|The Confessions of Bob Greene
Imagine very far--and then, in the case of this man, keep going.
By Bill Zehme
ALL YOU'VE GOT IS YOUR NAME, THE LOST MAN SAID IN A LOST VOICE. Things for which his name had once stood would never entirely be the same things again--that is what he told himself, that is what he wished not to believe while believing it nonetheless. The weight of penance hung about him, and he wore it calmly, if uncomfortably. He was still the same man he had been before he fell--he looked the same, his feelings and beliefs were still his own, he possessed the same talents--but now he was a fallen man and he had never fallen before and everything was different because he fell.
He had, in his triumphant career, frequently observed fallen men, had often written stories about them, stories full of curiosity and compassion. Compassion, by the way, had been one of the many things for which his name had stood. Once, he found a line of poetry to include in just such a story. He has not forgotten that line of poetry. "In my moments of hope, I keep returning to that quote from Yeats," he wrote me in an e-mail note from the new prison of his life. "I had always thought that he was writing about a man who has lost everything--who has tumbled suddenly from the heights and who finds himself back where he began, when he had nothing but himself and his belief in who he is: 'Now that my ladder's gone, / I must lie down where all the ladders start, / In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.' Take everything away from me, the poem seems to be saying--take everything I ever had. And let me find out, once more, who I really am."
Here is who we all are, more or less: We are, each one of us, the sum of many conflicting truths. In our most secret souls, we know--although we'd rather not--that certain of our personal truths might well be seen as dark and shameful truths. When a man falls, without exception, it is only these dark truths that emerge and resonate and expand, eclipsing all other truths that should matter as well but no longer do. We feast on the disgrace of the fallen, feel better about ourselves while doing so, and then await the next fallen one to turn up so as to feast once more. It is, alas, the blood sport of human nature. I will tell you, though, that it is a grim spectacle to privately encounter a shamed man, freshly pummeled in public view. It is heartbreaking as hell, really.
And so it was that two weeks into his disgrace--at the first blush of which he had vanished behind a thunderous silence maintained ever since--this particular fallen man began sharing his shattered voice with me over the telephone. In those first two weeks, he had quietly withstood torrents of derision and crushing waves of despair. Friends and admirers, some of them very famous, reached out to him, and he deflected their support. He busied himself with self-laceration while his critics gleefully piled on top. He took his beatings, sometimes hideous in spirit, thinking they would never stop yet also incredulous that they hadn't, two weeks hence. "Let them kick," he said, and this was one of the first things he said to me. "It's like I'm a body in the street, and they keep coming by and kicking until they get tired. They wander away and then they come back and kick it some more and then pour a little gasoline on and set it on fire. But, you know, the body is already dead." This was pure revelation to him, the existential wonderment of a newly fallen man. "Anyway, let them kick," he said, pretending that he meant it.
BOB GREENE WILL NOT WRITE this story himself, certainly not now, most probably not ever. It is, at core, a heartland Greek tragedy, rife with cruel ironies and tortured plot turns from beginning to astonishing end. It has belonged only to him and, more lamentably, to those closest to him. In a short e-mail he sent moments after our first conversation, he wrote simply: "This is darkness beyond any imagining." Those words came on the first day of October 2002. But it had been at the break of dawn on Sunday, September 15, when his exquisite darkness had fallen like a freight train from the sky. The night before, he had not slept at all because the world as he knew it had just exploded. And so he'd decided to stay awake to await confirmation of his newly scorched reality, which would be dropped outside the door of his high-rise apartment unit in the form of an understated announcement in the lower left corner on the front page of the Sunday Chicago Tribune, the newspaper for which he had written a tremendously popular column for the previous twenty-four years. His hometown-sweetheart wife and his six- teen-year-old son had somehow managed to find slumber, even after he had told them the worst thing he could ever tell them; they lay in their beds letting unconsciousness temporarily obscure truth. But he kept his vigil, ruefully remembering the only other time he had ever done this very same thing: Back in the summer of his seventeenth year, he worked as a copy boy for the Columbus Citizen-Journal and, one night, had written his first newspaper story on a lark--one paragraph in length, about a man who cut open a golf ball with a liquid center that exploded and squirted him in the eye--and the editor liked it enough to run it under the headline GOLF BALL FIGHTS BACK. And so young Bobby Greene had anxiously stayed up to await that momentous 1964 morning paper delivery, when he would see the words he had written appear in actual news type for the very first time.
Now he was fifty-five and a professional newspaperman and book author, thirty-three years into the big fray, and this nocturnal anxiety was altogether different, and then he heard the paper land, and then he felt the bullet enter his heart, because there it was--a note to readers from Ann Marie Lipinski, editor, in small type, four paragraphs in length, the first of which began: "Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Greene has resigned and will no longer appear in the pages of the newspaper. The resignation is effective immediately." Editor Lipinski stated that the resignation had been "sought after he acknowledged engaging in inappropriate sexual conduct some years ago with a girl in her late teens whom he met in connection with his newspaper column." She then said that his acknowledgment came as the result of an anonymous complaint that had prompted an investigation, and upon its completion he resigned Saturday night. "Greene's behavior," she wrote, "was a serious violation of Tribune ethics and standards for its journalists. We deeply regret the conduct, its effects on the young woman and the impact this disclosure has on the trust our readers placed in Greene and this newspaper." And that was all she wrote.
