By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
After Jonathan returned to New York to write "Missing in America," he says, a similar blend of conflict and contrition marked his telephone conversations with Jeff. Before long, Jonathan, who had begun his probe with such single-mindedness, was more confused than ever. And he admitted it in print.
The headline on page one of the Wall Street Journal on March 18, 1991, read, "Missing in America: A Lost Brother Sends One Man on a Search With Few Guideposts: Jeff Dahl, Addicted to Drugs, Vanished Into a Vast Sea of Drifters and Lost Souls: `Just Missed Him,' They Said." Supplementing Jonathan's poignant descriptions of looking for and finding his older sibling were sketches of Jeff at ages 18 and 35 and a snapshot of Jeff as a child, sitting beside Jonathan in front of the Dahl Christmas tree in 1962. Dwayne had been in the original photo, but he played a minor role in the article; the Journal's art designers cropped him out.
The background of the story was not unique. According to data Jonathan cited, more than 40,000 people a year contact either the government or the Salvation Army for assistance in tracking down missing adults. No definitive figures exist to determine how many of the individuals sought are homeless, victims of foul play, or simply folks wishing to start over. But the fact remains: Men and women disappear every day, all over the country.
Few of them, however, had vanished on the front page of the Journal. Furthermore, Jonathan's tale had about it elements of classic melodrama: a wealthy golden child gone wrong, a dying wish, a crusading young journalist using his training and skills to rescue his own brother. The ending wasn't uplifting--Jonathan concluded with images of "tattered figures curled up on New York's sidewalks and the panhandlers rattling cups on 42nd Street." But the narrative provided hope. Jeff had been found by a loving relative who had dedicated his life to the goal. Surely everything would be all right now.
The response to "Missing in America" was immediate. The Journal switchboard was flooded by calls. Hundreds of letters poured in, with a number of those writing offering to help Jeff heal himself. (A Harvard professor's cure entailed drilling a hole in the back of Jeff's head and forcing an electric charge into his brain.) Jeff never got to see any of this correspondence, but he suspected that some of the envelopes contained money that he never received. People see a story on TV about a sick dog and they're ready to send the cur their last dime, he'd say to friends, and surely some of them would have done the same for me.
As it turned out, Jonathan says, the Journal readers hadn't sent cash--but media types were eager to use the Dahl story to make some for themselves. Producer Don Hewitt contacted Jonathan personally to discuss the possibility of a 60 Minutes segment. A spokesman from the quiz show What's My Line wanted the brothers to appear side by side. (Jeff was game, but Jonathan nixed the idea--too degrading.) And a representative of Good Morning America asked Jonathan to drop by for a chat. Jonathan accepted this last invitation, and the very next morning he sat opposite host Charlie Gibson and talked about homelessness in general, and Jeff in particular, for a few minutes before a very special visit from Mickey Rooney.
Jonathan says the Good Morning America staffers didn't ask Jeff to appear on the show--and besides, it would have been logistically difficult to transport him to New York in time to participate. But, Gary notes, Jeff nursed indignation over this perceived snub anyway. In his fantasy of guesting on the program, he saw himself bringing his guitar with him onto the set and asking Gibson mid-interview if he could play a song. After Gibson gave him the go-ahead, Jeff would have launched into an original composition--maybe even one the network's censors would approve of. Could the attention he'd dreamed about for so long be far behind?
But it wasn't to be. Jeff may have been the impetus behind "Missing," but Jonathan was the Dahl who became the focus of the acclaim it received. Journal reporters were hot then: Among the staffers who'd recently skyrocketed to success were Bryan Burrough and John Helyar, who wrote Barbarians at the Gate (the HBO movie of the same name, starring James Garner, won an Emmy); James B. Stewart, author of the insider-trading drama Den of Thieves; and Susan Faludi, whose book Backlash was a response to anti-feminists. The Journal had become a virtual farm team for publishing houses, and one of the biggest, Random House, saw Jonathan as the next slugger. The company asked him to produce a book-length version of his piece at around the same time that a film producer bought the rights: 20th Century Fox hastily began developing it for the screen. Jonathan was overwhelmed by the response and by his newfound status as a spokesman for the homeless. As a former colleague of Jonathan's recollects, he began showing up at the office clad not in the usual Journal uniform (an expensive suit, a tie, braces) but in tattered sweaters and other rumpled, threadbare clothing that visually symbolized his empathy with street people.