article about a young woman wishing to be "drained" by a vampire inspired Anne Rice to write The Vampire Lestat, the author's sequel to Interview with a Vampire. The premier issue of Spy magazine made fun of his toupees.
In 1988, Greene, at 41, was at the peak of his form. His column was syndicated in almost 200 newspapers nationally; he was making an estimated $750,000 annually. Later that year, Spy-celebrated for eviscerating the rich and famous-ran a devastating article by the Chicago writer Magda Krance entitled "You Wouldn't Want to Be Bob Greene."