Last June, Bob Greene, the nationally syndicated columnist for the Chicago Tribune, traveled the roads of Nebraska promoting his 21st book, Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen. The book tells the story of a railroad depot in a small Nebraska town; every train carrying troops to either coast, on their way to the Pacific or the European theatre of World War II, stopped for ten minutes in North Platte.
The townspeople there, and in many nearby towns, took it upon themselves to feed and entertain the six million GIs who passed through on the Union Pacific. The residents’ selfless contributions meant the world to the soldiers, many of whom had never left home before.
And last summer, Greene was one more beneficiary of that Great Plains hospitality. He loved the fact that people waved to him from their cars-and he loved that it was not a big, done-for-display wave, but a wave that was understated yet friendly, much like Nebraska itself. He loved the crowds who gathered to hear him speak and then lined up afterward to have their books signed.
He was driving-something he had given up in Chicago-and he had planned his book tour to follow the old railroad route as closely as possible. On June 7th he reached the Lincoln County Historical Museum in North Platte. He moved on the next day to the town’s Wal-Mart, and then to Kearney, Grand Island, Hastings, Lincoln, and Omaha. His appearances were big news; The Omaha World-Herald had printed a schedule of his signings. He made a brief foray west, into Colorado, and then circled back again to Nebraska. With the highway threading out into such unencumbered spaces, and the big sky meeting the horizon, the world must have felt open and free, part of a softer, easier era-the sort of era that Greene wrote about with yearning.
But on June 20th Greene took time off from his book tour to phone an FBI agent he knew. He contacted the bureau because he had received two calls from a young woman, an acquaintance from his past. She had called Greene to congratulate him on the publication of Once Upon a Town, but, according to one account, she also mentioned that she was writing a book-one that would touch on their relationship. She implied that Greene would not be pleased by her revelations. Greene told the FBI that he felt threatened by her calls. When contacted by the bureau, the young woman denied that she had made any threats. On June 28th, the FBI closed its inquiry, saying there was insufficient evidence to pursue an investigation. (Neither Greene nor the woman would comment for this article. Due to privacy considerations, Chicago will not publish her name.)
Greene returned to his tour, buoyed by the strong reviews earned by Once Upon a Town. It must have felt like a new career pinnacle for Greene, whom Time magazine had recently called a chronicler “for people hungry for moral clarity.”
But moral clarity is hard to achieve, let alone sustain, as the world discovered a few months later when the young woman, now 32, re-entered Greene’s life in a way that cost him his column. He was back in Nebraska last September when he was summoned to Chicago to face his fate. The young woman, apparently angered by the way he had rebuffed her when she had called earlier, had sent the Tribune an e-mail outlining the circumstances of her relationship with the columnist. As a 17-year-old high school senior in 1988, she had arranged an interview with Greene for a school project. Her parents had driven her downtown and waited while she completed her assignment. A few months later, after she had graduated from high school, Greene and she saw each other several times over dinner and at least once they went to a hotel, where they had a sexual liaison. (Her lawyer is now said to be trying to negotiate a financial settlement from Greene.)
Last September, after the Tribune investigated the matter, it took five days for Greene’s career of 33 years to come crashing down.
The saga of Bob Greene, now 55, is a complex tale of success, failure, mystery, and tragedy. As a young graduate of Northwestern University, he quickly made a name as a pioneering journalist-finding fresh angles, exploring pop culture, injecting himself into a story. His early work was celebrated by masters such as Jimmy Breslin and Tom Wolfe. Over the years, though, the gaze of the wunderkind went from forward to backward, and the middle-aged writer dwelt in nostalgia and sentimentality, concentrating on the glories of an America-or an imagined America-several generations removed. Throughout, he had a talent for tapping his own life and musings, even the most mundane daily experiences, and shaping them into pointed observations and lessons. Critics found much of this to be bunk, but readers responded warmly.
“What was Bob Greene’s talent?” says Jim Squires, the Tribune’s editor from 1981 to 1989. “He arrived at a point of view on common, everyday issues, and he expressed it in a way that obviously a huge bunch of readers in the country would look at and say, ‘I agree with that. That’s exactly the way I feel.’ And that is a talent. That is a great talent.”
The trouble was, in public comments Greene made it clear that sometimes he did not believe what he wrote. He was just finding an angle that would make a good column-draw attention, promote his career. He mixed candor and calculation so shrewdly that, looking back over his work, it is impossible to tell when he is being honest and when he is just reaching for effect. But the devastating events that have unfolded are beyond questions about his work.
