In Need of Some Good Advice
As a kid, Mark Godes had an advice column in the Herald that made him a celebrity. Now, the grownup Godes wants another shot at fame—so desperately that he may have bungled his big comeback.
Mark Godes’s first job was also his best job. In 1982, when he was just 12 years old, he was hired by the Boston Herald-American to write an advice column for kids. The column was called “Dear Bobby Simpson” and each week for eight years, Godes—or, rather, Bobby Simpson—answered the most pressing questions of his Boston-area peers. What should you do if your friend keeps borrowing your stuff and not returning it? Bobby Simpson says tell your friend’s parents about their son’s sticky fingers and they’ll make sure he returns the items. How can you get a boyfriend if every guy you meet is more interested in your more beautiful sister? Bobby Simpson says work on your personality and boys will notice you for that. For every problem Boston kids brought to him via the Herald, Bobby Simpson had a ready answer.
But it wasn’t so much the act of giving advice that made Godes love being Bobby Simpson. Rather, it was that, by being Bobby Simpson, Godes himself became famous. When he was 14, Dell published Dear Bobby Simpson, a book that featured some of his best columns—and sent Godes on a national book tour. He stayed in fine hotels and ate in fancy restaurants. He was profiled in People and the Los Angeles Times. He was interviewed on television shows ranging from Donahue to Good Morning America. It was heady stuff, particularly for a kid who was being raised by a single mother in a tenement building in Chelsea.
But fame has a way of getting old, even for teenagers, and by the time Godes was ready to head to Suffolk University in 1988, he was tired of being Bobby Simpson. The radio and TV talk show appearances were no longer that thrilling. The column itself had become a drag: Although he had to write only one a week, he often wouldn’t put pen to paper until a few hours before his Friday afternoon deadline. Then he’d blow nearly half of his $50 per column fee to pay a cabbie to drive the sheets from his home in Chelsea to the Herald newsroom. And so, without giving it much thought, Godes decided in 1990 to say goodbye to Bobby Simpson. “It was out of my system at that point,” he explains.
Godes is recounting all this as he sits in the third-floor cafeteria of the Federal Reserve building while on a break from his job upstairs at a financial services firm. Now 36, Godes has a goatee and wears the business casual uniform of the downtown office worker, but he doesn’t look that different from the teenager in the old Dear Bobby Simpson publicity photos he’s brought with him. (In fact, the younger Godes in some ways looks more adult than the grownup Godes across the table: The teenage Godes is wearing a suit.) And as he talks about all the things he did and saw as Bobby Simpson, it becomes clear that Godes wishes he still were Bobby Simpson. “It didn’t dawn on me how lucky I was,” he says.
Which is why Godes wants his old job back. He wants to be Bobby Simpson again. The proximate cause for his attempt to revive his alter ego was the 2002 death of Ann Landers, which Godes believes created an opening in the advice columnist market. But the bigger motivation goes much deeper than a desire to return to giving advice. Rather, it goes to Godes’s desire to return to being famous. “’With American Idol and with all of these reality shows, they’re basically plucking people with no real distinction from obscurity and they get 15 minutes of fame and then they’re suddenly celebrities,” he says. “I did something that was truly, truly of accomplishment, I did have a book published when I was 14.” Such a distinction, he reasons, should be enough to resurrect Bobby Simpson.
Alas, that hasn’t been an easy task. Godes envisions an edgier Bobby Simpson—a Bobby Simpson who, rather than counsel teens, offers wisdom on dating and relationships for young professionals. But the agents, publicists, and editors Godes has tried to enlist to help him haven’t been so enthralled by the idea. Even worse, Godes may have blown his best shot at relaunching Bobby Simpson when, earlier this year, he ticked off the Boston Globe. What started as a comeback has become, as Godes now calls it, an “odyssey.” “I didn’t realize I had such a tough task in front of me,” he says. “I had this notion that because of what I did as a kid, that I would just call people up and they’d remember it and that would be it.” He adds, “In a lot of ways I was naive.”
