Revenge becomes her. When she talks about it, Sugar Rautbord lights up. Her impossibly large brown eyes widen. Her cheeks flush. Her throaty voice develops a trill. Revenge is her personal aphrodisiac.
She says, "Well, if you've been put down or hurt and you want to get even, then I believe in using revenge to make yourself feel better. As a motivating force, I think it can be a positive thing."
Certainly, Sugar is hoping that revenge will work for her—in part, because it is the subject matter of her new novel, which is scheduled to hit the bookstores in June. Published by Villard Books, a division of Random House, Sweet Revenge is being promoted in Villard's spring catalogue as the year's most tantalizing novel [where] a real-life socialite takes us into her world—a high-society whirl of glamorous parties, steamy affairs, high-stakes business deals, and secret intrigues."
Sweet Revenge is aptly titled, for on it rest Sugar's ambitions to be taken seriously. Finally. Definitively. She at last has the chance—she of the one-name fame (like Madonna! like Garbo!) in society columns and the jet-set world—to lay to rest the idea that she is just a decorative socialite. Yes, she has a mane of cotton-candy blond hair and a curvaceous figure to die for. Yes, she is rich—thanks to her grandfather Max Samuel Kaplan, the steel magnate. Yes, she sometimes presents herself like a mad-cap heiress (like Carole Lombard! like Katharine Hepburn!) from a 1930s screwball comedy. And yes, for years—in spite of her hard work at charity events and political fund raising and her articles that have appeared in Vogue, Interview, Town & Country—she has been most famous for simply being famous.
"Just because she's pretty and she has charming manners doesn't mean she doesn't have a brain," says Carol Stoll, owner of the legendary, now-closed Oak Street Bookshop. "People tend to underestimate Sugar," says one of her close friends. "She is much smarter, much more complicated than she looks or somtimes acts."
Outsiders began to catch a glimpse of her ambition five years ago, when she coauthored a steamy lite novel called Girls in High Places. The book became a number-one best seller in Chicago and hovered around number 17 nationally for months. It was optioned for a made-for-TV miniseries (which was never produced), and royalty checks still sail in from Canada and New Zealand. Still, the coauthorship (with advertising executive and former Ad Woman of the Year Liz Nichols) confused the issue and divided the glory.
Now Sugar stands alone, with the book she wrote by herself last summer.
Sweet Revenge will make its debut with a splash—a 60,000-volume first printing, a four-city author tour, a Literary Guild selection, and a promotional tie-in with her own perfume (like Liz Taylor! like Priscilla Presley!), also called Sweet Revenge.
"You're always getting even with somebody," says Sugar. "And there is an amusing level to it. Who can't tell you a story about canceling her ex-boyfriend's airline reservations to Mexico with the new girlfriend? Or who can't admit to giving someone the wrong date or misaddressing an important invitation?"
She smiles sweetly, an avenging angel of the payback. "Treachery or homicidal revenge—well, that's something else. But sweet revenge is really getting even by going forward and being successful."
When she opens the door to her Lake Shore Drive apartment, she does not greet her guest by herself. Fling, her white Maltese named after the main character in Sweet Revenge, skitters up and down the entrance hall, its nails clicking on the par-quet floor.
"Fling, dance like Madonna," coaxes Sugar, who today is dressed a bit like the singer herself in an olive-green-leather and black-spandex dress. "Come on, dance like Madonna." And the tiny dog stands up on its rear legs, pawing the air and shaking its torso until the tiny hair bow in its forelock moves to an imaginary beat.
This rambling vintage apartment with its lake view and American impressionist paintings is Sugar's Chicago residence. Her son, Michael, 20, still maintains a bedroom here, although he is studying at American University in Washington, D.C., and working as an aide to Senator John Warner. And Sugar still maintains a nine-to-five personal assistant, Karen Patterson, here, although Sugar herself can often be found in Palm Beach, visiting her mother, or at her New York pied-à-terre at the Carlyle Hotel (where Fling has danced like Madonna for Warren Beatty! Eartha Kit! Tom Cruise!).
Today, the task at hand is smelling perfume. Givaudan-Roure, the prestigious French perfume house (creators of Obsession! L'Air du Temps!), has mixed up three different possibilities, or "fragrance diretions." One of them will be chosen as Sweet Revenge. This perfume will be available scented bookmarks in hardcover copies of Sweet Revenge and on a scratch-and-sniff panel in the paperback edition. It will be sold through an 800 number.