The tragedy for the Greene family was compounded in late January when Susan, Bob’s wife, died of a lingering illness. “As Susan lay dying during the most painful months of our family’s life,” said Greene in a Tribune obituary, “she defined, in the eyes of our children and me, the true meaning of strength and love.” Clearly, this is a moment when Greene will need to find that kind of strength within himself.
The mixture of sentimentality and commerce that characterizes Greene’s later work seems to have roots in his family. His father, Robert Sr., was the president and chief executive officer of a baby shoe bronzing company; his mother, Phyllis, was a housewife who was “the most sentimental person in the world,” Bob’s sister, Debbie, once wrote. Later in life, Phyllis published a book about her first year as a widow; Bob and Debbie, who became a newspaper writer with the byline D. G. Fulford, collaborated on books about preserving family memories. Bob’s younger brother, Tim, who climbed mountains in Peru and sold real estate in Aspen, was considered the adventurous one in the family.
Greene has often written about his hometown of Bexley, Ohio (population 13,203), as if it were Smallville, U.S.A. But in fact Bexley is an affluent, virtually all-white suburb of Columbus. “It was the kind of suburb where teenagers generally didn’t have to worry about where their allowance money was coming from,” Greene acknowledged in Be True to Your School, published in 1987.
By junior high, he was compiling college basketball statistics for local radio shows and doing sports interviews for his school paper. His first ambition was to be a tennis star, but if that did not work out, he wanted to be a reporter. When John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Greene said in an interview that appeared in the Reader in 1977, he typed up a report on his high school’s reaction and took it to the Columbus Citizen-Journal. The paper did not publish it, but there was something about writing that article that revved Greene up; for years afterward, he would “warm up” by typing the first sentence of that piece: “The class sits in stunned silence.” A year later, he tweaked the story for the anniversary of the assassination, and this time it made the cut at the Citizen-Journal. Even when he was 17, what would become his professional voice was recognizable: “It has been a year now, and being young, we tend to forget.”
The summer between his junior and senior years in high school, Greene got a job as a copy boy at the Citizen-Journal. By his senior year, he was working on the student newspaper and the yearbook. Later, he wrote about trading jokes with a classmate on the yearbook staff, Susan Koebel, who eventually would become his wife.
In 1965, at age 18, Greene enrolled at Northwestern University. Although he was a journalism major, for his first three years he did not contribute to the student paper, the Daily Northwestern; later, he admitted that he had been too “intimidated” to pursue it. Still, Northwestern was the beginning of what he would call his “James Bond” period. He started wearing a star sapphire pinky ring because Sean Connery had appeared on the cover of Esquire sporting one (Greene was still wearing his a decade later).
During his junior year, he became a stringer for the Chicago Tribune. (The newspaper’s parent company also owns Chicago magazine.) At the beginning of his senior year, he won a job as a columnist for the Daily Northwestern, chosen by faculty and outside journalists. It was an amazing coup. He called his column “Greene,” and it captured the attention of a number of newspaper editors who were looking for fresh voices.
The Chicago Sun-Times hired Greene right out of Northwestern in 1969. At first, it was to be a summer job as a general assignment reporter. But when the conspiracy trial of the Chicago Seven-the people accused of instigating the riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention here-started in mid-September, Greene followed his hunch that the action would be outside, in the street. He got the assignment, and when a riot broke out, he was positioned to write about it. That led to a full-time job as a reporter.
The conspiracy trial was a national story, and most newspapers had their legal correspondents covering it. From the beginning, Greene approached the story as a feature writer. In the spring of 1970, just as the trial was about to end, he followed two defendants, Jerry Rubin and John Froines, to the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where they were making speeches. Greene’s story ran in the Sun-Times’s Sunday magazine and won a national competition for best Sunday magazine story of the year.
In 1971, Greene married Susan Koebel, who the year before had graduated from the University of Wisconsin. Those who knew her say that she was “sweet” and “shy of the limelight.” Also that year, the Sun-Times made Greene a columnist, at age 23. At the time, the tabloid was the youngest, hippest major paper in town. Roger Ebert had just won a Pulitzer Prize for his film criticism, and editor James Hoge was encouraging his writers to follow their voices. “Bob was full of energy and focus,” recalls Michael Miner, a senior editor and the media critic for the Chicago Reader, who was then a Sun-Times reporter. “Certainly, lots of writers in their 20s have that, but Bob did stand out.” Not that he was a particularly friendly guy. “Most people’s image of Bob would be of Bob alone,” says the Sun-Times sports columnist Rick Telander, who has known Greene since the early seventies. “Alone by choice, a classic man alone in a crowd.”
