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Valerie Jarrett & Desirée Rogers

Jarrett and Rogers, both now headed to the White House, form two-thirds of a high-profile Chicago sisterhood along with publishing heir Linda Johnson Rice. Their friendship is described in this story by Marcia Froelke Coburn. Jarrett has been named a senior adviser to Obama and Rogers is said to be in line to be White House social secretary.

Valerie Jarrett, Desirée Rogers, and Linda Johnson Rice
Jarrett, Rogers, Rice. Photograph by Tom Maday, as appears in The Sisterhood from the August 2000 issue of Chicago magazine  Photograph by Tom Maday

When Desirée Rogers returned to her native New Orleans to be Queen Zulu 2000 of Mardi Gras this past spring, her friends Linda Johnson Rice and Valerie Jarrett went with her. It was a difficult time for Rogers—her father, Roy Glapion, a famous New Orleans city councilman who was supposed to have been King Zulu of Mardi Gras, had died a few months before. Chicago’s power quotient plummeted when the three women traveled out of town. But Rice and Jarrett were there for Rogers—that’s what friends are for.

Each of the three is accomplished and successful: Rogers, 40, the former director of the Illinois Lottery, is the vice-president of corporate communications for Peoples Energy, a diversified energy company; Rice, 42, is the president and chief operating officer of the Johnson Publishing empire, which includes Ebony and Jet; and Jarrett, 43, the former commissioner of the Chicago Department of Planning and Development, is now the executive vice-president of The Habitat Company, a real estate development firm and management company. But as close and long-standing friends, they are usually together—the three form a juggernaut of brains, beauty, and connections, proving that sisterhood is indeed powerful.

“These women are politically savvy, tough-as-nails operators with significant influence and clout in Chicago’s civic and cultural life,” says Laura Washington, the editor and publisher of the Chicago Reporter. “These are not tokens; they got there on their own talents and reputations. They are not dependent on any of the men in their lives—black or white—for their success.”

“They are black women leaders of tremendous value to the city,” says Ronne Hartfield, a museum consultant and writer. “But they are very different people.”

First, the similarities: Jarrett and Rice grew up in Chicago, and their parents know one another. They attended the University of Chicago Laboratory School together. One of their best friends from that time is John Rogers, the president of Ariel Capital Management, an investment firm. And Rogers, in turn, married Desi- rée, bringing her into the group in 1988.

Together the three have earned six degrees, including an M.M. and an M.B.A. (Rice from Northwestern University and Rogers from Harvard University) and a J.D. (Jarrett, from the University of Michigan). Rogers lives on East Lake Shore Drive, the most exclusive block in the city, and Rice resides on North Lake Shore Drive. They prefer designer clothes by Richard Tyler and Jil Sander. Jarrett lives at 50th and the lake, a mile from where she grew up, and wears St. John knits. Each woman has a daughter, and all three of the children attend the University of Chicago Lab School. Rice and Jarrett are divorced; Rogers is going through a divorce. Together they sit on 21 boards—and two of them (Rice and Rogers) recently caused a bit of a fracas when they left the Museum of Contemporary Art’s board of trustees. (Technically, Rice resigned with a year of her three-year term remaining; Rogers’s term expired, and she asked not to serve another one.)

Now, the differences: Rice is the heir to a dynasty. Her parents are pillars in the African American community in Chicago and nationally, and she, as their only living child, carries on their legacy. “Linda comes from tremendous privilege,” says Hartfield, “yet people are always amazed that she is such a human being.” Rice is outgoing, a laugh-out-loud, lay-it-on-the-line kind of gal. She is, by far, the most accessible of the group.

One of Jarrett’s grandfathers was Robert Taylor, once the head of the Chi­cago Housing Authority. In her own way, she has continued in a similar role. She is the most politically minded of the three women. She has the ability to focus with high-powered concentration and then shift that attention to the next subject. “Because of her political connections,” says one observer, “she has to be very careful about making alliances.”