All that she had not written was voluminous, of course, and feverish speculation erupted instantaneously and tore across the city and then the nation, while maddeningly few additional details trickled forth in the ensuing days, and while Tribune officials refused to disclose the particulars, and while Bob Greene--who had largely lived his life for print as well as in print--had now been all but murdered on page one of his own publication and then gone mute. His telephone began ringing that Sunday morning, and it would not stop, as he did not lift the receiver; the last e-mails he received that day, before his Tribune online address was shut down for good, pulsed with inquiries from countless major news organizations. He elected to respond only to the Associated Press. ("It's not like you have a rational thought," he would later tell me. "You're thinking, I'm a dead man, and everything I've ever valued, everything I've tried to be, has just been set on fire.") His message, thus, was a brief one, noting that 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. Today I need to be with my family and loved ones." And that was all he wrote.
The incident in question had occurred not merely "some" years earlier but fourteen years earlier. The girl was of consenting age and one week away from going off to college. And, as the Tribune reported on Tuesday the seventeenth, the incident had been a "sexual encounter that stopped short of intercourse." Several months before said incident, on April 5, 1988, Greene had written a puckish column about a senior from a local Catholic girls' high school who had been assigned to do an interview for her journalism class and had chosen him as her quarry. She showed up at his office with her parents in tow, his column revealed, and he submitted to her questions until she asked the Barbara Walters Question: "If you could be any kind of a tree, what tree would you be?" "I don't answer the tree question," he told her, prompting him to call Barbara Walters, who agreed that it was a stupid question, which she had asked only once, of Katharine Hepburn, who had said she felt like an old tree. Greene suggested that the girl ask something else. She then asked, "If you could be any food in the world, what would it be?" And so he sighed grimly and said, "A cheeseburger." And that was that. Weeks later, the girl graduated and secured a summer job downtown, maintaining convivial contact with Greene, who eventually invited her out to dinners and then, at one point, to a hotel room, where whatever happened apparently didn't quite happen the way most people had first imagined. "You should wait to do this with someone you love," he says he told her at the time. And that, again, was that.
She stayed in touch with him, calling at least once a year to say hello or to update him on the progress of her own nascent writing career--nothing more to it than that. Each of their lives continued in separate fashion until a specific call she made to him in July of 2001 took on an ominous tone, which he experienced as blatantly threatening. Nearly a year passed, however, before she called again, last June, at the time of the publication of his twenty-first book, Once Upon a Town (a nostalgic elegy about the railroad-station canteen of North Platte, Nebraska, whose townspeople had selflessly served food and offered entertainment to more than six million enlisted men who passed through the station during World War II). But now--at age thirty-two, a girl no more--her tone was, Greene says, more direct as she spoke of making public her version of what had happened fourteen summers earlier, indicating that this could, no doubt, compromise his reputation as a leading chronicler of honor and decency in America. At which point, whiffing the portent of blackmail, Greene placed a call to the FBI. A federal agent then phoned her to explain the penalties inherent in cases of harassment and extortion, without specifically accusing her of such. Greene, knowing of that call, felt relief and embarked on his patriotic book tour. She would wait, instead, until Monday, September 9--after the book had summered luxuriantly in the mid-reaches of the New York Times best-seller list, peaking at seventh place--before sending the Tribune an anonymous e-mail describing what had happened in the summer of 1988. By Wednesday--September 11, of all days, which would also be the last day that any Bob Greene column would ever appear in the Chicago Tribune--the paper's management had made contact with her and asked her to come in for a full-disclosure meeting that Saturday. By Thursday afternoon, Greene was told that the hounds of hell had been unleashed, that corporate cops had opened a file on him, that he was flat-out suspended as of that very minute. So, by all accounts, he immediately told managing editor James O'Shea everything, believing that as he was the largest living star in the Tribune's publishing universe, his company would address this delicate situation protectively and with discretion. "What do you want me to do?" he asked O'Shea. "Should I offer my resignation?" O'Shea told him no. And that was the only time Bob Greene uttered the word resignation. In any case, the resignation that he never tendered was accepted on Saturday night, which he believed to be the worst night of his life as he thus far knew it.
But then, he could not yet know of what lay ahead.
"LET'S JUST DRIVE NORTH," he said, furtive as a fugitive. And he did very much look the part, having darted from the low-lit side entrance of his elegant apartment building to my waiting Jeep at the appointed early-evening hour. I had suggested he make an escape from self-imposed confinement, from his vacuum of shame. Postcataclysm, he had not left his home for a public meal in seven weeks; indeed, he had barely left his home in seven weeks for anything more than a daily morning walk to the lakefront, a fairly futile exercise in mind clearing during which he would stroll past all the same doormen he had always passed on his daily walks and imagine what they thought of him now. "How're you doing?" he asked me, climbing into the passenger seat. (He would ask this every time we embarked on what would be a handful of these clandestine escape missions beginning last autumn; inevitably, I would always be doing better than he was.) He wore the same uniform he forever favored prior to life in exile: faded jeans, penny loafers, cotton shirt with sleeves rolled, tie tugged loose, and no jacket other than his weathered beige Burberry trench coat. As ever when out, he carried his battered leather briefcase--"that goddamned briefcase," as one of his friends puts it. He was a man of routine whose routine had ceased to exist, and now he had brought along some vestiges of it, and I understood. We drove slowly around his block in the bustling Streeterville neighborhood and passed a popular Italian steak house he frequented Before All This, and he said, not without drollness, "In a perfect world, we should just be able to walk right in there now." Then he said, "That would look nice--'Greene, after his disgrace, spotted out on the town having drinks and laughing it up and living it up.' How did any of this happen?" (At best, in the realm of laughter, the closest he had come during our weeks of talk was a sardonic chuckle here or there; unfettered cheer had left his wheelhouse completely.) I steered us onto North Lake Shore Drive, and he said, "Why don't we just get out of the city?"