Greene wrote columns that were fresh and exciting. He broke a common rule of journalism by putting himself into stories, and he did not refrain from portraying some subjects in unflattering yet funny ways. He traveled with the rock band Alice Cooper (which led to a book, Billion Dollar Baby); he persuaded jingle writers to pen a song about him; and he created the “Ms. Greene’s World Pageant,” a column spoof on beauty pageants inviting female readers to send in their photos for the competition. At the Sun-Times (and later at the Tribune, where Greene continued the pageant), the contest was referred to in-house as “Bob’s Dating Service.”
Greene did become friends with his colleague Paul Galloway, and together they wrote a fictional series for the paper called “Bagtime,” about the adventures of a bag boy at a Treasure Island grocery store. The series became a hit play locally and then a book for the two writers. Overall, Greene had created a persona for himself that both played on newspaper tradition and parodied it: He was Johnny Deadline, Reporter, which also became the title of his first collection of columns.
To classes of future writers at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern, Greene was a hero. “There was graffiti above a urinal in the men’s bathroom downstairs that said, ‘Bob Greene pissed here,’” recalls Robert Feder, a Medill alum who today is the Sun-Times’s television and radio columnist. “Anybody who went to Medill in the seventies, particularly in the early seventies, looked up to Bob Greene. He was doing the kind of newspapering we all dreamed of doing-a hip, cutting edge version of newspapering.”
In 1972, after the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics, Greene published a striking column that secured his reputation nationally. “It took this one night to make us know” what it is to be a Jew, he wrote.
“Rabbis were quoting it in High Holiday sermons,” recalls Feder. “That’s how big it was. It seemed to be deeply personal, deeply felt.”
Apparently, it was not. In the mid-seventies, Greene returned to Northwestern to talk to students. The appearance was well attended-Feder was among the students eager to hear Greene speak. Alan Rosenberg, who today is an assistant features editor at The Providence Journal in Rhode Island, was also there. Rosenberg looked up to Greene, and he was curious about the 1974 column that Greene had written about President Gerald Ford pardoning Nixon. “It was so extreme in its emotionalism,” recalls Rosenberg. “It was very virulent-‘We got this guy Ford and the one thing people had wanted of Ford was that he must not pardon Nixon. And now he’d gone and done that and now he’d have to pay.’ I had wondered if Greene had felt that angry when he wrote it, and when it was time for questions, I asked him.”
Greene said no, he had not felt that way. “He said that he had sat down and thought about what he should say. And that that was the way he normally conducted his business-calculate what the right reaction was, what would make a good piece.” Then Greene went on to tell the story about how he had written his column about the Israeli athletes. He said he had been watching TV and having a drink when he heard the news about the murders. And the thought that had crossed his mind was, If I handle this right, I could be famous.
“It seemed so ethically bankrupt, to have this wonderful forum and to just calculate it, to weigh it, and to say what you think would bring you to prominence,” says Rosenberg. “I could never look at him in the same way again.”
Feder corroborates Rosenberg’s story. “Greene said he didn’t really feel anything. It was all just a device that he knew would resonate with people. It made us feel like we had been taken in.”
From the time Greene became a columnist, he pushed to be syndicated-a lucrative arrangement in which the Sun-Times would sell his column to other papers. But only in 1976, after Greene visited the Washington Star to discuss moving there, did Hoge offer him a syndication deal. From that point on, Greene’s columns began moving away from a Chicago-specific focus toward broader based topics that would play as well in Omaha as in Lincoln Park.
In 1977, on the occasion of Greene’s 30th birthday, the Reader ran a long Q & A with him. The interview was conducted by Beth Fletcher, who was then a receptionist at the weekly, and it featured a photo of a chubby-cheeked but skinny Greene wearing penny loafers, bell-bottom jeans, and the dress shirt, black tie, and jacket of a tuxedo.
To read the piece today is stunning-the Greene in the story is light-years away from the public persona he later created at the Tribune. This Greene, who says “fuckin’” as liberally as an Osbourne family member today, affects a tough, cynical approach to everything. Talking about the assassination of JFK, he says the President “took lunch,” as in, “A year after Kennedy took lunch, I wrote a piece.” He displays a militantly ignorant approach to literature. “I never read anything,” he tells Fletcher. “I’ve never read a word of Hemingway, I’ve never read any F. Scott Fitzgerald. I certainly never read any fuckin’ Shakespeare. All I ever read in my life was newspapers.”