Rogers originally came on the scene because of her marriage, but through her hard work, volunteerism, and social appearances, she has carved out a place of her own. With her tall, willowy figure, she is the most striking of the three; she is also the most inscrutable, sometimes coming across to new acquaintances as aloof. But “in her group of trusted friends,” says a regular on the social scene, “she can be the life of the party.”

In many ways, it is not surprising that the three are one another’s confidantes and cheerleaders. Who else understands the pressures, the history, the dreams for the future? “So much of what I do is so strictly confidential,” says Jarrett, “that it’s nice to be able to discuss, or vent, or laugh about something and not read about it in the newspaper the next day. And I know the others feel the same way.”

Here, then, is a portrait of three outstanding women and one amazing friendship.

THE IMAGE MAKER

“You’re not going to be talking to me about socialite kinds of things, are you?” asks Desirée Rogers. “I may be in the paper from time to time, but I am a serious businesswoman.”

That is obvious from Rogers’s résumé. She holds a B.A. in political science from Wellesley College and that M.B.A. from Harvard. During her ten- ure as the director of the Illinois Lottery, from 1991 to 1997, instant ticket sales more than doubled, thanks in large part to Rogers’s innovative theme marketing. Three years ago, she joined Peoples Energy as the vice-president of corporate communications and is helping oversee an extensive “branding campaign” designed to present a more unified, easily identifiable public image.

“We are a 150-year-old company,” Rogers says, sitting in her large, sparely decorated office at Randolph Street and Michigan Avenue. “But, really, energy is not something you think about. You expect it to work; you get your bill, you pay it.” As markets are deregulated, however, Rogers’s job is to make her company stand out. The project started with putting its local utility companies such as Peoples Gas and North Shore Gas under the corporate umbrella of Peoples Energy. Then Rogers oversaw the updating of the company’s logo to a design that now appears on everything from banners at sporting events to the Peoples Energy trucks.  “It’s a matter of thinking about how my product touches people’s lives and how can I make people aware of that,” she says.

In person, Rogers is formidable. Wearing a perfectly tailored gray glen plaid suit and black suede heels that add several inches to her five-foot ten-inch height, she looks aggressively regal. Her manner, which is cool and clipped, matches her appearance. But her friends say there is more to Rogers than immediately presents itself. “I think people often find Desirée cold, even to the point of frosty at first,” says Linda Johnson Rice. “But that’s an initial reaction. Underneath, she is a warm and funny person.”

Rogers was born in New Orleans, where her parents, Roy and Joyce Glapion, were hardworking and community oriented. Her mother owned and ran daycare centers (Rogers’s sister-in-law now oversees the business); her father was a public school teacher and a junior high basketball coach who, after retiring from that career, became a beloved city councilman. When he died of cancer in December 1999, a horse-drawn hearse carried his coffin through the city’s streets. The Times-Picayune called it “as big a jazz funeral as any in recent memory,” estimating that nearly 2,000 mourners had joined the marching throng. Rogers’s mother is now waging a campaign to assume her late husband’s city council seat.

“My parents were always passionate about what they were involved in,” says Rogers, “and they passed that kind of passion on to me. They always stressed, Get a good education, do your best work, and be so passionate that your passion becomes contagious.”

After she finished school, Rogers worked briefly as a marketing manager for AT&T in New Jersey. But the East, she thought, lacked a certain kind of hospitality that she, growing up in the South, was used to. She moved to Chicago in 1986, she says, because it combined “both big city sensibilities and graciousness.”

In 1988, she married John Rogers, and they have a daughter, Victoria, who is ten. In 1998, the two separated amicably and began divorce proceedings. “It was one of those matches that looked perfect on paper—two smart, accomplished, business-savvy people,” says one insider, “but there was a real clash of styles. John is painfully shy, and he won’t eat anything fancier than hamburgers. Desirée, although reserved, is much more outgoing. And her tastes are high-octane sophisticated. In many ways, it’s amazing that they stayed together as long as they did.”