Like most everybody he ever knew, I had not laid eyes on him in his new aftermath. I hadn't seen him up close, in fact, for just about five years, and that had been mere happenstance, a bumping into at a drinking establishment. But now, as he sat beside me, as we piloted northward toward destination/restaurant/reprieve yet unknown, I saw in short glances that he was paler and more sallow than I remembered. His aquiline nose came forth in greater relief. Even his hair, as much as it is hair, which it hasn't been for decades, which is his open-secret life choice, somehow seemed grayer around the edges. Of course, the truth of all this is that, like most everybody else he ever knew, I had never really known Bob Greene much at all, which is how he seemed to generally prefer it. ("I was very good at my work, and I wasn't real good at my life," he had told me weeks earlier, then added, "but I fixed that a long time ago.") The Bob Greene I know has forever prided himself on being unknowable. For certain, he has also been exceptionally pleased to have a well-recognized name, if only because it meant that many people knew his work, but largely he refused to allow details of his personal life to be known much at all by anyone. When his children were born, for instance, his friends and colleagues often found out weeks or months later. For that matter, when his first child was born, many coworkers hadn't even known that he was married, although he wore his wedding band in plain sight.
In Chicago, where we both live, and where newsmen and newswomen have long drunk in happy packs at subterranean joints and neighborhood dives, he would more often than not be spotted after work, alone and reading the papers, at the bars of unlikely restaurants along North Michigan Avenue. I used to regularly see him--this was more than twenty years ago--propped at the bar of an upscale deli on the top floor of the fancy Water Tower Place shopping mall: the opposite of a rugged writing-man's watering hole, to be sure, but also maybe a safe remove from the downtime scrutiny of fellow reporters. He had, by then, become the journalistic equivalent of a rock star in the city--the very city of Ben Hecht and The Front Page, keep in mind--where he'd been given a column at the youthful and rambunctious Chicago Sun-Times in 1971, when he was just twenty-four. Here was a grown boy born of upper-middle-class Bexley, Ohio, a whiz-kid graduate of Northwestern University, hired at this big metropolitan daily straight out of school, then promoted to prominence in record time because of smarts and fierce ambition--it was all a stunning wunderkind paradigm from the get-go. His early stuff had been especially sharp and new and rule busting, and in fairly short order he was considered a worthy peer of (if not eventual heir apparent to) the legendary tough-guy/street-genius columnist Mike Royko, then of the Chicago Daily News. And so it was said throughout the seventies: If you were a young writer in Chicago, you more than likely wanted to be Bob Greene. In 1978, he was lured over to the stately Chicago Tribune, where his writing would then eventually be syndicated to more than three hundred American cities, and he would become Bob Greene to a wildly receptive nation (contributing, in fact, a regular column to Esquire, American Beat, from 1980 to 1989). Since then, what with Chicago being a small big place, I would accidentally see him on occasion or else phone up for an odd bit of professional advice, and he would be pleasant and supportive. But I saw very little of him in any of those intervening years. Still, I heard things about him, about his penchant for engaging women who admired his writing or his fame, this beginning a very long time back, this coming from those with whom he worked. And now, life being what it is, this was the reason we seemed to be running on the lam, heading north, out of town.
IN CHICAGO, A STORY has circulated among certain pockets of younger newspaper people for years, and it has nothing to do with Bob Greene, and in fact Bob Greene did not know the story until I told it to him. It takes place, circa 1990, at the legendary Billy Goat Tavern on Lower Michigan Avenue, where thousands of ink-stained hangovers were born. Mike Royko sat at the bar, as was his eternal wont, and a young Sun-Times columnist a couple of years on the job named Richard Roeper sat at a table with a handful of colleagues, and drinks flowed, as they will, and eventually Royko--the dean among them all, and all else--sauntered over to sit with them. And drinks flowed further, and Royko, who by the way had a grudging respect for Greene and who also loved to tease punks who moved anywhere near his turf, at one point bellowed: "Roeper! What are you doing at my table!" And everyone laughed. And then: "Roeper! Where the hell did you come from, anyway!" Then, minutes later: "Roeper! Do you use your column to get laid?"
ROEPER: "Excuse me?"
ROYKO: "You heard me! Do you use your column to get laid?"
ROEPER (half jokingly, keep in mind drinks flowing): "Of course not. That wouldn't be right!"
ROYKO (pounding the table): "Well, what the hell is the point in having a column if you don't use it to get laid!"
"I DIDN'T ADMIRE MYSELF," he was saying as we cruised beside Lake Michigan in swift traffic. "I really didn't admire myself. The one thing I know about myself, though, is that I've never intentionally tried to hurt anyone." Of course, he didn't want to talk about what he was talking about--"Let's stop talking about this"--and would frequently change the subject and ask me writer-guy-shoptalk things and excitedly recall many of his own adventures in the trade: the machinations of old book deals or the years spent as a part-time Nightline correspondent or the exhilaration of making appearances on the old NBC Letterman show, then flying back to Chicago to watch the broadcasts on the same night. And he would, in those moments, seem to temporarily forget the reason we were leaving the city limits. Until a new wave of shame tugged him back: "I've always been pretty good at standing up for other people. I'm no good at standing up for myself. I just never have been, and I don't have any real desire to. I won't even try. I wouldn't go out on a limb for me."