He dismisses negative comments about him-such as those by the Pulitzer Prize–winning critic Ron Powers and by contributors to the Reader-as “faggot humor.” “I’ve never blamed [my critics],” he says, “‘cause think about it. When you think about it rationally, if I was them, I’d rather be me, too.”
As for the column about the Israeli athletes, which he calls “the Jew column,” he says, “I wish I’d never written it.”
“A: First of all, there’s still, four years, five years later, there’s not a week that goes by that I don’t get a call or a letter about that column. Second of all . . .
“Q: Calls or letters like what?
“A: [Affects a fair impression of a little old Jewish lady] ‘I just always remember that, we still have it taped to our refrigerator.’ [Laughs] . . . that type of shit, you know?
“Q: Like you’re the conscience of your people.
“A: Yeah, you know. And I get all kinds of calls from Jewish organizations, askin’ me to come talk to them about being a Jew, which I won’t do. . . . I say, ‘My religion ain’t Jewish, my religion is bein’ a newspaperman.’ And when they say, ‘Oh, that was a beautiful column,’ I say, ‘That’s right, it was a beautiful column. Period. I wrote it in ten minutes, drunk. And I felt nothing.’ The only thing I felt was that this had better get good play because it’s a hell of a newspaper column.”
Fletcher also asks about Greene’s “outrageous” reputation as a womanizer. “Yeah, I guess I’m pretty unaware of that,” he responded. “A womanizer, eh?”
Fletcher goes on: “If it’s not too bold . . . , it might make sense to ask about what kind of relationship you have with your wife?”
Greene: “It’s not too bold to ask, but I don’t think I’ll talk about that. It’s a good question. I just don’t much ever feel like talkin’ about it. Except that I just get annoyed sometimes when people tell me I have a fucked-up view of women. I mean, because . . . I’m one of the few people I know who has a marriage that’s working, you know?”
A decade later, the editors of Spy magazine, preparing a story on Greene, asked him about the Reader interview. In a brief phone conversation, he said that he wasn’t being “cynical as much as just stupid” and that he had just been “striking a pose.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
“When I was reporting that,” Krance recalls, “I was constantly tripping over stories about how Bob was always hitting on women.” The recollections of Greene’s modus operandi were all the same: He would invite a young woman-usually an aspiring journalist-out for drinks. His first bar of choice was at the Executive House, now Hotel 71, but he later switched to the atrium bar at the Marriott across the street from the Tribune. His standard line: “Imagine, we’re sitting here in this bar and above us there are a thousand empty rooms.” In the end, Krance’s article concentrated on Greene’s writing, saying that “he is the master of the tug at cheap emotion, the king of cloaking a banal observation in fake profundity.”
Even if that was what Greene was selling, Tribune readership surveys consistently reflected that the public was buying it. “When I was editor, our marketing surveys showed that Bob Greene’s demographics were exactly the kind we wanted,” says Squires. “They were basically women, 25 to 50, who spent the money and bought the products. He was the darling of that crowd. He wrote with a kind of Midwestern point of view, a sensible point of view. He had a good grasp for family, for children, all subjects that that group was interested in.”
”Johnny Deadline, Reporter and American Beat are two of the best collections of journalism I’ve ever read,” says Bill Zehme, a Chicago-based writer and a contributing editor of Esquire. “Later he became more of a savior, and that’s somewhat less entertaining.”
In the 1990s, Bob Greene was best defined by two things: using his columns to defend a series of children seemingly failed by the courts and sinking further into nostalgia. The columns focusing on children started in 1990 with the story of Sarah, born six years earlier addicted to heroin and cocaine, then placed in the foster home of a Bridgeview couple. When Sarah was three, her biological mother, who had completed rehab, and her father decided they wanted their daughter back. Greene disagreed and he wrote passionate columns arguing his point of view. “The case caused something of an uproar, although 95 percent of it was generated by Greene,” says Bruce Boyer, the director of the ChildLaw clinic at Loyola University Chicago and an outspoken Greene critic.
