The Crickettes Turn Thirty
The Crickettes in Cricket’s Bar under a Guy Casper cariacture of the original eight. First row: Barbara Burrell, the late Nancy Klimley, Nancy Jennings, Zarada Gowenlock, Abra Wilkin, Bonnie Swearingen and the late Annie Gray. Second row: Hazel Barr, Megan McKinney and Sugar Rautbord. Cynthia Olson and Jeannie Wedgwood were both traveling that week.
By Megan McKinney
In 1986, when I became editor of Frank Sullivan’s Avenue M magazine, Clay Felker had not been editor of New York magazine for almost a decade, but his powerful influence continued. No magazine in Chicago was coming close in interest to the stories New York was still creating, so why not, I thought, take New York’s features and tailor them to Chicago—which is what I did.
Typical of the Felker-style story was one in which a writer jotted down what a group of slender, stylish New York ladies ate at lunch at a fashionable Manhattan restaurant. She then went back to the kitchen and worked with the chef in adding up the calories each had consumed. It would be perfect for Avenue M’s readership!
Cricket’s in The Tremont Hotel, where Ditka’s is today, was the “only” place for pairs or trios of chic ladies to lunch together 30 years ago this month, so I called Tremont General Manager Nancy Jennings (now Mrs. Robert Kelley of Palm Desert, California). She loved the idea, and we organized a lunch of the era’s trimmest “trendsetters”: Hazel Barr, Zarada Gowenlock, Nancy Klimley, Sugar Rautbord, Abra Wilkin and Jeannie Quinn, who had recently become Lady Wedgewood. I happened to be talking with Bonnie Swearingen on the telephone the morning of the lunch, and I suggested she join us.
Below are the first two pages of the history-making story. The women were photographed by Kay Whitfield to appear as though they were exiting the restaurant following lunch; actually, they had just arrived.
Not only was the story an immense success in our October 1986 issue (thank you, Mr. Felker), but the lunching ladies loved it so much they stayed at the table all afternoon and almost into the dinner hour. When we had to leave, it was agreed to reconvene on the third Thursday of the following month. The same thing happened in 30 days, and another 30, and so forth, until the group had become The Crickettes, and interchangeably, The Ladies Who Lunch.
An organized group of monthly lunching women was relatively new; Abra—always on the cutting edge—had been doing Lundi Munches with several other women, but there really wasn’t very much, if anything, else at the time. This was a lively group, full of newsy doings and clever bon mots, a fertile source of items for a current column I was writing. At the same time, Skyline’s Ann Gerber, as well as Irv Kupcinet and Mary Frey of the Chicago Sun-Times, and soon Bill Zwecker at Skyline, and the late Michael Kilian of the Chicago Tribune, were paying close attention and picking up their own snippets or writing full columns about our group and the lunches.
However, accounts of The Crickettes’ escapades didn’t truly take off until the day Michael Sneed devoted a chunk of her Chicago Sun-Times column to the infamous A B and Z Lunch. Abra, Bonnie, Zarada and I had stayed after the others on the day of which she wrote. Nobody was ever officially clear about what really happened between 4:30 and 6 p.m. that afternoon, and I continue to be the sole non-participating witness. However, my lips are forever sealed.
Not long after the ABZ incident, probably at our next gathering, there was a meeting of baseball team owners in town. At around 4 p.m., a group of these high-profile men came into Cricket’s and sat at a large round table next to our large round table. Some of us knew some of them, and soon the two tables were shoved together, signaling Bonnie Swearingen to call a waiter to bring on the champagne. We were going to play Bonnie’s favorite restaurant game, Betting on the Color of the Taittinger Cork.
Five dollar bills came out of handbags, billfolds and cash clips for the first round, which Hazel Barr won. A single bottle didn’t stretch to fill all the flutes, so another cork was quickly popped, with the second pot won by Charlie Finley, owner of the Oakland A’s, who wasn’t even drinking.
After a few more corks went into the waiter’s napkin and were examined, a man named Brad Corbett, who had owned the Texas Rangers until a few years earlier, stood up and announced, “Ah’m gonna buy all you gals a present,” and he grabbed Bonnie’s arm. After Bonnie insisted that as a married woman she couldn’t shop with a man at Tiffany’s, Zarada volunteered to accompany him, and together they headed for Abra’s car, which was waiting at the curb. Within minutes, Abra’s driver had pulled around to the former home of Tiffany’s, across Michigan Avenue and down a bit from its current location.
The ground floor of the old Tiffany’s was miniscule, and, because Mr. Corbett was eager to buy his gifts and return to the party without the delay of going upstairs, the selection was limited. There were, however, eight of us and only seven pairs of identical 18 karat gold earrings, so that’s what he bought.
But, because Zarada Gowenlock has never been one to chance being the odd girl out when it comes to gold jewelry, she pointed to the only viable option in the glass case, a mammoth gold bracelet. Within minutes, she was wearing it, as she has every day of her life since. (By scrolling back up to the top of this story, you will see it on her left wrist—and once again at the bottom of this tale.) She also carried out a Tiffany’s shopping bag with seven small blue boxes tucked inside.