And so we drove and drove, for twenty-plus Illinois miles, considering and then dismissing various dining possibilities (a decent, dimly lit steak joint seemed to be our lone objective on this, his debut night of liberty), wending eventually onto lakeside Sheridan Road, up into the swank North Shore, through Evanston, past the campus of his alma mater, Northwestern (he averted his gaze there), into Wilmette and Highland Park and then westward to Northbrook and, finally, into the parking lot of a hotel that housed a high-end chain restaurant known for its buttery, sizzling platters of meat. "Let's find a way not to go in through the hotel lobby," he said, and so we found a separate entrance into the steak house, whereupon he immediately headed to the men's room so that I could quietly negotiate securing an inconspicuous booth in the darkened bar before he returned. He is, in this part of the world, accustomed to being recognized, and people I know who have dined with him have told me how he seemed to enjoy sitting in the middle of a room where he could monitor all the action and politely nod and smile back at customers who invariably spotted him, and warmly receive their advances. Now the sociable phenomena that he once enjoyed had become his darkest fear, an anticipation of only judging stares and mutterings. "You think anybody noticed me?" he said, sitting down to his first of two vodka gimlets. I told him, frankly, no, and after he took a few sips, I detected a small sense of buoyancy begin to well in him as he acclimated himself to the room. "Should we get the shrimp cocktail to start?" he asked, leaning forward, rising up a bit in posture, loosening his collar further. He seemed, increasingly, to be a man who was very pleased to be out for a steak dinner in a hotel restaurant--which is what he had been thousands of times in his previous life. He seemed to be a man pleased to make happy chatter again with a waitress--"What's good? I mean, really good? I mean, what would you get?" He seemed excited to just be out of the goddamn house and among those who were living lives other than his.
I WONDERED ABOUT THE BRIEFCASE, which never left his side, which rested next to him in the booth. I wondered what a man who habitually carried his briefcase everywhere--and had now spent seven weeks going nowhere--might be hauling around with him, cell phone and hairbrush notwithstanding. "I'll show you," he said, and what he showed me was a time capsule of his life on the day he lost his job. Everything that had been in there then was in there now; there had been no need to do anything with the contents, since there had been no need for him to work again. There were printouts of old columns and assorted correspondence. There were schedules for personal appearances that he had made and for those he had been supposed to make but never did--the ones he had abruptly canceled upon his own cancellation on that weekend in mid-September. He sifted through all these pieces of suddenly irrelevant paper with a mien of bittersweet wonder and strange discovery. "Oh, look at this!" he said more than a few times.
"THE FUNNY THING IS, I had really been look- ing forward to that weekend," he would say. The weekend of September 13 to 15, and on through Tuesday the seventeenth, had been planned for months, it turns out, and it was to be a weekend on which Greene was to have given speeches and been lauded with platitudes and been heroically celebrated by the state of Nebraska, in the state of Nebraska, whose North Platte Canteen he had romantically celebrated in book form and whose state book festival was to kick off in the town of Grand Island with his keynote address. The week leading up to that trip--after which he had intended to claim a good chunk of unused vacation time and disappear for a while--was full of the kind of work momentum he lived for. He had done an MSNBC panel show with Brian Williams on the meaning of September 11 one year later, taped an interview for a PBS biography of the late exiled Ohio State coach Woody Hayes (a longtime Greene specialty topic), cranked out four columns, finished off a new book proposal, done a special live commentary Wednesday night on the Tribune-owned TV superstation WGN (on whose newscast he regularly appeared Thursday nights) about the president's speech to the UN earlier that day--the anniversary of the terrorist attacks--which would also be the subject of the column he had roughed out for Sunday the fifteenth. "On the morning of Thursday, September 12," he would recall, "the world was continually this perfect two-lane highway stretching off forever into sunshine."
By late that afternoon, all above had become superfluous. His managing editor called him in and heard him out and suspended him, as an internal investigation had now begun. Greene requested that he be able to honor his weekend commitment and fly to Nebraska the next morning; he was told to go ahead but to be on alert. He went home that night, his brain on fire, his stomach in knots, and shared nothing about what was happening with his wife of thirty-two years, Susan, and his son, Nick--twenty-year-old daughter Amanda was away at college--and pretended his way through the night. "I can't even remember what was going through my mind. All I know is that when I got to O'Hare Friday morning, I hadn't slept." Indeed, all that occurred over the next forty-eight hours would feel as if it were occurring to somebody else.
And so: Walking through the United Airlines terminal, his cell phone rang, and it was managing editor O'Shea urging him to return immediately to the Tribune Tower for a meeting regarding the matter at hand. Greene's luggage, however, had already been checked through, and there was no way to retrieve it, and in our new world, flights can no longer leave with luggage not belonging to passengers aboard. He would have to go to Nebraska and then return to Chicago Saturday afternoon for the meeting, cutting his trip three days short. He flew to Omaha, where he was picked up for the two-and-a-half-hour drive to Grand Island, during which he sat in the car's backseat, signing his name in three hundred copies of his book to be sold at the book fair. That evening, at the festival dinner, he somehow got through his speech--a reverie about wartime North Platte being "the best America there ever was" and how privileged he had been to write its story--and received a standing ovation, the first of his life. "I was looking at those people and thinking, Oh, God, you don't know what's going to happen to me." He returned to his interstate Holiday Inn hotel room, collapsed, spoke again at the fair at eight o'clock Saturday morning, offered his regrets for having to leave so suddenly, and was driven back across the plains to Omaha. He rode again in relative silence and apologized to the driver for being bad company. (On Monday, an AP reporter would track down the driver to inquire about Greene's demeanor on the ride. "Like he was Al Cowlings and I was O. J. Simpson," Greene said to me.)
