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Back Room

Sugar Rautbord

The socialite novelist on gossip, allies, and a scary boat trip with Trump’s ex

Illustration by Stavros Damos
Illustration: Stavros Damos

Why do you want to talk about me? I’m so boring. Trump emailed me four times yesterday. But we can’t write about that. I can show you.

There is no high society. It doesn’t work that way anymore. The epitome of social status now is being a great achiever, like inventing Instagram or Facebook.

My name is Donna. I like Donna. But my parents called me Sugar. So did my sisters and nannies. So Sugar I became. Well, maybe not entirely. I’ve always been kind­—just not sweet per se.

The talent I have is connectivity. I’ve been very good at bringing people together to get things done. Do you think there’s anyone else who was on the phone talking to Trump and to George Soros on the same day? Nobody in the world.

When I was in kindergarten, I thought a boy in third grade was really cute. So without telling anybody, I promoted myself to third grade and sat behind him. It took a week before they figured out I did not belong in third grade. And so my parents decided I needed to be in an all-girls school. I liked boys a lot.

One of my professors at Sarah Lawrence was Joseph Campbell, the guru-god whose writing was the inspiration for George Lucas’s Star Wars. He taught me for two years and wrote in my report that I would end up becoming “a great philosopher or a shining dinner partner.”

I had a big Washington period, working for particular causes or for the Reagan White House. That’s how I learned that whoever is your political opponent now may be an ally later.

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The whole idea of the “society columnist” is a bygone-bygone. It’s a double bygone! Certainly the last of the breed here was Ann Gerber in the Gold Coast’s Skyline newspaper. She was very enterprising, very smart, very pretty. She used gossip and gatherings as the history of the now.

I learned to be very discreet. I don’t dish.

I got miniseries deals for all my books, but they ended up being made as sort of composite movies of the week. Well, one actually ended up as a Dynasty subplot.

I was talking on the phone the other day to Ivana, and she started laughing. “Sugar, remember when we almost drowned you?” I’d gone over to Monte Carlo for the Red Cross Ball, then went on Ivana’s yacht—she was divorced already. We were like eight miles off the coast of Corsica. I was splashing around off the side of the boat. Don Jr. and Eric, then just kids, had been out jet-skiing. Meanwhile, Ivana was very busy sort of firing one Italian boat captain while hiring another. In all that confusion, they suddenly just took off without me. Thank God I’m a strong swimmer and managed to keep myself afloat for what seemed like about eight hours in a dark Mediterranean. I was rescued by a yacht full of crazy Americans who recognized me from the Oprah show.

I have always lived in an upscale women’s novel on the edges of a boldface reality show.

The thing Chicagoans sometimes do is dig in their heels and then forget the bigger picture. Even though we’re an extremely evolved intellectual city, there still is a very naive element, where it’s like little old ladies spying out from behind their rustling living room curtains and thinking, Oh, no, we can’t have the Lucas Museum here; no, we can’t have a guy from New York build a hotel and put his name on it.

Chicago likes the new, but only accepts one of the new at a time, with cautious intervals in between.

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