ONCE UPON A TIME Godes’s naivete worked to his advantage. After all, it’s a pretty naive 12-year-old who thinks that his handwritten query to a major-market daily newspaper will actually land him a column. But for all his naivete, the young Godes also possessed considerable savvy. He didn’t pitch himself to the Herald as an advice columnist because he had experience giving advice—his childhood friends say Godes wasn’t one of those kids sought out on the playground for his wisdom. He pitched an advice column because he thought that it was the best way he, as a 12-year-old, could get a byline.
Now, in his attempt to revive his advice column, Godes believes he has another great hook: the fact that he had an advice column before. “Wouldn’t it be novel for somebody who as a teen wrote a column sort of coming back several years later, older and wiser, and doing a more updated advice column?” he says. The first thing Godes did to mount his comeback was put together a sort of “media kit” documenting his boyhood accomplishment. He combed through his drawers and closets to find old news clips about himself; when he couldn’t find them there, he looked elsewhere. To get his hands on extra copies of the 1983 issue of People that had a one-page profile of him, Godes got in touch with a magazine collector in Chicago. A few weeks—and $700—later, he had 25 more copies.
Godes’s next step was to send his kits out to agents, publicists, editors—
anyone who he thought could help him get back into the game. But Godes’s hunt for someone to help him navigate the new media landscape has been a catalog of frustrations. He says the lawyer who negotiated his book deal told him he’d be happy to help Godes relaunch Bobby Simpson—for a $5,000 up-front retainer and an hourly rate of $175. And then there were the publicists. “They didn’t even have offices,” Godes remembers, “One of them wanted $10,000 a month and he was really a nobody himself. He had even less pull than me.”
Godes found a New York agent who encouraged him to write a book revisiting five or six people his former advice column helped. But Godes had no way to track down his old correspondents—they, like he, wrote under pseudonyms. A bigger obstacle was that, as Godes himself puts it, “I don’t recall any instance where there was any advice I gave that was life-changing.”
IN FACT, MOST of Godes’s teenage work was unremarkable—save for the fact that it was work done by a teenager. Which, of course, was the secret to his early success: It was never about the quality of his advice; it was about the age of the person offering it. With that gimmick gone, the older Godes pitches himself as the adult advice columnist who used to be the child advice columnist. But the advice columnist game has changed a bit in the years since Boston met Bobby Simpson.
The thing that seems to distinguish good advice columnists from bad ones in the current market is life experience. Those who have a lot of it tend to offer better advice. Carolyn Hax, the dating and relationships columnist for the Washington Post, has a famously soap-operatic personal life—divorcing her husband and, about a year later, marrying another man by whom she was pregnant with twins. Dan Savage, the author of the raunchy and internationally syndicated sex advice column “Savage Love,” is a gay man who, with his boyfriend, adopted a son. Ann Landers’s daughter, Margo Howard, who lives in Cambridge and has found fame as author of the column “Dear Margo,” puts it best: “To have my experience and wisdom,” she says, “you would need a famous mother, a rich father, four husbands, an analyst, two good psychiatrists, three loony children, and a partridge in a pear tree.” For Godes—who has never married, has no children, and still lives with his mother not far from where he grew up in Chelsea—that’s hard to compete with.
But this past winter it looked like Godes might get a shot. Although he had repeatedly tried and failed to interest editors at the Globe and the Herald in reviving Bobby Simpson, he found a sympathetic ear in the Globe’s Alex Beam, who, last October, wrote a piece about Godes. That article caught the eye of Ron Agrella, a content manager at the Globe’s website, Boston.com. The site had no use for a Bobby Simpson column per se, but it had a spot for a Bobby Simpson blog on dating and relationships. Godes was thrilled and signed up to do the blog for one year. He wouldn’t be paid for his work, but he and his agent figured that was all right, since at least Boston.com would give him a platform and, he hoped, an entrée into other parts of the Globe empire. In January Bobby Simpson made his triumphant return.