And so: Flying back to Chicago, whatever denial had thus far allowed him to function dissolved into certain dread. "It sunk in--Why am I being pulled off this trip? Why is it so important to bring me back now?" At O'Hare, as was fairly customary, a few people recognized him and, here or there, said nice things about his work. And again: "I'm thinking and trying not to think it at the same time--Not only is this going to be the last time this happens to me, but tomorrow I'm going to be someone else." He took a cab directly down to the Tribune with his luggage and, by late afternoon, entered a conference room where he submitted to a very long inquisition from editors Lipinski and O'Shea and the company's senior legal counsel, Dale Cohen. (At some point, according to Tribune sources, he asked O'Shea whether he should have an attorney of his own present for this meeting, and it was suggested to him that things would probably go just as well if he didn't.) He remembers hearing music wafting up from the plaza below and thinking, I want to be out there. What had stuck deepest in management's craw was that Greene had gone to the FBI without its knowledge. ("You don't call the FBI on a whim," he would say to me. "The Tribune wasn't being blackmailed--I was.") The session adjourned for a long break, during which Greene was told to wait in his small office. When he was summoned back, Lipinski informed him that his life with his newspaper was over. And she said that fact would be announced on the front page of the morning edition. He remembers there being disgust in Lipinski's voice, there being no room for negotiation, and that it did not occur to him to say, Wait a minute. He got up and left and caught himself heading back to his office and thought, Why?
And so: "I will never talk publicly about what happened specifically when I went home that night, but for any person to have to go home and tell his family that. . . ." His wife was not home and his son wondered why he wasn't in Nebraska, and so he had to tell his son first because his son saw the trouble in his father's face, and then tell his wife after she returned from a movie. He then called his daughter at school. And he woke his eighty-three-year-old mother in Ohio and, at some point, said to her: "Before it occurs to you, even if it never does, you've done nothing wrong to cause this to happen in me. You have been a fine example to me, and a flawless and faultless parent. Don't even spend a second thinking how this could have come upon our family."
And then, when the apartment was still, he sat and waited for the morning paper.
"I STILL HAVE a bank account, you know," he told me when I paid the check after our first runaway meal. The following week, we repeated the drive north (he scurried once more from the side of his building to my idling car) and returned to the same place--"I'm sorry we're having to get so far out of town again"--and he insisted on forking over his own crisp twenties for our drinks and shrimp and steaks. This time, the bar was full, and, with some trepidation, he had relented to eat in the better-lit and crowded main dining room, walking briskly to our table with his briefcase, past all the other customers, his eyes looking straight through them. He was a little less buoyant this time, self-consciousness on radar as he noticed people noticing him. "What do you think they're thinking?" he said at one point of a table of women dining nearby. Upon leaving, a couple eating in the bar called him over. "Thanks for your work," the man said, extending his hand. They cited one of his columns of distant vintage and made no reference to recent history. Greene seemed happy to engage. "They were very nice," he said to me afterward. "But who knows what they'll say tomorrow?" The hostess stopped him before we reached the exit. "Very good to see you, Mr. Bob Greene!" she chirped. "How are you?" His smile was as wan as wan gets. "Not as well as I'd like," he said.
DURING THESE WEEKS and months, to supplant the urge to write, he began to read over much of his life's work, as if searching for clues. His books, of course, brim with clues to who he is and why he is where he is right now. With Greene, clues into his shuttered soul must be sought out, since a pathological oath of privacy has kept him from revealing in print--much less in person--the details of his real life, the life he has lived not as a reporter on the loose but as a man with a home and a wife and two children. The lone exception was his seventh book, Good Morning, Merry Sunshine: A Father's Journal of His Child's First Year, which became a 1984 best-seller. Not only was this the only instance in his long career when he publicly disclosed the names of nuclear-family members and relatives, but it stands as the first and last time ever that he acknowledged on the page that he was a husband and father, albeit one who wasn't around a lot. "I wish I'd never written it," he has often told me. "It was too big of an opening into my life. I've never said this to anyone, but as soon as it came out, I realized, You know, the reason you've never done this before is because you should not do it. When it went out of print, I never let them reprint it. It just always seemed to me that there's a reason I go through my whole life without opening it up. I'm not sure what it is, but there's a reason."
At his prompting, I also began to pore through his books and excavate pieces to his puzzle, laid out in his own prose. Some were glaringly obvious--recurring and admiring ruminations about the lives of Elvis Presley and Hugh Hefner (he once spent a week living at the Chicago Playboy Mansion for a Sun-Times series) or the Esquire story titled "The Coolest Guy in the Room," about then--Monday Night Football announcer Frank Gifford (about whom Greene wrote, "Women look at Gifford and covet his company; men look at him and suddenly feel too fat or too bald or too short or too pale"). Other times I'd stumble across salient indicators and then tell him what I'd found. Example: From his 1985 collection, Cheeseburgers (alas), I divined merely all one needs to know in a piece called "Teen Idol," wherein he tells the story of twelve-year-old Bobby Greene, who, in 1959, sent a short self-description ("I dig Elvis, Kookie and Ricky") and his sixth-grade photograph ("in which I let my eyes half close in what I hoped resembled a come-hither bedroom look") to Dig magazine--the Tiger Beat of its day--which published both, as well as his address, that summer in its monthly gallery of readers. Once Bobby returned from camp that summer, his father presented him with a box containing four hundred letters from girls who liked his picture; dozens of letters would thereafter arrive daily for months. "There was no getting around it," grown-up Bobby wrote. "At twelve, I was a national sex symbol for young girls. . . . I was a pretty sheltered, innocent sub-
urban kid; what was I supposed to do with all these girls?" And then: "I always knew that other boys might have certain advantages over me--but that they had never been made a teen idol by Dig. Somehow it had changed my life."