We settle into a wood-paneled room that Sugar calls the library, although its distinctive brown-and-cream zebra print sofa, French ormolu side table, book-lined walls, it bears a remarkable resemblance to a room that recently peared in a Sunday Sun-Times feature the bedrooms of local celebrities.
"Oh, please, do you think I'm completely crazy?" says Sugar. "Of course, I'm not going to let anyone photograph my real bedroom."
First, Karen Patterson extinguishes the Rigaud candle. Then Sugar reads from the Givaudan-Roure descriptions. "'Sweet Revenge #1: This uniquely feminine creation begins with an exotic top note of refreshing bergamot, succulent mandarin, and indulgent orange blossom." There's more, including a heart note of coriander and a base of amber, sandalwood, and oak moss.
Sugar sprays the fragrance on three test blotters and everyone inhales. "Mmm," she says. "It doesn't hurt anybody, but they know you mean business. That's nice."
Next, Sweet Revenge #2: "'A delightful bouquet derived from uncut, unhharmed living flowers'—oh, is this politically correct or what?" Spray, sniff. A rose-and-jasmine scent wafts through the room, over the Italian writing desk, past the photo of an evening gown and a black motorcycle jacket shaking hands with Ronald Reagan (how was she to know that you shouldn't wear décolletage to the White House?!). "That's lovely," says Sugar. "That's very sophisticated, very expensive-smelling."
Last is a fragrance called Mûre et Musqué. "They created this one after they met me," says Sugar. Obviously, Givaudan-Roure's "noses" were impressed, for the notes on Mûre et Musqué include such words as "full-bodied," "sensual," "sparkling," and "deep-smoldering."
Spray, sniff again. It's a subtle, yet surprisingly complicated creation. Just when you think you've gotten its full impact, a lingering bottom note blossoms. "Gosh," says Sugar, "one whiff and you never knew what hit you."
Her life is always eventful. "I just juggle a lot of different elements," she says. Once, for example, Sugar was hosting a fundraiser in her apartment for her son's boarding school. "And I'm changing my clothes in the office off the kitchen while dictating an explicit gay sex scene for Sweet Revenge, and the caterers are get-ing flustered, listening to me, so they're burning the duck while a girlfriend of mine who's a personal trainer starts doing pelvic scoops in the bedroom and the glee club from the boarding school is out in the living room tuning up. In the end, it all went off without a hitch. But I guess that sometimes the elements I juggle tend to be a little wackier than other people's."
Well, yes. And there's her manner of delivery. Sugar doesn't converse so much as she performs a verbal fan dance. With an unusual mix of girlishness and sophistication, she overloads the listener with teasing glimpses of boldface names and the suggestion of more than meets the eye. Such as when Sugar chaired a fundraising dinner in Washington for the Nicaraguan Children's Refugee Fund: Pat Buchanan on the phone! Briefings from Oliver North! Sharing the dais with President Reagan! Peggy Noonan writing speeches while Jose Feliciano sings, "Oh, say, can you see"!
"Sugar loves to sit next to important men at dinners and then call up the next day and report on what she said to them," says one recipient of many such calls. "And what she says she said is both very flirtatious and very clever."
It is probably this penchant for breathless, keep-the-plates-spinning-in-air amusement that has led to Sugar's being misunderstood over the years. Acquaintances place her near her mid-40s; she says, "Oh, I'm old enough to vote and I'm old enough to travel around the country by myself." (Her travels tend to show up in her voice, which at times sounds Midwestern, at times moneyed East Coast, and at times deep in the heart of Texas. "I once came very close to making Texas my home," she says, "but instead I left him at the altar.")
"I used to be very self-conscious about what people thought of me," she says. "I graduated from school early, I married early, I divorced early. I had a baby quality to my face for a long time and that, combined with being soft-spoken—well, people would assume that either I didn't have all my buttons or I wasn't very bright." Now she worries less, works more. And while she doesn't want to be thought of as some kind of rigid feminist (like Gloria Steinem alone in her bed with her cats!), she does tend to view herself as "a working girl."
For Girls in High Places, Sugar formed a partnership with Liz Nichols because, she says, she "needed someone who would close the doors and say, 'No, Sugar is not available now—she's working.'" Others remember that at the time of publication, the authors presented themselves as equal members of a writing team. Some friends of Nichols say that she was not happy when she was eased out of the plans for future racy novels. "Oh, that was so long ago," says Nichols, who now lives in New York. "I've published four books since then, so I honestly can't remember any details."