On her own, it is hardly surprising that Rogers is wary of being miscast as a socialite. For years, her boldface name has punctuated the personality columns of the newspapers. “It’s hard not to know Desirée,” says Susan Sher, the vice-president and general counsel for the University of Chicago Hospitals. “She goes to a million events.” Part of that had to do with her high-profile job as the director of the lottery; it was also dictated by her high-profile marriage. And then there are her clothes. “She chooses the best designers,” says one regular on the social scene, “but both she and Linda [Rice] go for designers who have a flamboyant flair. These are not button-down Anne Klein kinds of people.”

Little wonder, then, that a miniscandal erupted when Rogers and Rice—along with Linda Walker Bynoe and Maria Bechily—left the Museum of Contemporary Art’s board last January. The four were the only female minority members among the 63 trustees, and when the story appeared in Crain’s Chicago Business, the departures were played up as a protest against the museum’s slow pace to diversify.

“It’s in the past,” says  Rogers. “I have nothing to say about it.”

But those closely involved with the museum are still abuzz over what prompted the exits and the bad publicity. Many people believe that a plan “was hatched” during a trip that Rice and Rogers took to Las Vegas last fall to celebrate Rogers’s 40th birthday. Several other women who have no connection with the museum, however—including Jarrett—were also on that trip. Others close to the museum believe that the withdrawals came as a reaction to a controversial exhibition there of work by the African American artist Laylah Ali. Called Small Aggressions, the show featured cartoon figures as both victims and perpetrators of whipping, spanking, torture, and hanging. A reviewer for the Chicago Tribune wrote that Ali’s works “pare the complexity of power relationships, racism and violence to stick-like figures placed in simple compositions.”

“I doubt that show had anything to do with the resignations,” says Ronne Hartfield, a former executive at the Art Institute of Chicago who has been hired as a diversity consultant by the Museum of Contemporary Art. “But many in the black community here were not thrilled with Laylah Ali’s work. She is big in New York, but she doesn’t play well here. However, the MCA did bring in Hyde Park painter Kerry James Marshall to speak, and the black community was very pleased with his lecture.”

According to someone close to both sides, the departures must be seen on an individual basis rather than as a sweeping protest. “Linda Bynoe left at the end of her term because of family health problems,” this source says. “And she can’t be too mad at the MCA because she is underwriting the hiring of Hartfield as a diversity consultant. Rice and Bechily [the latter owns a Hispanic-oriented public relations firm] are overwhelmed with business matters, although they have been active at the MCA in the past. Desirée’s term was up and, I think, she was feeling a little bruised because of her divorce. She wished she’d had more personal attention. In that case, it wasn’t about diversity so much as the MCA board not being a particularly welcoming or validating group.”

Sources say that since the departures, Rogers and Robert Fitzpatrick, the director and chief executive officer of the Museum of Contemporary Art, have had several “successful” breakfast meetings and that both sides simply want the uproar to fade away. “I am grateful for their efforts on behalf of the museum, and was sorry to lose them as trustees,” Fitzpatrick says of the four women.

Rogers is quick to point out that she currently sits on five boards—at the Lincoln Park Zoo, the Museum of Science and Industry, Ravinia, WTTW, and the Smithsonian Institution. “You have to figure out, What mark do I want to make?” she says. “And while it’s difficult to say no to great groups that are doing wonderful work, you can’t be everything to everybody. I have to figure out where my skills can be the most helpful.”

According to Kevin Bell, the president and chief executive officer of the Lincoln Park Zoo, Rogers is a prized addition to the zoo board. “Desirée has brought Peoples Energy money to fund our traveling zoo,” Bell says. “She has also worked hard to think of new methods of interactive learning.” To that end, Rogers was instrumental in the creation of a new carousel at the zoo, this one featuring endangered species.

None of this leaves much leisure time. When she can, Rogers likes to exercise by cardio kickboxing. And she and Rice and their two daughters try to have Sunday dinner together every week. She values her friendships going back a dozen years. “Valerie and Linda are both confidantes and colleagues,” she says. “I can bounce business ideas off them, and I can let my hair down with them. That’s a rare combination.”