Over the next ten years, Greene’s columns about abused children became very familiar to his readers: a seven-year-old Wisconsin girl forced to live in a dog cage; a six-year-old Indiana boy chained in a broom closet; the Henry children of Nebraska, who had been tortured by their father with an electric cattle prod. In a way, Greene was conducting old-fashioned crusades, the kind of noble and passionate journalism that gives newspapers life and purpose. He challenged governors-Jim Thompson and Jim Edgar in Illinois, Mike Johanns in Nebraska-to step in and take action. He reprinted devastating courtroom transcripts. And he got results, from intervention in cases he followed to an avalanche of gifts from readers for the victimized children.
Some critics, however, thought that Greene’s writing came close to exploiting the children. Because so many of the columns repeated background information and made teasing references to revelations that would appear in the next installment, many journalists came to think that the pieces had taken on an aura of shtick.
The most famous of Greene’s crusading columns involved Baby Richard, the centerpiece of perhaps the most dramatic parental custody battle in state history. Over a period of three years, Greene wrote more than 60 columns about the child. His mother had been estranged from her boyfriend, the father, when their son was born. She told him the child was dead and signed away her rights to the infant. Baby Richard was privately adopted. Later, when the father learned the truth and reconciled with the woman, they both wanted their son back. Greene argued that removing the child from his adoptive parents at this stage would be extraordinarily cruel to the boy; most of Illinois, it seemed, agreed. The state supreme court, however, eventually ordered that Baby Richard should be returned to his biological father.
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.
Brenda You first met Greene in 1989, when she wandered into the Kroch’s & Brentano’s bookstore that was across the street from the Tribune Tower. “I recognized him-he was rearranging books on the shelves so that his got a better placement,” she says. A student at Columbia College, You introduced herself. “We chatted for a bit. I told him I was a journalism major and then he told me that he was about ready to go to his skyscraper condo and write his column. He asked me if I wanted to come watch him write. I told him no. And he said, ‘Well, you’d learn a lot.’”
The following year, the Tribune hired You; she started out working at the phone desk in the newsroom. “I didn’t sit anywhere near Bob, but he came in every weekend and hung around the phone desk. His gaze never went above my breast line.” When You was promoted to reporter, she was moved to a desk closer to Greene’s. “Then he would sometimes call me in to talk,” she says. “But he was like this with all the young female reporters, assistants, and secretaries.”
You says that she never saw Greene’s behavior go beyond overattentiveness. She herself left the Tribune under a cloud after freelancing for supermarket tabloids like the Globe and lending them photographs from the paper’s library. She now works for the National Enquirer. But her account dovetails with other reports given to Chicago by Tribune insiders past and present. Those sources say they sometimes warned the interns and young staffers about Greene and his intentions.
“His reputation was all over the newsroom all the time,” says Clarence Petersen, who worked at the paper from 1958 until his retirement in 1997. “If Tribune editors and management didn’t know, they are the only ones who didn’t.”
After the scandal broke last September and Greene resigned, the often-told tales of his womanizing reverberated through the Tribune. “I swear, you could not throw a rock in the newsroom and not hit someone who knew someone Bob had hit on,” says a person inside the paper.
There is no indication that a woman ever formally complained to Tribune management about Greene’s behavior toward her. However, several sources say that a succession of Tempo editors and their bosses had been alerted in the eighties and early nineties to Greene’s overattentiveness to young women. One person who complained was told to “stop picking on Bob.”
Two former Tribune editors say that is simply not true. “Not one person ever came to me and said there was a problem here,” says Howard Tyner, who was in charge of the paper’s features sections for most of 1992 and 1993 and edited the Tribune from 1993 to 2000; he is now the editorial vice-president of publishing. Owen Youngman, the Tribune’s vice-president of development, who was the managing editor for features from 1993 to 1995, says, “No such complaints were ever made to me during the time that Bob worked for me.”
James Warren, who was the Tempo editor from 1992 to 1993 and is now the deputy managing editor for features, refused to comment, although he recently told Newsweek that “[Greene] had a lot, a lot, a lot of younger women who kind of paid homage to him in one way or another. But we’re not the morals police, and we didn’t follow him out of the building if and when he left with them.”
Today, it is not clear whether Greene engaged merely in boorish and inappropriate flirtations-if, in fact, he was mostly acting like an overeager and unsuccessful teenager-or whether his actions frequently ended in sexual encounters.
After the scandal broke, the Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg published an account from Susan Taylor, a Milwaukee-area woman who says that she had an affair with Greene in about 1983. She had written him a fan letter about a column on breast implants and had mentioned her own; he called her and they met. According to Taylor, they had dinner on North Michigan Avenue; then he asked to see her breasts. They went to a room at the Marriott. After that, Taylor says, she saw him a few times. But once she confessed that she was developing feelings for him, he cut her off. Taylor told Chicago that Greene said he had gone “to a therapist and he was trying to stop that behavior.”
