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He has been busy this winter season. His close friend Desirée Rogers rejoined the regular Saturday luncheon he had been sharing with Linda Johnson Rice. This standing date dropped to Zucker and Rice when half of the original four-person group left for Washington: Rogers to be the social secretary for the Obama White House and Valerie Jarrett to become a senior adviser to the president. But now that Rogers is back in Chicago, working as CEO for Johnson Publishing, the lunch, which Zucker describes as “just a freewheeling, talk-about-whatever-is-on-your-mind time,” is back on.
Not that he ever lost touch with the two women. During Rogers’s tenure in the White House, Zucker and Marko Iglendza, a friend who heads an airport spa company based in Charlotte, North Carolina, hosted an intimate Washington birthday party for her at Wolfgang Puck’s restaurant The Source. Michelle Obama attended. Zucker has been to several events at the White House, and he has been able to see Jarrett in Chicago, as her schedule allows. Once this past fall, she and her security entourage came to his office for a visit. And on December 29th, he and Jarrett dined privately at Chicago Cut Steakhouse, one of Zucker’s new favorite restaurants. Two days later, he toasted in the new year at Gibsons with a small circle, which included Rogers, Iglendza, the real-estate developer Jerry Lasky and his wife, Whitney (a former soap opera actress), the interior designer Julie Latsko, and the Sun-Times entertainment columnist Bill Zwecker.
Then there are Zucker’s frequent lunches and dinners at RL, the swank Ralph Lauren restaurant on Chicago Avenue, where his regular table is number 42 and the staff is happy to serve him broiled perch over a bed of chopped Brussels sprouts, even though the dish isn’t on the menu. (Last year, Zucker returned the favor by doing a citizen’s review of RL on WTTW’s show Check, Please!) He also arranged a dinner in honor of Ikram and Josh Goldman—she owns the fashion boutique that bears her name, he is an attorney and contemporary art collector—which was a thank-you to Ikram for cooking a special meal in her home to entertain some of Zucker’s friends. And there were organized movie nights with friends, shopping for the luxe look he favors (his idea of dressing down is wearing a sports coat—from Ermenegildo Zegna or Ralph Lauren and tailored on Oak Street—and a tie, Hermès being his favorite brand), Bulls games, plays, charity events, and board meetings.
He is a trustee for the Museum of Science and Industry and the Goodman Theatre and a board member for After School Matters, the educational program founded by Maggie Daley. “If I make a commitment to an organization, I have to follow through,” he says. As part of a committee that has pledged to raise $1 million for the museum in the next five years, Zucker recently hit his Filofax, sending a letter to friends asking them to remember the fun they had visiting the museum as children and offering to personally show them around the current exhibits. It’s how he operates. “In business or in philanthropy, you have to pick up the phone and ask. The worst that can happen is someone says no, but he or she won’t say anything if you don’t ask. I am a risk-averse person, but I’m not afraid to ask for something.”
And there was extensive planning for his birthday party. For the last decade, Zucker has tossed spectacular birthday parties for himself every February: Cocktails and dinner are served, music is played, and the mayor and 300 other friends come to celebrate. One year the party was held in the John Hancock Observatory; another time it was at the Casino Club. As this story was being reported, Zucker was organizing this year’s party, to be held at Macy’s Walnut Room, sending out the invitations in little boxes of Frango mints. The event was to be followed by a weekend trip to Palm Springs and an intimate dinner for 50 close friends at Rice’s house there. “Neal is the perfect person to travel with,” says Rice. Four years ago, she, her daughter Alexa, and Zucker took an extended trip to Hong Kong and Tokyo. “Before the wheels of the plane ever leave the ground, Neal knows the best breakfast place, the most fun excursion we can take, and the perfect place for cocktails.”
He lives by two mantras: “Trust but verify” and what he calls the seven Ps (“Prior proper planning prevents piss-poor performance”). They are his touchstones in every aspect of life. “I apply them constantly,” he says, and then pauses. “I mean, all the time.”
“He does everything right,” says Ikram Goldman, who is known for her own very high standards. “I’ve never known anyone who is so”—here she snaps her fingers with the words—“precise, timely, perfect, right.”
“I don’t know another person who has so many friends from so many different walks of life,” says Robin Berger, president of NNP Residential, which handles high-end apartment rentals. “And everyone is on the same level playing field.”
The most popular words used to describe Zucker by those who know him are “loyal” and “discreet.” Often he is called “the best listener.” He also has an engaging way of talking, ending his sentences with the questions “right?” or “don’t you think?”—thus throwing the conversational ball back to someone else. “I can’t think of anyone in town who is better connected who isn’t an elected politician,” says Bill Zwecker.
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