As for the future, some say that Rogers may follow in her father’s footsteps and go into politics. According to sources, she was one of three final candidates considered to run for Illinois lieutenant governor with George Ryan, losing out to Corinne Wood.

“I want to run a business,” says Rogers. “That’s my goal. A large business.”

Government is a large business, isn’t it?

She laughs. “I’m not sure I’m that ambitious.”

THE RISKTAKER

When she first got the idea, back in 1987, Valerie Jarrett was considered crazy by everyone who knew her. She had a law degree from the University of Michigan and was working at Sonnenschein, Carlin, Nath & Rosenthal, where she specialized in commercial real estate. Her beautiful office, on the 79th floor of the Sears Tower, had a view looking east. Yet she was unfulfilled.

“I thought, There has to be something better for me than this,” recalls Jarrett. She decided to go to work for the city of Chicago. Harold Washington had been re-elected mayor, and two close friends of hers had left big law firms to work in local government. “They said, ‘Try it for a year—you are obviously bored to tears where you are.’” She started as the deputy corporation counsel for finance and development and then, two years after Washington died and Richard M. Daley won a special election for mayor, she was named deputy chief of staff. Finally, she ran the Department of Planning and Development for four years. She quickly got over any shyness; there just wasn’t time. Besides, as she learned to say at frequent speaking engagements, government service is not for the faint of heart.

“It really isn’t,” says Jarrett. “Not at the top. You know the press; you’re fair game just because you are there. So you have to look within yourself and say, Do I have the fortitude to do this?”

She did, for eight action-packed years. “And if I had been unwilling to take a risk and try something completely different, I wouldn’t nearly be where I am today.”

That would be ensconced in the executive vice-president’s office of The Habitat Company, a premier developer and manager of residential apartments, primarily in the Chicago area. Sitting in her River North office, Jarrett is poised, soft-spoken, and intense. Dressed in an impeccably cut navy pantsuit, a white shirt with French cuffs, and a string of pearls, she looks fresh and delicate. But her friends say there is an underlying strength to Jarrett. “She was always very smart and very thoughtful,” says John Rogers, who grew up with her. One woman friend tells a story about Jarrett dropping her daughter off for a birthday party. “Valerie was obviously going to go shopping, but she took one look at the situation—there I was with a bunch of overexcited kids and the only other adult was the husband I was newly separated from—and she just stayed to smooth out the situation.”

“She has mastered the art of doing lots of things well,” says her mother, Barbara Bowman, the president of the Erikson Institute, a graduate program in child development. Perhaps there is a restlessness beneath that polished exterior, for Jarrett continues to search out new challenges.

A case in point: In addition to her position at Habitat, Jarrett is the chairman of the board of the Chicago Transit Authority—a part-time job and a full-time challenge for which she is paid $50,000 a year. The CTA has 11,000 employees and an annual operating budget of $850 million, and Jarrett has made it a point of pride to respond to every letter she receives about the CTA. “Just this morning I was reading a letter from someone who was furious about a bus driver. I mean, this person was almost too irate to write.”

So how will she handle that letter?

“I send it to the appropriate department to get relevant information. Then I will either write back or sometimes even call on the phone, if they include their number. I get a kick out of calling people and saying, ‘This is the chairman of the CTA and I have your letter here.’ People usually say, ‘Oh, my God. I was having such a bad day when I wrote you.’ I have had the most interesting conversations with people this way, and some of them have come up with very good ideas.”

Jarrett was born in Iran, where her parents had moved in 1955, when the shah was trying to Westernize health care. Her father, James Bowman, was a physician who helped start a hospital there. In 1960, the family moved to England for a year and then back to Chicago. Her father worked for the University of Chicago Hospitals; her mother helped found the Erikson Institute.