It was then—sometime during that memorable third Thursday afternoon of October 1987—that the story of The Crickettes officially grew legs.
Not long after the Tiffany’s earrings story hit the widespread dinner party circuit and the major Chicago media at large, Jeanne Gatineau, a French skin care company, invited The Crickettes to Paris “for lunch.” In looking at the letter confirming the invitation today, I see that we would leave at 7 p.m. on Friday night and return to Chicago at 5 p.m. the following Tuesday, and that plans for our entertainment were far more elaborate than a nibble or two here and there and a Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Honoré facial. However, we declined.
Meanwhile, Crickettes coverage was beginning to exceed the range of normal demographics for the usual “Society” story. When WLUP disc jockey Jonathon Brandmeier tried repeatedly and unsuccessfully to telephone Sugar while on air, he announced he would ambush her at the next Crickettes’ lunch. But he wouldn’t go alone; there would be a contest to select 20 listeners to accompany him. I became aware of this when two young women came to my apartment from Marshall Field’s to clean a piece of furniture.
Soon after their arrival, they looked at me, noted a stack of new Avenue M’s on a chair in my foyer, and then checked the work order. Next, they looked at each other and nodded. One asked, “Aren’t you one of The Crickettes?” I nodded back, poised to supply an autograph, but what they really wanted was someone to maneuver them into the Brandmeier lunch. As you can see from the Chicago Sun-Times coverage below, ambushing Ms. Rautbord at Cricket’s that day was to no avail; the lunch was “Sugar-free.”
We also stretched the usual Society page demographic when Lerner Newpapers sponsored a bowling tournament in Rogers Park to benefit a homeless shelter. As I recall, the annual event was known as The Bill Zwecker Bowl; in any case, Bill was very visible in a red bowling shirt embroidered “Bob.” We did that two years in a row, and both times Nancy Jennings supplied T-shirts in Cricket’s red with our Crickettes’ logo in front and The Ladies Who Lunch in script across the back. She also arranged limousine transportation to Howard Street and back. It was great fun, but, quite frankly, none of us was very good at the game—except, oddly, the extraordinarily prim Nancy Klimley.
It wasn’t long before we began pulling stunts of our own. We organized an Upstairs at Cricket’s cocktail party to which we each asked 10-plus men. No wives. No girlfriends.There were nine Crickettes at that point, which made it an evening of nine girls and 100 guys. Below is the engraved Cartier invitation. What a party that was!
Soon after, the Chicago Tribune’s Sunday Magazine devoted an issue to what was somewhat accepted as Michael Kilian’s definitive account of Chicago Society. Three new members had been added to The Crickettes, providing a photo caption for our picture below.
Publicists were coming at Nancy Jennings from everywhere with elaborate plans for coverage of their clients, only a few of which were accepted. A memorable one, however, was from Pat Brickhouse, who whisked us out to Le Francais in Wheeling, the great restaurant where Mary Beth and Roland Liccioni—currently of the equally great Les Nomades—were then ensconsed. It was a grand lunch, and Pat also managed to bring along a newspaper columnist, a freelance photographer and a writer from Chicago magazine, producing a perfect trifecta.
Another was the “lunch” stretching over a long summer weekend at The Mark in New York, a joint venture of the hotel and American Airlines, which flew and limousined us there and back via champagne-laden first class. I have to admit, I was impressed by my suite, which had, among other amenities, a kitchen, a dining room and three bathrooms, all for me. I was feeling smug and trying to figure out what to do with this abundance of hospitality when I looked down at the beautifully furnished terrace below. I saw Nancy Jennings standing at the edge looking out over Madison Avenue; she had the same layout I had, plus the immense outdoor space missing from mine!
The Crickettes had arrived at a point that no media site—radio, television, newspaper or magazine—was complete, particularly around the holidays, without an appearance by The Ladies Who Lunch.
The Siberia of Cricket’s, the restaurant’s back section next to the kitchen, was becoming a soundstage where TV crews would set up while Kup or Janet Davies and, eventually, the BBC interviewed The Crickettes. Here’s what Henry Hanson of Chicago magazine said about the Ladies in early 1990.
So it was bound to happen. When London’s transplanted Australian author, critic and broadcaster Clive James came to do a show on Chicago for his BBC television series, a major part of it was Clive lunching with The Crickettes.
Kup, who was there that day at the table up front where we usually sat, sent a round of champagne back to us in Siberia, while Clive asked such questions as, “Is your jewelry real?” “Do your like each other?” and “Did you marry for money?” I viewed a tape of the show recently and watched Bonnie when he asked, “How many husbands do you ladies have?” She didn’t miss a beat while picking up a piece of paper and adding up the number. “Altogether?” she asked. “Twelve.”
A week later, Abra’s driver delivered to each of us a framed copy of the picture below documenting our BBC television appearance, to which she had added our Crickettes logo.
There we are, Zarada—sporting her Brad Corbett Tiffany’s bracelet—Sugar, Hazel, Megan, the two Nancys, Bonnie and Abra, 30 years younger and gathered in the Siberia of a restaurant that is now but a memory. But think of the legion of groups of Chicago lunching ladies we spawned.