- By Lenore Macdonald
Welcome to Classic Chicago Magazine’s new feature, Five Questions. We will be asking notable Chicagoans five questions to get to know them better and to showcase what makes Chicago such a dynamic, interesting city.
Somebody always has to be first, so we decided to ask this column’s first five questions of the person whom Vanity Fair calls “the Queen of Chicago Society”: Abra Prentice Wilkin.
A Chicagoan through and through, Abra is the daughter of John Rockefeller Prentice and Abbie (also baptized Abra) Cantrill for whom Northwestern’s Prentice Women’s Hospital was named. It is one of the top birthing centers in the U.S. and among the pet institutions which Abra supports.
She is a trustee of the Lincoln Park Zoo and The Taft School, as well as a former trustee and proud alumnae of The Ethel Walker School and The Latin School of Chicago. And who can forget Abra’s many marvelous appearances in the Rush Fashion Show?
Longtime Chicagoans have wonderful memories of Abra’s column in the Chicago Daily News, written with her late husband, journalist Jon Anderson. For impressionable teenagers and somewhat younger women like my friends and me, Abra was whom we emulated — a journalist with her own byline, an exciting job, a fabulous wardrobe, attending and throwing fun parties, living life on her own terms and on her way to becoming the philanthropist that she is today. She was the strong, independent, attractive woman we aspired to be. Sorry, Marlo Thomas’ “That Girl”!
What many might have forgotten is that as a Chicago Sun-Times reporter she was one of the first reporters on the scene covering the 1966 Richard Speck murder trial. She also appeared in the documentary “Richard Speck: Natural Born Killer” with other notables like investigative reporter and former WBBM-TV Channel 2 anchorman Bill Kurtis and prosecutor William Martin.
Abra lives in Chicago with her husband, Jim Wilkin, has three children scattered around the county, and is the grandmother of 11.
Lenore: Abra, what is your fondest childhood memory?
Abra: It’s difficult to pin just one down, but you really got me going. When I think back — I’m in Lake Geneva, where we still have a weekend, summer house. It was a wonderful childhood of ice skating in winter, shelling peas and cooking with my mother in the summer, and swimming and sailing on the lake. We lived there year-round then, and I went to the local school until the fourth grade. My best friend’s father owned the local paint store. We played marbles in the school parking lot, I took piano and ballet lessons and adored Miss O’Brien, my kindergarten teacher.
Lenore: How did you end up being a newspaper writer and reporter?
Abra: After two years of summer camp and volunteering as a soda jerk at Passavant Hospital, my father insisted I get a real summer job. He also encouraged me to marry a man who loves what he does. Years and many summer jobs later I was dating a guy who worked for The New York Times. He loved it and I loved what he was doing.
So I asked my father if he could help me get a job at a newspaper that summer. He made a few phone calls and I ended up at the City Desk of Chicago Sun-Times answering phones and writing obituaries. There were six of us there — four editors, another editorial assistant and me. It was just like The Front Page where all the action was. I was hooked and never tried another job.
After college and a trip around the world on a freighter, I worked full-time at The Sun-Times where I met and married another journalist who also loved what he did. Jon and I covered the 1968 Convention and later moved to The Chicago Daily News to write a daily gossip column of news and personalities. Years later I returned to The Sun-Times and wrote a weekly column, solo.
Lenore: Your passport has always gotten a good workout. What is your favorite travel destination?
Abra: Oh, that’s a tough one. I’ve been to so many great places. But…Italy. Yes…Capri, Florence, Venice…and the food.
We’ve spent a lot of time in Mexico, too, and love it there…
I guess we just love hot weather and good food!
Beautiful Abra Photo Credit Kay Whitfield
Lenore: How are you spending the Covid shutdown?
Abra: I’m not doing too much now and have become a bit of a flabby hermit. Before Covid when we were in Florida, I was quite active — playing tennis, swimming, Pilates, the gym, and socializing and eating out with friends. Now zip! Dusting, cooking and ironing are miserable replacements. I have lost five pounds of muscle mass, and my vocal cords are atrophying because I’m not talking as much. A voice therapist has given me some vocal-cord exercises which include yelling out loud sentences like “Wear Your Mask, Wash Your Hands!” Best place to do this is the shower where the neighbors can’t hear me. Actually, it’s rather cathartic and inner rage-releasing!
Lenore: What are you doing now?
Abra: Well, I cleaned out all the closets, cabinets and basements, done broom and Zoom and cooked enough on-line recipes for a lifetime. There have been some good things on TV I would never have dreamed of watching pre-pandemic. Forget “Tiger King,” but Michael Jordan’s “The Last Dance” was riveting!
Yes, Abra, it was a great documentary. But, really, Michael Jordan has nothing on you!
And here’s a fun fact that I discovered writing this article: the music website Playback.fm lists Abra Prentice Wilkin as the sixth most famous person named Abra. Just in case you were wondering, Abra (the rapper) is number one.
© 2020 Lenore Macdonald. All rights reserved.