At the Lab School in Hyde Park, Val- erie became friends with Linda Johnson. “Valerie was always very centered,” Rice says, “even at a young age.” At 15, Val-erie attended a prep school in Massachusetts and then went to Stanford University, where she received her B.A. in psychology in 1978. Three years later, she graduated from the University of Michigan Law School. Back in Chicago, she settled into her unsatisfying law career, then married William Jarrett, a physician and the son of the journalist Vernon Jarrett. They had a daughter, Laura, who is now 14. The Jarretts divorced in 1988, and four years later William died at the age of 40 of a rare rheumatological condition.

As a single parent, Jarrett began to reconsider government service. “It’s never too early to start thinking about tuition,” she says. But the years in government had boosted her self-confidence.

Not that her current job is a piece of cake. “We face some very tough issues here,” she says. Certainly one of them involves public housing. In 1987, The Habitat Company was appointed by a federal judge to step in where the Chicago Housing Authority had failed—in developing family public housing units. Along with luxury high-rises, Habitat now builds all those units. That is one of the strange twists in Jarrett’s life. Her maternal grandfather was Robert Taylor, the former head of the Chicago Housing Authority and the person for whom the South Side public housing towers were named. “It’s funny because he was into housing,” she says, “and now, many years later, here I am. Another irony is that he resigned from the CHA in frustration because he was unable to get elected officials to go along with integrating public housing into the urban landscape, and that is exactly what Habitat is doing right now. So I feel I’m continuing his legacy.”

This could be one of Jarrett’s toughest challenges. “The city wants to end up with 25,000 units of public housing,” she says. “Well, how do you fit that back into an urban fabric where public housing has been segregated, where many people—sometimes for two or three generations—have been living in isolation, stigmatized by the rest of society? You can’t just shuffle people around like they’re deck chairs on a ship. You have to help them change their lives, and you have to give them the requisite resources to do so.”

Her proudest accomplishments so far? The work she did with the city’s Department of Planning and Development, she says: “I was just walking through the North Kenwood neighborhood last weekend, and the community looks totally different now than it did when I took over the position with the department. We were able to entice some developers to go into depressed neighborhoods, so seeing how targeting and focusing city dollars early on leads to enormous private sector investing down the line is very satisfying.” Also, she remembers working with several large companies—Tootsie Roll and Nabisco, for example—whose owners were thinking of moving them out of the city. “I can still remember going out on the factory floor and standing there when the announcement was made that these companies were staying. To see the faces of the employees who were hearing that they were not losing their jobs, that was enormously gratifying.”

Some are less enthusiastic about her tenure in city government. “I never thought of her as more than a political apparatchik,” says the political consultant Don Rose. “Not evil, certainly, but not tremendously original. More of an apologist for Daley’s plans.”

Off hours, she chauffeurs her daughter around. She counters her guilty-pleasure indulgences in ice cream with regimens from the best-selling diet book The Zone and with bouts of exercise at the East Bank Club. And then there is her friendship with Rice and Rogers. “Linda has a real ability to see all sides of a situation,” Jarrett says. “And when I’ve had a horrible day, I’ll call Desirée and say, ‘Meet me for a drink.’ I need friends I can trust to keep my confidences.”

Jarrett also values friends who cut her a little slack. Besides her two jobs, she sits on 11 boards—including those of the USG Corporation, WTTW, and the Museum of Science and Industry—so she is often insanely busy. “If Desirée calls and says it’s important, I’ll drop whatever I am doing and take that call,” she says. “But if she says it’s not important and I have a hundred phone calls to make, she’s fine with that. Other friends, from quieter times, don’t understand why I can’t get back to them immediately.” But since the friendship with Rogers and Rice operates on flextime, it continues to thrive.

Every year, for too many years, Jarrett used to tell herself that she was too busy; something simply had to give. “When I worked for the mayor, my schedule was out of my control. But I’m not in that situation anymore. I thought, If you didn’t want to do all these things, you could say no. And you’re not. So stop complaining. And overnight, I did stop. Now I think of myself as lucky—lucky to have my jobs, my friends; lucky to be involved with the organizations I’m involved in. Sometimes frazzled, but still lucky.”

