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Carol Felsenthal

Carol Felsenthal

Posted January 26, 2009 | 09:57 AM (EST)

Whoops! Michelle Will Never Shop There Again


At the suggestion of a friend and frequent source for the profiles I write for Chicago magazine, I had lunch a few weeks with one of Chicago's preeminent jewelers. I was asking him about men who buy his expensive jewels for both their wives and mistresses. The look he shot at me made it clear those were private matters he would never, ever discuss.

If Michelle has the urge to look at jewelry the next time she's in Chicago, she would be wise to stop by his store.

The top of the front-page in Sunday's Chicago Sun-Times features a photo of Michelle in diamond, dangling earrings and the headline, "An Exchange She Can Believe In." It trumpets the lead item in gossip columnist Mike Sneed's column, explaining that for Michelle's birthday in January 2008, then candidate Obama bought his wife diamond earrings for a reported $5,000, which she returned for earrings with bigger diamonds that "reportedly" cost $12,000.

Sneed's source was Sherry Bender, the owner of Goldsmith Ltd., at 900 N. Michigan. Why Bender would be so indiscreet--in contrast to Chicago's Ikram Goldman, the Rush Street boutique owner who has been Michelle's source of advice, styling, inauguration dress, coat, and ball gown, as well as jewelry--is puzzling. (When I sought to interview Ms. Goldman for my profile just out on Michelle Obama, she was so far from talking to me that she did not even respond to my letter and email.)

Ms. Bender tells Sneed:

"Mr. Obama came in himself and picked out a pair of earrings for Michelle, which were sort of long and dramatic, and the diamond dangled at the bottom."

A short time, later, Bender continues, "Michelle came in, returned the earrings, looked around and picked out something a little more classic, with bigger stones, that was twice the price. She wanted to check with her husband first -- then Barack came back in and bought what she wanted -- which happened to be what I suggested originally." (Bender, Sneed notes, designed the earrings herself.)

As I describe in the profile, "The Making of a First Lady," Michelle has expensive tastes and it was she who wanted to trade up from their two-bedroom condominium on the first floor of a three-story walkup, for which they had paid $277,500 in 1993, to the $1.65 million six-bedroom Georgian revival Kenwood mansion that landed them in a deal with the wife of Tony Rezko, the convicted felon and fundraiser/fixer, waiting for sentencing--and talking to the feds in the meantime.

"Michelle ...wanted a house, ...a big house with a big yard. Barack wanted his family to be comfortable, but he would have been satisfied with three spoons, a fork, and a dish,'" a person who knows the Obamas well told me. "It was an issue for her." So Michelle has expensive tastes. They had taken a second mortgage out on the condo to help them through his 2004 race for the U.S. Senate. The dynamic between the two was dicey; she would have liked to have stayed home after her second daughter was born in 2001; she couldn't because of what she considered her husband's selfish indulgence of insisting on staying in the state Senate and teaching part time at the University of Chicago law school. She knew, because she had worked at Sidley & Austin--as had Barack for a summer while at Harvard Law--that Sidley would have welcomed the first African American president of the Harvard Law Review and allowed him to handle pro-bono public interest cases. "She still didn't really understand why he was not at a law firm, where he could be making $700,000 or $800,000 a year or a million or two," a former advisor told me.
At that point, when he spent $12,000 on the earrings, the Obamas had plenty of money--he was a celebrity because of his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention--and his books were stuck at the top of the bestseller lists earning him millions in royalties. Once their finances became more than comfortable and her husband won the U.S. Senate seat and was a national figure, Michelle, whose friends unanimously call her "grounded," signed on to what looked like a tough race for the nomination. Even then-- Obama had won the Iowa caucuses on January 3, but lost the New Hampshire primary on January 8, and important caucuses in Nevada, South Carolina awaited them later in January, and 22 Super Tuesday primaries and caucuses awaited them on February 5--Hillary was still the best bet to win the nomination, if not quite the "inevitable" nominee. Barack had enormous appreciation for Michelle and her increasingly willingness to hit the trail as a surrogate. The earrings were, perhaps, a token of appreciation. Michelle is often compared to Jackie Kennedy Onassis as a fashion icon who will bring couture clothes, style and taste to the White House--and a forum for American designers who struggle in this economy. The comparison is fine with the millions who admire the Obamas.

In her own career, Michelle could have earned big money had she been willing to remain at Sidley and eventually become a six-figure partner there or elsewhere. But she wasn't willing to do that. She gave it up for public service jobs that paid her a fraction of her earning potential. She wanted to do good and make a difference. (In that sense, perhaps she is better compared to Eleanor Roosevelt.)

Still, now that Michelle Obama is in the White House and the spotlight is on her relentlessly, she has to be careful that Nancy Reagan is not the First Lady to whom she is compared.