Currently, Sugar has a new novel in progress. Entitled Little Forgeries, it is set in the art world. "It's also about fraudulent relationships and how we get fooled and taken by fake people," she says. She thinks her own life will provide enough material for several more entertaining novels. "And, you know, it's funny because I tend to think of myself as living a normal existence."
Sweet Revenge takes place in a wide-ranging, very social world. It ranges from the corporate towers of New York to the first families of Virginia, from high-fashion models and make-up artists to Euro-trash and Japanese art collectors.
The main character is a superbeauty model named Fling. "She represents real breasts, real lips, Save the Seals," say Sugar. "She is as nice as she can be and she walks off with the world's most ineligible married man."
That would be Kingman Beddall, New York's most flamboyant mogul, a man famous for his brash corporate takeovers, notorious for his philandering (King Bed-all, get it?), and almost universally feared and despised.
Like other Jackie Collins–style novels, Sweet Revenge is packed with the details of the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Readers will learn that the linens are Leron, the best bed pillows Pratesi, the best roses Woburn Abbey, the best coffins Hurlitzers.
There are inside jokes. Two of the characters, Gael and Bob-O, are given first names of two of Sugar's closest friends, former former Interview and Connoisseur editor Gael Love and Town & Country editor Robert Robert "Bob-O" Clarke. And the style of the ever-breezy gossip columnist Suki bears a startling and often hilarious resemblance to the work of Chicago Tribune society writer Michael Kilian.
There are some inside slams as well. One seemingly gratuitous reference to a wife who invests in a Broadway musical version of Gone with the Wind cuts remarkably close to a real-life investment made a few years ago by a real-life Chicago socialite. The passage reads:
The determined Mrs. Balsam had trucked on, pouring more and more of Mr. Balsam's money into the soggy production which featured an entire third act with rain pouring down over a ruined plantation to somehow symbolize the dampened glory of Scarlett O'Hara's beloved South. "Singin' in the Rain at Tara," the Daily Sun critique had dubbed it. … All this so Bernie's ever socially ambitious second wife would have something to say at a dinner party when the gentleman on her left turned to her and asked, "And what do you do?"
"I just want to entertain people," says Sugar. "I'm not running for President of the United States. And I think once you get over the fact that you're not, then you're able to do some of these other things. It frees you up, as Madonna says, to express yourself."
Back when she was Donna Louise Kaplan, a little girl growing up in Hyde Park, she was always expressing herself. She wrote plays and short stories constantly; she liked to put on puppet shows. The middle of three sisters, she got a lot of attention—partly because she was so sweet (hence her nickname "Sugar"). And partly because she was stricken with polio. "I got it the last summer, you know, before the Salk vaccine came out, so for years I was carried around on my father's shoulder or I used to sit on the lap of one of my uncles—and I had eight. I've never gotten over that, sitting on the laps of strong men with gray hair."
"Sugar's ability to charm people—her need, even, to do it—comes out of this long convalescence," says one of her friends. She had to learn how to get people to do things for her."
She went on to attend the now-defunct Faulkner School for Girls, where she graduated third in her class. "But I was not encouraged to do anything professionally," she says. Her father, Robert, was "just divine, handsome and quiet." President of Sun Steel and of M. S. Kaplan, a scrap-metal company, he also funded research for the study of relaxation. Photos of her mother, Virginia, show a soulful beauty.
"The emphasis, from early on, was on having a strong social consciousness," says Sugar. "My father's family is very involved in a number of enterprises, from the M. S. Kaplan Pavilion and the Jenny Kaplan surgical wing at Michael Reese Hospital to the arts to homes for the elderly. And my mother did tons of volunteer work. What was pictured for us girls was big weddings with billowy white dresses."
She almost had to fight her way to Sarah Lawrence College, where she majored in art history and took creative-writing classes. "Here's what my professors used to write about me," she says: "'Sugar is one of our brightest students, but she looks like one of our dumbest. She is either going to turn out to be a great writer, a great art historian, or she's going to become somebody's wife and a delightful dinner companion."
She chose the last route first, marrying Clayton Rautbord three months after her college graduation. He was the president of a photocopy-machine corporation, 18 years her senior, and a dashingly good-looking champion boat racer. And from the first dinner party she hosted, her life started its eventful course: Governor Ogilvie dropping his lobster! Spoons sticking in the homemade Indian pudding! Senator Chuck Percy coming to the rescue!
Her son, Michael, was born and Charles Percy became his godfather. Eleven years later, she and Rautbord divorced. And Sugar began to find her own way. Friends say it took her a while; she navigated between the society scene and her inclination to write. Eventually, she found a way to put the two together.