THE EMPIRE EXPANDER

She says that she got to the top of the Ebony tower the old-fashioned way: by paying her dues. Of course, being the only surviving child of one of the richest African American tycoons and the sole heir to his more than $350-million publishing empire didn’t hurt. “But you can’t work for John and Eunice Johnson and not pay your dues,” says Linda Johnson Rice. “That dog won’t hunt here.”

Today Rice, a woman of easy charm, occupies a ninth-floor office at the Johnson Publishing Company, a privately held family business that publishes the phenomenally profitable black-oriented magazines Ebony and Jet. Her title of president and chief operating officer was bestowed in 1987, two days after she graduated from Northwestern University with an M.M. degree. The scale of her office, like much in Rice’s existence, is larger than life: Windows frame a view of the lake, Grant Park, and the city’s skyline. An aromatherapy candle burns on the massive desk. The ceilings are high enough to fly a kite. The subtext is high power, but Rice is surprisingly down to earth as she discusses her domain. “My father did not work as hard as he has to turn this company over to someone he didn’t think was qualified,” she says. “Relative or not.”

The Johnson Publishing Company is the largest black-owned private company in the United States. Yet the entire operation—with 2,000 employees—retains a hands-on feel. John H. Johnson, Rice’s father, has reserved for himself the titles of publisher, chairman, and chief executive officer, along with an active role in the day-to-day decisions. Eunice, his striking wife of 58 years, is the secretary/treasurer and fashion editor. And then there is Linda, polished and vivacious, poised to take over someday. (Her brother, John Jr., died of sickle cell anemia in 1981.) Besides its magazines, the Johnson empire includes Fashion Fair Cosmetics, an extensive makeup and fragrance line sold in department stores, and the annual Ebony Fashion Fair, the world’s largest traveling fashion show.

But the magazines are the crown jewels of the company. It is estimated that Ebony, with a current circulation of 1.7 million, reaches about ten million people a month; together, Ebony and Jet go to more than half of all African American households. (Ebony’s closest rival, Essence, has a circulation of one million and reaches 7.6 million people; Johnson Publishing has a 20 percent interest in the company that owns it.) That makes Johnson Publishing a vastly influential forum.

That is a substantial amount of power to shepherd into a new century, especially given the significant changes in society since 1945, when Johnson created Ebony. Can Rice fulfill her mandate not only to manage but also to expand the empire?

Ebony is the magazine for African Americans,” says Samir Husni, the head of the magazine journalism program at the University of Mississippi at Oxford and a recognized expert on the magazine business. “You can call it a monopoly—and, to some degree, it is hard to imagine how much more a monopoly like Johnson Publishing can expand—but the mere fact that they are still viable, with such a dedicated readership, makes Ebony a continuing force to be reckoned with.” Some employees at Johnson Publishing think that Ebony, which is modeled on Life magazine, is a little too dated for today’s market. “I’d like to see Linda decide whether we are an entertainment magazine or a newsmagazine,” says one well-placed employee. A magazine consultant adds, “Now that we have entered the 21st century, it would be nice for Ebony to get a little hipper, a little more current.”

Finding staff, Rice says, is one of her biggest challenges. “There are more African American people who are well educated now, and they have other choices for jobs—particularly in journalism—than to work for me. The world has opened up more, particularly the world of dot-coms, and it is a constant struggle for us to compete.”

Whatever future awaits the company, Rice says, she is fully prepared to face it, “thanks to my great mentors, my parents. My father has taught me that you have to look at the other person’s point of view. He has also taught me that sometimes you just have to say no, which can be very hard to do. And my mother has given me the ability to laugh at myself. She has also taught me that you cannot let things people say that you know aren’t true affect you. You simply stick to what you know you believe in.”

She was adopted as a three-month-old baby in 1958. (John Jr., also adopted, was two and a half years older.) And that beginning still shapes Rice’s approach to life. “I take nothing for granted,” she says. “Absolutely nothing. Because there, but for the grace of God, go I. Now all of my friends say that I was the one standing up in my crib, waving my arms, saying, ‘Pick me, pick me!’ But I never forgot that I am the lucky one.”