It would turn out to be a short run. Within weeks Godes had all sorts of beefs—from the lack of a link on Boston.com’s home page to the number of posts the editors expected him to make each week—but his overriding complaint was about the lack of promotion he and his blog were receiving. For Godes, being Bobby Simpson was supposed to be a vehicle to fame. And while he was offering fairly humdrum advice to his readers about their relationships, he had far more elaborate suggestions for his new bosses about how he should be marketed. He wanted the Globe to line him up guest spots on local television and radio shows, and to let him write about relationships for other parts of the paper in order to maximize “cross-promotional” opportunities. The powers that be at the Globe, however, had other priorities besides tending to the demands of an unpaid freelance blogger. Even when Godes managed to make his own promotional opportunities—persuading Fox 25 to put him on the air to talk relationships right before Valentine’s Day—his bosses seemed uninterested. “Nobody called,” Godes gripes. “It was like it didn’t happen.” In early March, a mere eight weeks after Bobby Simpson’s reincarnation, Godes had had enough. He e-mailed what he calls a “Jerry Maguire memo” to Agrella—with copies to Globe editor Marty Baron and publisher Richard Gilman—airing all of his grievances. He complained that an editor at the Globe magazine rejected his pitches after “subject[ing] them to a level of editorial rigor even the editors of the New England Journal of Medicine would find excessive.” Near the end of the nearly 3,000-word missive, Godes wrote: “Is there any way for us to reach an agreement whereby I could hope to receive the quite reasonable amount of, say, $50 or even $75 a week (a stipend, if you will) as compensation for all my time and effort when it comes to the writing that I do for Boston.com?” Two days later, Agrella sent Godes a short reply: “Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that this arrangement is working out for either of us.… I think it’s best that we terminate your involvement with Boston.com and the relationship blog, effective immediately.”
IT’S A SUNDAY AFTERNOON, nearly two months after he parted ways with the Globe, and Godes is still stewing as he sits in a Dunkin’ Donuts down the street from his Chelsea apartment. “People at the Globe, they think they’re curing cancer,” he says. “They have this mentality that they’re very, very important people.” (The Globe, for its part, refuses to address Godes’s complaints, other than to state, through its spokesman Al Larkin: “In his letter Mark expressed unhappiness with the relationship he had with Boston.com, and after discussing it with him we decided that the relationship wasn’t working out for us as well, and so we ended it.”)
Godes’s departure from the Globe was a setback, he admits, not only because it cost him a platform but also because it cost him his agent, who had urged him not to send Agrella that e-mail. After his sacking, Godes hoped that higher-ups at the Globe would recognize the unfairness of the situation and reinstate him, but his e-mail to Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the chairman of the Globe’s corporate owner, the New York Times Company, never drew a reply. Still, he insists that the setback was not a fatal one and he’s eager to explain that he hasn’t given up on this comeback. He’s just signed with a new agent in New York and he’s exchanged a few e-mails with the editor of the Washington Post’s website about taking the Bobby Simpson blog. He’s also thinking he could forgo a blog or a column and go straight to doing an advice book. “I don’t think I necessarily need a platform. People are getting books published with no platforms. They’re nobodies and they’re getting books published,” he says. “I mean, after all, what’s true is true. I did have a book published.”
But nearly five years into his comeback bid, it’s hard not to conclude that Godes would have a better shot at success if he stopped harping on the fact that he once was famous. Indeed, if Godes were ever to pose his dilemma to an advice columnist, that’s probably the advice he’d get. But Godes isn’t asking for counsel. Nothing, it seems, can shake his faith that he has the answers. “The idea of a 35-year-old person coming back after being a teen advice columnist—again, I’ve been on Good Morning America, I was on the Today show, I had a book,” he says with less pride than exasperation, as if he can’t believe that these achievements haven’t been enough to bring him fame and fortune as an adult. He pauses and sighs. “I feel like I’m a marketable guy.”