When I mentioned the story to him, he said simply, "That's it."
I do not know exactly when I realized that I had become his primary link to the outside world. By mid-October, we seemed to be speaking every few days, some chats lasting longer than others, depending on the state of his psyche. "I'm just not having a great day," he would say more often than not. I would regularly ask what he was doing with himself, and he would say: "Nothing. I have no job." In order to initiate our conversations, I would send him an e-mail to say I was around, and then he would call me within minutes. After a couple of months, I finally asked him for his phone number, as the covert nature of all this seemed to feel more melodramatic than necessary. He apologized and gave it to me but said he rarely answered the phone. But I never did call the number he gave me, not wishing to intrude on the fragility of his household or frighten him into thinking that yet another talk-show booker was looking for the exclusive interview. At our second dinner, he told me that he'd actually answered the phone that day and spoken with Matt Lauer, who'd been leaving messages for weeks, offering support while also inviting him onto the Today show; he politely declined.
Support, by the way, issued forth from others who knew the home number. Among the earliest was Oprah Winfrey, on whose show he had appeared to explore the child-abuse cases he had doggedly and passionately written about from the nineties onward (and so often as to incite the eye-rolling disdain of his peers). His first words to her: "I'm sorry I let you down." Paul Harvey, who is to radio what Greene had been to print (i.e., Americana in excelsis), spoke with him at length to remind him of his worth as a human. Bob Costas, on whose NBC Later show Greene had been the most frequent guest, came through town in early October and, so as to avoid public scrutiny, just went over to Greene's place to watch the World Series and order in pizza and remind him that he could be present with people who cast no stones. ("Costas would have much rather been broadcasting the World Series than sitting around with me," he said. "I think it was the first time I was dressed. As he left, I said to him, 'Jesus, this must have felt not so much like a visit but a visitation.' It was such a nice thing for him to do.") And then he learned from his book publisher that one George Herbert Walker Bush had been trying for weeks to get his home address from the Tribune, but the Tribune refused to divulge such to a former president. A handwritten note eventually came, and he learned that the former president didn't like to see Greene take it on the chin but admired the way he had handled himself in the press, no matter that he was paying a tough price, and hoped him to have an exciting future, despite all.
But as I came to understand, he knew nothing of what to do with such support. And yet he also knew nothing of what to make of the silence enveloping him. "There are days I don't hear a fucking voice," he would say. "Because I had managed over the years to construct this wall over my family and my house that if I don't seek people out . . . you know what I mean? It's just odd not to pick up the phone and interview somebody."
As Thanksgiving was now a day away, and as his daughter was returning to an altogether different home, and as he told me that the family would be ordering in their Thanksgiving turkey dinner because simplicity was required as never before, and since he had been rereading his own work to remind himself of who he had once been, he e-mailed me some page numbers to visit in his twelfth book, Hang Time: Days and Dreams with Michael Jordan. (Jordan had, most astonishingly, filed a lawsuit a month before against a woman with whom he had had extramarital relations ten years before, whom he claims he had long ago paid $250,000 in "hush money," and who had now reemerged to demand an additional five million.) Anyway, I believe I found the correct exchange between the both of them on the pages that Greene wished me to find:
GREENE: "Think about the things you wake up terrified about in the middle of the night . . . that only you know about yourself. . . . Are any of them the things that other people have said about you?"
JORDAN: "No. The three-o'clock-in-the-morning things are much worse."
GREENE: "I know. It's not just you. It's everyone. The worst things that anyone else could ever say about us don't come close to being as bad as the worst things we think about ourselves."
They had come out of the woodwork, the women had, in that third week of September. The ones he had attempted to charm and the ones he had successfully charmed--they phoned in to Chicago radio shows or wrote in to media Web sites, and they recounted their experiences with him back when they were in their twenties (none younger or much older). Most had sent him a letter complimenting him on a column they had liked and then received a phone call from him and then an invitation for a meal to talk further about whatever the subject of interest had been. One gave an interview to the Sun-Times--a woman now in her forties--wherein she blithely recalled exactly the above scenario and how it became a sexual arrangement in 1984, conducted in hotel rooms and lasting a couple of months, until he ended it abruptly. "He was guilty," she said. "He expressed some things about trying to stop this behavior." She also said, "I don't have any bad feelings about Bob Greene. He's a fine person and an excellent writer. The guy isn't a total scum because he has this character defect." And none of these tales were a surprise to his media brethren, although more than a few took immense joy in dancing on his grave. Others, however, came to his defense, none more vociferously than Paul Galloway, a recently retired Tribune writer who had started the same day as Greene at the Sun-Times in 1969 and remained Greene's closest, if only, professional confidant, which--Greene being Greene--means he knows just a little more about his enigmatic ways than other people. "He's so secretive," Galloway told me with a small laugh. "The privacy thing just became worse and worse over the years. Bob doesn't share too well with anyone. It sounds paradoxical, but he's a very moral guy. He really has a tremendous sense of morality and a great sense of cynicism about himself and what he did. And he turned over a new leaf. He had been getting away from that, I believe, a long time ago."