She was a curious and outgoing child. From an early age, she and her brother were allowed to romp through the offices of the Johnson Publishing Company, and she quickly set her sights on a high-level job there. “At first, I thought, Oh, I’ll be just like my mother because she gets to do interesting things,” she says. “But gradually I started watching my father and I thought, You know what? He’s got a bigger job. But neither one of my parents ever said they wanted me to come into the business.”

Still, Rice laid the groundwork with a journalism degree from the University of Southern California and then the M.M. from Northwestern. She is proudest of having won the respect of the Johnson Publishing Company’s employees, especially the ones who have been there more than 30 years and have watched her grow up. “I have basically become their boss,” she says, “and I think that transition has gone as well as it has because I have listened to them. I may not always agree with them, but I give them respect.”

Currently, she sits on five corporate boards. She and her parents are generous supporters of the United Negro College Fund. Her personal areas of interest, which draw her to numerous other charities, are culture, education, and children, especially African American children. Like Rogers, she has no interest in discussing why she left the board of the Museum of Contemporary Art. “That topic is a dead end,” she says. “There is nothing to say about it.”

Part of Rice’s charm is that she never stands on ceremony, often returning calls and making appointments herself. She radiates approachability, and her facial expression is most often a bemused smile, as if she has just heard a good joke. “The one word for Linda is ‘refreshing,’” says Ralph Moore, the president of a management consulting firm who has known Rice for 20 years. “You could put a stranger in a room with 100 people and a description of Linda’s personality and that person could find Linda easily. She stands above the crowd.”

“Once you are her friend, you are a friend for life,” says Jill Graflund, who met Rice at summer camp when the two were 13. “I’ve lived in California, Texas, and now Tennessee, and still Linda and I manage to see each other every couple of months. And our phone calls can seem almost constant.”

Rice’s indulgences: collecting art and wearing racy high heels, which add a little height to her curvaceous five-foot four-inch figure. Her annual Christmas party—held in her North Lake Shore Drive apartment in the same building where her parents live—is legendary for both its guest list and its lavish attention to detail.

In 1984, she married André Rice, then a stockbroker, now the president of his own investment firm, in a storybook wedding with 700 guests. They had a daughter, Alexa, now 11. Four years ago, they divorced. “But my ex-husband is my dear friend,” says Rice. Indeed, some observers claim that the two could be role models for a friendly divorce. “We both decided to put our selfishness aside in the interest of Alexa,” she says. “We absolutely refuse to make this any harder for her than it has to be. So André and I are friends. He has since remarried and I really like his wife.”

That is quite a feat, I say.

“Girl, that’s almost unbelievable,” she says with a laugh. “But I’m proud of the way we have handled it.”

Rice is prouder still of her daughter, who, she says, has already told her mother that she wants her job. “But she has yet to experience boys or college. We will see where she is in ten years.”

What does Rice know now that she didn’t know ten years ago?

“Maybe how to read people better, how to learn if they like you for yourself or for your perks.” That is where her friendship with Jarrett and Rogers comes in. “They are solid and trustworthy. We  hang out as girlfriends; we share hopes and dreams. And there is something very comforting about that. A home-away-from-home kind of feeling.”

“Girlfriends”—there is some- thing cozy about that word, and yet it falls short in describing these women. Two single and one soon-to-be single—if they have serious romantic interests, that, like many of the other secrets they share, remains just among friends. They mix easily in Chicago’s white dominated A-list society, and in part because of that, some may see them only as women of privilege and position, but that underestimates their hard work, both in their own careers and for Chicago’s cultural institutions. “They represent an emerging generation of black middle-class professionals who unapologetically contribute to their communities by working within the system, rather than the traditional civil rights approach of changing the system from without,” says the Chicago Reporter’s Laura Washington.

Linda Johnson Rice puts it more simply. “You get this life and you live it the best way you can,” she says, “doing the best that you can do.” Perhaps that philosophy, more than anything, explains the long-standing friendship of these three remarkable women.

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