"I met Andy Warhol and I told him I had some ideas for his magazine, Interview. And since Andy's idea of a writer was anybody with a tape recorder, he said, `Great, let Sugar do something.'" Her first article was an interview with architect Helmut Jahn.
"Even though she hasn't been trained as a journalist," says Gael Love, the former editor of Interview, "Sugar has an unerring knack for sizing up any situation. She's really a natural at this."
Not everyone saw it that way. At the end of an interview with then mayor Jane Byrne, Byrne said, "Sugar, you asked some very thought-provoking questions. Who wrote them for you?"
She says, "That's about the time, I think, that I gave up trying to change the way I was perceived by the world."
The Louis Vuitton luggage is lined up in the foyer. Fling is at the doggy hairdresser, being groomed. The expedition starts this afternoon: first, a trip to Palm Beach to visit Sugar's mother, then a quick turnaround to New York to meet with the perfume makers.
But now there's girl talk in Sugar's bedroom, which is the size of many apartments. It's got a froufrou clubhouse feeling: Girls Only, No Boys Allowed. There is a built-in vanity with theatrical lights, two separate bathrooms, several overstuffed sofas, stacks of books and magazines, and—the byproducts of packing—cocktail dresses everywhere: a red embroidered sheath; a black strapless number, its skirt composed of black feathers; a sequined black jacket; a sheer chiffon blouse.
Patricia Dey-Smith Fleming, a friend of Sugar's who lives in Washington, D.C., and Virginia, is trying to explain the unimaginable wackiness that occurs when Sugar visits her. Like that time when Sugar was working on the Nicaraguan Children's Refugee Fund: Contras in the kitchen! Bandoleers and jungle fever!
"Here was this Nicaraguan who had written a book," Patricia says, "—you know, about hacking his way through 500 miles of jungle, and he wants to zip over to the White House with Sugar. And I said, 'Take my car.' So, 20 minutes went past, and I assumed that they had gone, when he came back into the house and said he couldn't figure out how to open the electric garage door. I mean, the guy knew all about jungles, but he couldn't open the door of the garage."
Wait a minute. Couldn't Sugar have explained an electric door opener?
Sugar says, "Well, I didn't feel it was my place. I was a woman—"
Patricia says, "That's the whole point. Sugar sat in the dark garage for 20 minutes, waiting for this guy to figure out—"
Sugar says, "He had spent hours telling us how he could navigate by the moon and the sun and the stars. And he could move through the world just by the smell of the earth. So I thought, Well, surely he can get out of the garage."
Her relationships with the opposite sex have caused much speculation. "There is something about her—and don't ask me what, because I'm a woman," says an acquaintance, "—but men cannot bear to leave her alone."
Here is how Sugar explains her success with the male sex: "I treat my son and his young friends like they are important men. And I treat important men like they're my son and his young friends.
"It used to get real busy around here at five, five-thirty, six o'clock in the evening when everybody would be on his way home from work," she says. "You know, they'd all check in. I mean, I could just sit there the whole time on the phone and say, 'Bless your heart,' hearing about their financial wars, you know, their bad days."
In the past, the romance rumor mill has worked overtime, linking Sugar with Senator John Warner (post-Liz), plus various political big shots and tycoons of industry. Occasionally, Sugar has inadvertently spurred that speculation along, such as after Girls in High Places was published. When a local gossip columnist ran a blind item that appeared to link Sugar with a well-moneyed, well-married capitalist, rumor had it that Sugar hired a bodyguard to prevent that columnist from entering the book party. ("Oh, no, the body was from Cartier," she says. "His job wasn't to stop anyone from coming in to prevent people from walking out the ice.")
With the publication of Sweet Revenge the well-oiled gossip mill might spring into action again, because the novel has four dedications: to her mother, her son, her friend Robert Clark, and "to the tycoon who taught me."
So is there a special man in her life?
"There's always been a nice man in my life. Fortunately for me, I'm not in the entertainment business, where everybody knows who your best friend is. I work with a lot of men on projects and some people get miscued. They think, Oh, that's a romance. And it's not—it's a friendship. And I've had mentors. But romantically, I have not denied myself. I'm kind of a one-man-at-a-time woman."
For now, she is content to wait for her Sweet Revenge to hit the public. She says that when Girls was published, she was unprepared for the attention and the scrutiny, the praise as well as the criticism.
She says that very little worries her now. "I've had big things to worry about, so I don't worry about most of the little things. Still, I think it's those little revenges that are the most satisfying."