Because he shares poorly, he can find no way to articulate specifically the nature of what he was getting away from and how he managed to do so. He did say he never wrote about Bill Clinton and the Monica Lewinsky affair because "it would have been the height of hypocrisy. How could I?" And at one point, trying to explain his less-than-noble behavior, he invoked words he attributed to Muhammad Ali, recalling a dark patch of his own: "Everybody gets lost in life. I just got lost, that's all." So, in the early 1990s, he sought and received counseling for his problem. He would address the matter only carefully and cryptically: "It's like if you're an alcoholic or something and you try to get better, then all of a sudden they go back and dig up your alcoholism again. I liked women."
Similarly, he is mortally stymied for words to explain the reason for his departure from the Tribune and why he didn't fight harder to defend himself with due process. The guiltiest among us, after all, defends himself. It is what we do. And why, exactly, was Bob Greene fired? Whatever else the episode from fourteen years before was, it was not illegal. And as the young woman was no longer either a subject or source for his column, it is arguable whether what he did was professionally unethical. Clearly, he transgressed his marriage, and not just on that occasion, but that was nobody's business except his own and his wife's. Was he irresponsible? Did he show poor judgment? He is the first to say so. Was the offense punishable? Certainly. But to be terminated and then respond so meekly--that is the hardest thing for him to explain.
The likeliest answer is that, for a man as pathologically private as this man, defending himself could have spurred a torrent of similar complaints and could have resulted in his entire private life being opened to scrutiny. He told me, "I thought if I could protect my family from just one more day's pain by keeping my mouth shut, then it was worth it. They didn't ask for this." And he also said, "I tell myself, If I'd gone in there with a very good lawyer, it would have taken longer for them to get rid of me, and it would have been done more cleanly. But it would have leaked out, and the fact is I'd still be sitting here without a job saying to myself, If only I had gone in there as a human being and tried to explain myself. And that's what I did. It seems to me that if you go in there with an attorney, you've already lost your job." So, instead, from another e-mail: "When Woody Hayes was fired from the job he loved more than anything else in the world, despite all his hurt, he said something I don't think he really believed but that I have never forgotten, because its dignity was so soaring. He said, when he finally had the strength to speak, and when everyone was wanting him to stand up for himself and excoriate the people who had fired him: 'Why don't we just say I got what was coming to me and leave it at that.' I much prefer the sound of Woody's voice back then." On the other hand, I will tell you that he has wrestled daily, sometimes hourly, to grasp exactly why it happened the way it happened. It tortured him from the start and would continue to until events more unfathomable began to unfold. But I did hear him say the following: "Maybe columnists aren't supposed to fuck teenagers. Even though I didn't."
We went north again a week after Thanksgiving, but this time not nearly as far north, which seemed a good sign, settling very comfortably into a steak house in Evanston, the town where he had gone to college. He said that he had written Thanksgiving letters to his children (all their lives he has written them letters on their birthdays), but then decided not to hand the letters over. "I thought, Am I doing it for them, or am I doing it for me?" He ate ribs and we tried not to talk about things we had talked about in the past. He seemed to enjoy himself more than on the other nights out. On the ride home, though, out of nowhere, he asked, "What do you think the average person on the street assumed happened in 1988?" When he left the car and walked into his building, I saw that his posture stooped ever so slightly.
Then something happened. Something snapped. The new landscape to which Bob Greene was just getting acclimated buckled and split open without warning. It went like this: The second week of December, he went silent on me. He had disappeared all over again. Then he left a voice-mail message on December 13, a check-in call of sorts ("Hey, it's Greene," it began, as all of his calls or messages had), and his tone had never sounded more somber, nor had I ever heard such trembling come from him. I sent him an e-mail the next day, saying that his voice hadn't sounded so good, and he wrote in response, "We'll talk when I can."
A day or so later, we spoke and he said his world was collapsing all over again. He gave no further details and got off the line. Privacy, secrecy, et al.
December 20, on the phone: "This can go nowhere. My wife is very, very sick. She's likely dying. I don't know what to do. Don't ask any questions, okay? If you were to tell one person . . . That's why I haven't been in touch. It's just--oh, God. I can't go on. My wife, my kids--Jesus . . ."
Disbelief came to mind first. But never had I heard such a woeful sound emit from a human throat, much less from one who had fallen so hard already. It had been a long illness, though not always a grave one, and it was now coming to its conclusion. Thus, all that he and I had spoken of to date felt utterly ridiculous. Here then was his family's holiday season. Two days later, an e-mail: "Things are very bad."
He had never spoken her name to me in all this time. She was My Wife. Nick Greene was My Son. Amanda Sue Greene was My Daughter. He could never speak their names. Susan Koebel Greene had turned fifty-five on November 14. He wrote her a love letter for her birthday, the kind of love letter a man writes a wife of thirty-two years, full of appreciation for who and what she was to him. Through these months, he told me, she had been "magnificent." He had said, "You don't know your life has been worth living until the people closest to you treat you with love in a moment like that. It's all I had." Most people who knew Bob Greene had never met Susan Greene or had any idea of what she looked like. Blond, vibrant, playful, smart, it turns out.
