In the plush dining room of the Carlyle hotel, Sugar Rautbord, the Chicago socialite, fund-raiser and novelist, took her breakfast on March 24. After ordering orange juice (which she never touched) and a skim milk cappuccino with “lots and lots of foam,” she eschewed some widespread pop philosophies she finds quite troublesome.
“Look at the world today,” Ms. Rautbord said. “The women who hold the greatest strength are the chameleons, those who have had the courage to say, ‘O.K., I’m no longer in a place that is working for me. It is time to get to the next place, time to reinvent myself.’ To change your life is a conscious decision. This idea of ‘go with the flow.’ No. I know all about it: Don’t push the river and go with the flow. Well, the river takes you to India, darling,” Ms. Rautbord said.
Her confectionary blond hair swirled over the shoulders of a dark blue Ralph Lauren trouser suit. On her lapel, a jeweled chameleon pin. On her finger, a blinding yellow diamond of umpteen-plus carats. “A present when I divorced Mr. Rautbord,” she allowed, sinking Equal into a peak of cappuccino foam. “Some things end better than they begin.”
In May, Warner Books will publish Ms. Rautbord’s third novel, The Chameleon . “It took me, oh, about two years to write and a lifetime to research. I can’t say the book is great literature, but I think it is fun and informative.” She paused. “My friend Scott Turow was very nice about The Chameleon . He told me, ‘Sugar, stop dumping on your shoes. In this genre you are the best.”‘ Ms. Rautbord’s earlier books are Sweet Revenge and Girls in High Places .
The Chameleon tells the story of a girl named Claire Organ, who was literally born in Marshall Field’s department store just before Christmas 1924. Her father absent, her mother lives with two roommates in a small flat. The three women, affectionately called the “aunties,” are saleswomen at Marshall Field’s where Claire becomes the sort of Eloise of the department store. Of course, Claire doesn’t grow up to become a saleswoman. Liberally inspired by the lives of Clare Booth Luce, Eleanor Roosevelt, Lucy Mercer, Jacqueline Kennedy and Pamela Harriman, Ms. Rautbord marries Claire up four times, into four very different “chameleon lives” as the author says, before the reader leaves the highly likable Claire on page 516, when the story ends.
“It would have been audacious of me to write a nonfiction book that said, ‘This is how to be a chameleon,’” Ms. Rautbord explained. “A novel is a softer way. It’s more ‘come along with me’ than ‘look at me.’” Ms. Rautbord opened a copy of The Chameleon and read aloud: “‘You know how it is, when you look back on your life, you hardly recognize the person you once were. Like a snake shedding skins.’ Guess who said that? Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis!”
Twirling a butter knife, Ms. Rautbord opened a Federal Express envelope and sifted through some papers her secretary had sent overnight from her apartment on Lake Shore Drive. The portfolio included several copies of Fashions of the Hour , Marshall Field’s illustrated magazine from the 1920′s and 30′s. “When I was a child, I always was skipping some class or lesson and taking the train or my mother’s car and chauffeur into Chicago from Evanston so I could go to Marshall Field’s. Watching. Listening to the ladies in the dressing room. Trying out different personalities to go with different outfits,” Ms. Rautbord recalled.
“When I was researching The Chameleon I spent days and days wading through Marshall Field’s archives. In the days before planes, the 20th Century Limited left L.A., then called Hollywood, for New York with a stopover in Chicago. The deal was: lunch at the Pub Room, four hours at Marshall Field’s and back on the train. Amelia Earhart actually did a clothing line, Amelia Earhart’s sportswear line for Active Women, for Marshall Field’s. Because Shirley Temple made appearances there, I had her teach Claire how to dimple.”
On April 29, Marshall Field’s Michigan Avenue windows will be devoted to The Chameleon . Pucci International Ltd. of New York has created mannequins inspired by the characters in the novel. As for other plans to promote The Chameleon , which received a rave in Kirkus Reviews on March 15, Ms. Rautbord was uncertain. “It was nice Vanity Fair included me in its November 1998 issue as one of the 200 most influential women in America.” (“Don’t call her a philanthropist. She’s just a ‘well-dressed volunteer,’” the copy read.)
“And it would be nice if we could do my girlfriend’s show, which I’ve already been on 11 times,” Ms. Rautbord said, smiling. The girlfriend is Oprah Winfrey. “We don’t like to assume anything, but wouldn’t it be great to do a show about women who have the courage to reinvent themselves?” She ticked off a few: Madonna, Jane Fonda, Hillary Rodham Clinton. “And Monica Lewinsky, who I met in Washington during the William Ginsburg days. So pretty. Like Snow White without the dwarves. We bonded because she immediately liked my diamond ring and wanted to know how I got it, which I thought was very telling.”
Ms. Rautbord’s late father, Robert Kaplan, a wealthy Chicagoan, married her mother, the Hollywood actress Virginia George, during World War II. They had three daughters, including little Donna Louise, nicknamed Sugar by her nanny. Sugar came east to study art and creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y. Her suitemates were Shelley Wanger, the Random House editor, and Joan Juliet Buck, editor in chief of French Vogue . “I was just this little ol’ cornfed Midwestern girl. Home on my first break, my mother asked, ‘What language are you speaking?’ I’d picked up so many Eastern Seaboard speech patterns.” Ms. Rautbord’s voice goes a little Southern sometimes. “Voice is everything,” she said. “The best voice has no geography. No betrayals, like Claire’s.” After Sarah Lawrence, Ms. Rautbord married Chicago businessman Clayton Rautbord. Their son, now 26, lives in Florida.
“Jet-set newlywed in bikini on top of boat period. Corporate wife period. Super-mother period,” Ms. Rautbord giggled like a teenager perfumed in helium as she listed some of her own chameleonlike incarnations. “Scholarly period when I got my master’s. Divorce period.” Now, there’s a mourning period. In January, Ms. Rautbord’s longtime friend Jay Pritzker, the industrialist and architecture patron, died at age 76 after a heart attack.
“My mother taught me how to be a chameleon,” Ms. Rautbord confided. “The technique is very simple: It’s changing your colors in order to survive. I had polio as a child. On certain days, my leg didn’t work right. From my mother’s theater training, she showed me how to turn the problem into these attractive mannerisms, like putting my hand on my hip and sort of dragging my leg,” Ms. Rautbord said as she stood up and demonstrated. “It made things, well, a little more interesting,” she said, returning to her cappuccino, which had not lost its foam.
Billy’s List: Quiz time!
1. Marc Hom recently shot an ad campaign for the Swedish fashion firm H&M Hennes with which of the following Hollywood actors?
a. Johnny Depp.
b. Julia Stiles.
c. Gena Rowlands.
2. What happened to romance novel cover model Fabio recently?
a. Fabio and Monica Lewinsky bonded in Finland, where she was promoting her book and he was shooting a Finlandia vodka campaign.
b. He was elected to Mensa, the genius group.
c. He was riding a Busch Gardens roller coaster when a goose hit him in the face and died.
3. According to Audrey Style , a new book by Pamela Clarke Keogh, one way to look like Audrey Hepburn is to get “a small dog with a wry name.” What did Hepburn call her dog?
Answers: (1) a; (2) c; (3) b.