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On a cool Monday morning in March, Abrams strides into the River North office of the Jasculca Terman PR agency, stopping briefly to chat with Cook County commissioner Forrest Claypool, who is just then walking out. This sort of thing happens to Wendy Abrams all the time. Her life story includes at least half a dozen anecdotes that begin with her bumping into someone by chance and end with her learning that the person is, say, Barbara Boxer’s husband. “I know this sounds like ‘Wendy is hobnobby,’” she says, self-consciously, when asked about all of her connections. “But, really, that’s so not me.”
As she talks media strategy with the PR team, she mentions that the president of production at Columbia Pictures, Doug Belgrad, happens to be a close friend from her days at Highland Park High. “He’s totally willing to help us out,” she tells the team earnestly, scribbling a note in the gold-embossed Clinton Global Initiative notebook she carries with her at all times.
Belgrad, whose family now regularly vacations with Abrams and her husband and children, says Abrams “has always been incredibly social, without being at all cliquish. She just has these highly developed social skills that enable her to connect with people in all different areas.”
After her meeting with Jasculca and his team, Abrams heads to the Field Museum, where museum president John McCarter welcomes her by hopping behind the wheel of a golf cart and offering to drive her around the Museum Campus to review the planned placement of the Cool Globes. They wind up in an SUV instead, sheltered from the lake breeze; as Bob Doepel, from Chicago Scenic Studios, the company handling the physical installation of the globes, drives along the pedestrian-only paths, McCarter points out where each sculpture will rest. Abrams, meanwhile, is in the back seat, fielding cell phone calls, including one from her 14-year-old son, David, who would like her to know, in advance of any other calls that might be coming, that, yes, he was at the party, but, no, he didn’t participate in making any crank calls.
Abrams is interested in the big picture of where the globes will go-and, what’s most important, how visible they will be from Lake Shore Drive-but leaves the details to McCarter and the two staff members he has brought along to consult. She moves on to a conversation with a volunteer who has heard that Fox News might be interested in doing a feature on the project. The volunteer seems to be hesitating about whether it’s a good idea to pursue the possibility, given the Fox network’s supposed conservative tilt. Abrams has no doubts.
“Fox News talking about climate change?” she exclaims. “That’s awesome. I love it!”
* * *
Later that week, waiting for Jacob’s Saturday afternoon gymnastics class to let out, Abrams sits in a Glenview Starbucks and taps away at the keys of her ever-present laptop, firing off e-mails and worrying that the perception of her as “the heavy hitter political figure” will turn people off from Cool Globes. “This is not a political issue,” she says. “It’s a moral issue.”
Wearing the jeans, ski jacket, and sunglasses uniform of the well-heeled suburban mom, she adds, “I’m hoping we’re past the point of debating whether global warming is real, so my hope is that this [Cool Globes] is something that will inspire people, rather than just creating debate.” As a second thought, she adds, “By the way, I’ve supported my Republican congressman, Mark Kirk, since 2000.”
Almost as soon as she offers up this piece of information, Abrams starts to hedge. Her support of Kirk in 2006, against challenger Dan Seals, was a source of contention with many Democratic friends, and she’d rather not reopen those wounds. Still, she wants to emphasize that Cool Globes has no political agenda. She knows that if she is perceived as a Democratic die-hard, the project loses credibility. Suddenly, Abrams looks tired.
While she might be eager to slip back into her private life, disappearing from public view may prove more difficult. Asked what she will do after the Cool Globes exhibition shuts down, she says she plans to start educating herself about environmentally friendly “green” architecture. She and her husband are looking into purchasing a home that they plan to renovate in an ecologically efficient way, a particular challenge since many of the features of the 1920 structure are architecturally significant and, therefore, cannot be changed.
Abrams offers this up so casually, in the same tone another person might use to describe repainting a spare bedroom, that it’s easy to miss the scope of her ambition for the house, which could serve as a model for homeowners of older structures. She also doesn’t mention that the home is actually the Howard Van Doren Shaw–designed mansion that sits on the 17-acre estate once owned by Mickey Segal, now serving a ten-year sentence for racketeering, fraud, and embezzlement.
Also unmentioned: Highland Park neighbors are up in arms about developer Orren Pickell’s plans for the Jens Jensen–designed grounds of the estate, which could be rezoned to make room for more homes. Although even critics of the development are pleased that someone with Abrams’s commitment will be tending the Shaw mansion, still, repairing the home’s karma, as well as its interior, would seem a daunting task. For Abrams, though, it sounds like just another project to work on while her kids are at gymnastics.
There’s one other thing Abrams neglects to mention when she describes her summer plans: she has recently agreed to serve on the finance committee of Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign.
Wendy Abrams tried to get apolitical. But it didn’t take.
Photography: (Image 2) Courtesy of Wendy Abrams; (Image 3 & 4) Courtesy of Jim Krantz