Most of the stories that circulated were more like the one reported to Chicago by Barbara Crystal, a 46-year-old corporate communications professional. Crystal first visited Greene when she was a 17-year-old senior on an assignment for Sullivan High School, during the 1973-74 school year. They met in the Sun-Times reception area and spoke for 30 minutes, and Greene was “a perfect gentleman.”
Four years later, in 1978, Crystal, then 21, spotted Greene at a Rush Street bar. She recalls that he said, “Oh, please have a drink with me.” A few drinks later, they moved-at Greene’s suggestion-to the bar at the Continental Plaza Hotel (now the Westin). “He started giving me lines about how his wife doesn’t understand him,” Crystal says, “how he has an unhappy homelife and lives at the hotel.” He invited her up to a room. It was 2 a.m. Once they got there, she kept the door open and her coat on. She says that Greene then got “a little handsy with me and I realized this wasn’t where I wanted the evening to go.” She bolted.
Megan Sheppard, now a 43-year-old writer living in Seattle, had another kind of encounter with Greene years later. She sent him a fan letter around 1987, mentioning that in a recent personals ad she had described herself as a Bob Greene fan; she thought he would be amused by that. About a week later, Greene called. He never suggested they meet or brought up sex. “It was a lot of chitchat,” she says. “But before long it became very apparent that what he really wanted to do was ply me for more information about why he was so wonderful.”
By the mid-nineties, Greene’s popularity seemed to be on the wane. The number of papers buying his column began to plummet, dropping from the 1988 peak to about 100 last year-a decline that coincided with a falloff in demand from newspapers for syndicated general interest columns. There were rumblings again that some inside the Tribune wanted to move Greene off the front page of Tempo, although the paper’s editors have always denied that.
Greene was held in particularly low regard by many other Chicago journalists. From 1995 to 1996, the Reader ran “Bob Watch,” a witty and biting weekly feature written under a pseudonym by Neil Steinberg. The column examined Greene’s output under the slogan “We read him so you don’t have to.”
Within the Tribune, Greene had fewer allies than ever. Colleen Dishon, the powerful associate editor who had reinvented Tempo and who had always squashed features department rebellions against Greene, had retired. Squires had left the paper. And Paul Galloway, with whom Greene had been friends since his Sun-Times days, retired in 1999. “Once Galloway retired,” says a former Tribune colleague, “I’m not sure Greene had a friend in the building.”
In April 1988, the young woman whose association with Greene led to his downfall was a 17-year-old senior at a Chicago-area Catholic girls’ school. Her journalism teacher gave students an assignment to go out and conduct an interview. The young woman snagged a meeting with Greene. “I was surprised she got the interview in the first place,” recalls her teacher, “because it was beyond the scope of what the rest of the students were doing.”
Greene himself got a column out of her assignment; in it, he poked gentle fun at the student for her prepared question: “If you could be any kind of tree, what tree would you be?” Still, Greene wrote that he found her bright and perceptive.
Her intimate relationship with Greene began in the summer of 1988, after she had graduated from high school and had gotten a summer job downtown. There were several meetings and dinners. Although later the Tribune would write that the encounters had stopped “short of sexual intercourse,” a source says that that is not the case.
The young woman, an only child, won a scholarship to St. Mary’s University in Winona, Minnesota. She graduated in 1992 with a bachelor’s degree in theatre arts and went on to do graduate work in English literature at St. Xavier University in Chicago from 1995 to 1999.
In the ten years after graduation, she lived in and around Chicago. Her father was a policeman who became a lawyer and a prosecutor. He is now a judge in a suburban courthouse. The young woman’s mother is a retired school principal.
In January 2002, the woman, single and living at her parents’ suburban home, filed for bankruptcy. Richard Bass, her bankruptcy lawyer, says he remembers only that his client “was highly educated.” According to court records, her debt totaled just over $14,000. She had earned $40,000 in each of the previous two years, but at the time of the filing she had been working for two months in sales at a Downers Grove bookstore. There, her net monthly income was $650. She had several unpaid medical expenses from 2001-including bills from two hospitals and the local fire department. The rest of her debts were rather mundane, the biggest a $6,100 Discover card bill with charges dating back to 1999. Her bankruptcy was discharged in May 2002.