His brief communications through Christmas remained oblique. I would ask what was happening, and he would say, "You know. Bad, bad." It wasn't until the second day of the new year that he told me what actually had been happening--that she had been experiencing respiratory problems at home, that he had admitted her to a hospital on December 12, three months to the day of his first comeuppance, that he had been by her side ever since. "She has been in intensive care, on a ventilator, for more than two weeks now," he wrote me. "My days and nights have, of course, been devoted only to that--while trying at the same time to be with our children and prepare them for what is to come." A few days later, he e-mailed me the Yeats quote, the one about lying down where the ladders start, about everything being taken away and finding out who you really are.
He left the hospital to meet me for dinner the next week. There would be no road trip, as he needed to be near. We met at a downtown hotel and found a street-level steak house there. I forget what he ate. More than a month had passed since we had last done this. He was more pale and more haggard and more gaunt. He said that he had been falling asleep in his clothes a lot. He told me about the health-insurance policy he had thankfully managed to find to replace the one he lost when he lost his job. She had now been unconscious and unable to speak since weeks before the holidays. All he could do was watch her breathe. "There's nothing to do but to do it," he said. His daughter would spend her days doing the same with him. His in-laws as well. His son could not bear to see his mother the way she was. "I keep telling myself, Maybe this means your finest hour finds you," he said. "It doesn't work." His voice contained nothing but resignation, as it were. I drove him back to the hospital and watched him walk inside, carrying his briefcase, striding purposefully and nodding to people who recognized him.
Her heart stopped beating two weeks later, on Saturday, January 25. I found the e-mail a few hours after he sent it at 8:19 that night. It said only: "She died today." He wrote some things about her the next day--things about children's charity work she had done and other things about her--so that he could send them to a friend at the Tribune for the obituary. He read what he wrote to me and his voice cracked. The obituary ran two days later under the headline SHE GAVE KIDS CREATIVE SPARK, the first four paragraphs of which were devoted to her efforts to teach art to underprivileged schoolchildren. Then:
"Mrs. Greene, 55, died of heart failure Saturday in Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, where she had been treated for more than a month for a respiratory illness. 'As Susan lay dying during the most painful months of our family's life, she defined, in the eyes of our children and me, the true meaning of strength and love,' said her husband, former Tribune columnist Bob Greene. . . . 'In a world that is so often cold-eyed and mean-spirited and unforgiving, Susan was a person of never-ending good-heartedness, charity and mercy,' her husband said." The memorial, the paper stated, would be private.
I had sent a note to his former editor, Ann Marie Lipinski, on January 20, saying that I was considering writing the story of Bob Greene's life in exile and requesting an opportunity to, at the very least, informally talk with her about the circumstances of his departure. As the events of that week came to pass, I knew that I would have to tell his story, because it was a story like none other I had ever witnessed. She responded eighteen days later with this e-mail:
"Bill: Bob Greene's admissions and resignation from the Tribune were heartbreaking for the readers, for the paper and for me. I can only imagine what this time has been like for Bob and the woman who first came forward, and I would rather not revisit the matter and compound that pain. --Ann Marie"
And that was all she wrote.
He waited a week to hold the memorial. The only Tribune employees he invited were a few men and women from the copy desk and the writer of the obituary. He wore a dark sport coat and tie and tan pants and, along with his children, greeted people at the door to the service. He smiled a thin smile. When he took the microphone, however, his voice was strong. Until he read the birthday letter he had written to her. Then it shuddered and cracked. Afterward, he stood among the guests and family members, holding his briefcase, accepting condolences, and wishing he were somewhere else. But, of course, he already was.
A Note from Underground
SUBJ: BOB GREENE TO BILL
DATE: 12/10/2002 7:55:01 P.M. CENTRAL STANDARD TIME
When I was first at the Sun-Times, Ron Powers wrote a TV column, and then a general column--and when he stopped, he wrote in his last column, or so I recall, that "the column becomes your best friend." In a way few people can understand, that is absolutely right--when you write a column, especially for 31 years, it does become your best friend. You talk to it more than you talk to anyone else--you talk to it all day, every day. You don't want to let it down--you feel very protective of it, and want it only to be seen at its very best. You feel proud of it when people praise it, and you feel bad for it when people deride it. You are intensely loyal to it--you would, and do, stay up all night for it, you worry about it, you cancel plans so that you can take care of it. You do for it what any best friend would do.
A lot of people have told me that this must feel like I've lost myself--more and more, people come up, like that first woman on the lake did, and say, "We miss you," and I give them the half-joking answer, "I miss me, too," before thanking them. But it's more than losing yourself--it's losing your best friend. Which in a lot of ways is even worse.
And: I've not been good about answering the letters that have reached me about this--you, probably more than anyone else, understand the lack of energy that I've been dealing with, and one of the things that has gone untaken care of is answering mail. But yesterday I decided that there were a few letters that I just had to respond to--they had moved me so deeply that I knew I had to write to say thanks.
So I wrote them--two of them--and I carried them out to the mailbox, and it wasn't until I was dropping them into the mailbox that I looked at them and realized something about them.
One was to former President Bush. The other was to Barbara Drugan--Miss Barbara, my kindergarten teacher back in Ohio.
The continuum of a man's life . . . you go through your whole life, good times and terrible, and in your worst and darkest days you receive two letters that move you so much with their words of encouragement and support, words that make you think that maybe there's a part of you that's all right, after all. . . .
And you look at the envelopes as you mail them, and you realize that one was from Miss Barbara, and one was from a president of the United States, and that although they have never met and will never meet, they are trying to tell you some of the same things about yourself.
I almost lost it, right there on the street, looking at the two letters as I mailed them.
Talk with you soon.