Apparently, she had expected a more favorable turn of events in her life. In a St. Mary’s alumni newsletter that appeared last winter, she described herself as a self-employed writer and said that she was expecting to publish her first novel in the spring; she planned to write a second book based on a story she had written while at St. Mary’s. There is no record that either book was published.
Over the years, according to someone close to the situation, the young woman had periodically left brief messages for Greene or had had short conversations with him. But the two calls he received from her in June 2002 were said to be the first time she had mentioned going public about their relationship.
In a written statement, the FBI would describe Greene as having “expressed concerns over a series of telephone calls that he had recently received, which he felt were threatening in nature.” He was referred to a senior supervisory agent in charge of the unit that handled such complaints. That agent opened an investigation and interviewed Greene. The agent also interviewed the young woman, who acknowledged calling Greene but denied having made any threats.
Several sources say that while the timing of her calls looks suspicious-she had contacted Greene several months after she filed for bankruptcy-she was not seeking money; she had called him as a kind of therapy. In order to move on, she needed to talk to people who had affected her life in an adverse fashion.
Evidently, Greene viewed the calls differently. The FBI warned the young woman about federal extortion and harassment laws, although the bureau says that that does not mean it believed she had extorted or harassed Greene. On June 28th, the FBI closed its inquiry, saying there was not enough evidence to continue the investigation. Around this time, the young woman abruptly left her job at the bookstore and had a boyfriend pick up her last paycheck.
On Monday, September 9th, she sent the Tribune, through its Web site tip line, a one-and-a-half-page e-mail. By Tuesday, it was in the hands of the editor, Ann Marie Lipinski, and a human resources official had been brought in and told of the problem.
The e-mail contained a lot of detail, both about the writer and about her past relationship with Greene. It described the young woman’s meeting with Greene 14 years earlier and explained that he had written a column about her. The message stated that a few months later, when she was working at a summer job downtown, the two had met for several dinners at a Chinese restaurant near the Tribune. During one of those dinners, the e-mail reported, Greene had started ordering drinks for the young woman. More than once, they had ended up in a hotel room.
The woman also wrote that she had called Greene recently because she wanted to congratulate him on his book Once Upon a Town and she also wanted to speak to him because she had experienced a series of problems in her life, including a number of bad relationships. She wanted to put the past behind her. She stated in the e-mail that Greene had made it clear he did not want to talk to her, and she described the FBI phone call. She was angry at the way Greene was now treating her, she said, and was writing to the Tribune at the suggestion of her therapist. She also mentioned that she had been in touch with a lawyer.
On Wednesday, September 11th, Greene’s column was about the possibility that on the anniversary of the terrorist attacks, there would be dancing in the streets in other parts of the world. It turned out to be his last column for the Tribune after 24 years. On that day, executives of the paper contacted the young woman.
By that Thursday, Greene had talked to the Tribune executives. According to Tribune reports, he offered to resign. Meanwhile, the paper continued its internal investigation, and Greene was suspended with pay.
That Friday, he was in Nebraska, where he delivered the keynote speech at the state book festival in Grand Island. Those who saw him there say he gave no indication of any stress in his life. He made another appearance on Saturday.
He had planned to go to North Platte that day. Instead, he was summoned back to the Tribune. Charles Peek, an English professor at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, was drafted to take Greene to the Omaha airport-a two-and-a-half-hour drive. Peek did not sense that Greene’s career hung in the balance. While Peek drove, Greene made a few phone calls, looked over some notes, and even took a nap. “He seemed fairly composed,” Peek recalls.
Also on Saturday, Lipinski and managing editor Jim O’Shea met with the young woman. Then Lipinski, O’Shea, and others met with Greene in the first of two discussions; sources say he was told not to bring his lawyer-a claim Lipinski disputes-and he did not. A Tribune lawyer was present for at least one of the meetings. In the first meeting, Greene claimed that his relationship with the young woman had stopped short of intercourse. He had entered the meeting feeling comfortable and confident, but at some point, according to a source, the Tribune’s questioning led him to believe that his job might be in jeopardy. By one account, he asked rhetorically, “Do you guys want my resignation?” According to this version of events, he was told that the discussion was confidential and strategic, an attempt to figure out how to handle the situation.
In Greene’s second meeting at the paper on Saturday, he said that he could not really remember what his relationship with the young woman had been. Then he was told that the Tribune was accepting the resignation he had offered. At that point, a source told Chicago, Greene said that he had never offered to resign, did not want to resign, and, in fact, wanted to stay at the Tribune.
“Absolutely untrue,” says Lipinski. “He offered his resignation and we accepted it.”
On Sunday, a cryptic four-paragraph note from Lipinski appeared at the bottom left corner of the paper’s front page: Greene would no longer write for the Tribune. He had engaged in “inappropriate sexual conduct” with a girl in her “late teens” whom he had met “in connection with his newspaper column.” The note expressed regret for “the effect on the young woman,” and said that Greene’s behavior was “a serious violation of Tribune ethics and standards for its journalists.”
In part because Lipinski’s note was not specific, people inside and outside the Tribune were full of questions: What, exactly, was the ethical violation? If the girl, who was not named, was of legal age, as the note said, what was the problem? Was it simply that she had been the subject of a column? Was Greene’s summoning of the FBI an issue? Was there more to the story?
“He used his position at the newspaper for personal gain,” Lipinski told Chicago magazine. “It’s that simple.”
In an unusual and awkward scenario, Tribune reporters set out to write about the matter, even though their bosses were apparently not providing information. Stories that appeared over the next few days added only a handful of new details about the sequence of events. On Tuesday, an editorial summed up the paper’s official position: It admitted that the “terse wording” of Lipinski’s note “didn’t begin to resolve many readers’ questions.” Then the editorial continued, “But in this case the journalistic urge to fully disclose the facts collides with two other imperatives: the privacy of the individuals involved, and this newspaper’s guidelines on when it is appropriate to discuss sexual misconduct related to young people.”
In the media frenzy after the announcement of Greene’s departure, a number of people said they thought he had been treated unfairly. “The Tribune did not handle this situation with much sympathy for a loyal employee,” says Roger Ebert, the Sun-Times’s film critic. “What Bob did was wrong, but not illegal and not the occasion for a public hanging.”
Meanwhile, Greene virtually vanished from sight, although he sent a statement to the Associated Press saying there were “indiscretions in my life that I am not proud of. I don’t have the words to express the sadness I feel. I am very sorry for anyone I have let down, including the readers who have for so long meant so much to me.”
He also sent a letter to the North Platte Chamber of Commerce, whose banquet he had failed to attend because he had cut his trip short. The letter was read aloud at the event. “You are the town that never let anyone down,” Greene wrote. “And tonight, by not being in North Platte with you, I know that I am letting you down. If I could be anywhere tonight other than where I am, it would be in North Platte with you. But I hope you can understand that the place for me to be is at home.”
The Tribune’s public editor, Don Wycliff, stated that 60 percent of the people who called or wrote the paper sided with Greene and against the decision to let him go, a figure that shifted later as more people wrote in supporting the paper. But overall, only 50 readers canceled their subscriptions.
The young woman has retained the lawyer Kathleen Zellner, best known for presenting DNA evidence that led a judge to overturn the murder convictions of four men last year. (In January 2003, one of those men was arrested for trying to extort money from her.) Zellner has contacted Bruce Sperling, a lawyer representing Greene, in an effort to negotiate a settlement for her client.
Although in most regards the legal age of consent in Illinois is 17, the age can shift according to circumstances. The young woman was 17 the summer she and Greene started seeing each other; she turned 18 that August. One chapter of the state code defines criminal sexual assault to be “sexual penetration with a victim who is . . . under 18 years of age when the act was committed, and the accused . . . held a position of trust, authority or supervision relative to the victim.” In other words, if Greene held a “position of trust” with the young woman, he arguably committed a crime, although the statute of limitations has long since passed. A source close to the parties says that Zellner thinks Greene’s position when he and her client met is the basis of her bargaining power in obtaining a settlement.
Four months after losing his job, Greene continued to stay out of sight. Two people who spoke with him late last year told Chicago that he sounded “devastated” and “despairing about the way this has affected him, the young woman, his family, and her family.” Then in December, another tragedy occurred: His wife, Susan, entered the intensive care unit at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. On January 25th, according to an obituary in the Tribune, she died after being treated for a respiratory illness. “In a world that is so often cold-eyed and mean-spirited and unforgiving,” Greene said in the obituary, “Susan was a person of never-ending good-heartedness, charity and mercy.”
That Greene would describe the world as he did is hardly surprising. This has been a horrible, crisis-driven time for him. It is understandable that he would continue, as a friend says, to turn his attention to the needs of his family. But one day, he will probably begin to write again; he has always seemed to live more on the page than anywhere else.
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