“Are those flowers real?” my friend Julie asked. “Because if they are, watch out for your life at the end of this. Last time I went to one of these fashion events women were fighting over the tulips, pulling them out of the bowls, then taking the bowls, too.” We shed our coats and sat down to an overseasoned roll of chicken. “There’d been a lot of tussling over the bread basket,” said Julie. “I should have expected the pitched battle for the flowers.”

A year and a half ago Marshall Field’s started all this with their “Evenings for Women”: fashion shows for women who are too busy working to go to the grande dame afternoon versions. They’re held in the evening and offer a long fashion extravaganza, makeup tips, and–most important–giveaways; also a woman speaker who’s a standout in her profession, like Leslie Stahl or Elizabeth Dole.

Carson Pirie Scott recently countered with their own evening fashion event, drawing 1,500 women and a sprinkling of men at $20 a pop to the appropriately overdone Chicago Hilton and Towers. The evening featured a fashion show that gave us endless examples of and reasons for the slump in retailing (“prom nightmare,” as Julie put it), a decidedly skimpy makeup giveaway, and a woman speaker who’s excelled in every field she’s ever claimed to be in: Ivana Trump, the Madonna of professional wives. Having reinvented herself this time as a lady novelist, Ivana has begun a whirlwind publicity tour of 20 cities in 30 days.

Ivana’s speech? “Women Who Dare.” Dare to what? Shed their philandering, mostly-on-paper real-estate-mogul husband? Appear, fresh from a megamillion divorce settlement, in the pages of Vogue with a new fun hairdo and a surgically altered face? Go from the cover of Vogue to the cover of Penthouse?

No, no, no. Ivana came to talk about women who dare to–juggle.

Ivana herself juggles a lot: She’s a mother (staying in touch with her young children via fax: “Yes, you can go to your friend’s house after you finish your homework”), lover (more on that later), divorce survivor (in a $10,000 Ungaro dress), victim of the press (conveniently reminding the assembled of the Sly Stallone affair story), entrepreneur (with a line of perfumes, creams, sportswear, and jewelry), author (the soon to be issued All for Love, a second novel in the works, and a TV miniseries–“Watch out Jackie Collins!” Julie whispered), executive (“goodwill ambassador” for New York’s Plaza Hotel), philanthropist-partygoer (“It’s not easy to get my hair to look like this,” Ivana pouted, “to have to decide what to wear every night”), and immigrant looking to invest in the homeland (a hotel in Prague).

Speaking of the homeland, here’s the dramatic and perplexing story Ivana shared about her twisted road to freedom. Ivana was in Munich during the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. She called home: Dad, she said, bring my important things, my clothes. Dad managed to get through a hole in the Russian border, and–they had a picnic. Dad must have brought the wrong clothes, because Ivana decided to go back to Czechoslovakia. Years later, when, presumably, she’d packed her own bag, she went to live with relatives in Canada. Then she ended up in New York married to the superfabulous Donald Trump, but exactly how was left unclear.

Ivana proclaimed our city fabulous, its women fabulous, the evening in her honor–fabulous. She tried to link herself with the other single parents in the crowd: “We all have the same 24 hours to balance.” And then she dropped the bomb of the evening, the fallback whine of every failed superwoman: “In the 70s women were told they could have it all, but they didn’t tell us how.” Ivana told us how, repeatedly, mind numbingly. Here’s Ivana’s How to Do It All List:

1. Get your mother to take care of the kids

2. Make a list

3. See the big picture

4. Stop and smell the roses

5. Employ a large support staff

Ivana went on, unmercifully, exhorting women to attain their goals, or at least to think about the goals they might want to set, employing the old and perpetually belittling maxim “You can’t get what you want until you know what you want.” And Freud, to boot: “What do women want?” Did that send a chill through the crowd? No, all were agog (OK, a few walked out when it became excruciatingly boring) at the living, breathing Barbie-doll jackpot winner: they were under her spell. If she’d truly wanted to do something about the homeless –aside from mentioning them as casually as a designer’s name–she could have commanded the audience to leave their wallets and coats at the door; they would have.

Ivana continued giving advice with the aid of handy cultural icons. “Don’t be like Scarlett O’Hara,” she urged, “and put things off till tomorrow.” Scarlett may have had her faults, but procrastination wasn’t one of them. Next, the Cowardly Lion (“We are all stronger than we realize”), Hamlet and Mario Cuomo together (“Will he or will he not run for president?”), and something about first lady Betty Ford and a tea bag.

Get it? Me neither. But it doesn’t matter! Ivana was the scorned woman who’d survived and she looked fabulous, and the crowd loved her for that above all–for her blond poufy hair, her wide smile and little-girl giggles, her waistline (which from my vantage point looked small only because her breasts didn’t). They hung on to every nonsensical word, leaning forward in their tight Ivana-wannabe suits and bubble dos. A woman and her preteen daughter crawled on their knees closer closer closer to the stage. Women crowded and hovered by the stage door, pens and programs readied for autographs.

OK, OK, there was a payoff: Questions and answers, a la Donahue of old, flat as reverberating through the ballroom.

“You look fabulous, Ivana–is there a new man in your life?”

“Yes. He’s gorgeous. Green eyes. Italian. Very sexy. Eat your hearts out.” (She sounded like Schwarzenegger with a giggle.)

“Who does your hair?”

“I was lucky this morning, I was in Palm Beach.”

“You have a lovely waistline–how do you keep it like that?”

“A trainer comes to my home three times a week.”

“Would you take a walk down the runway Ivana?”

Cheers, cheers, cheers.

“Tell us about your children.”

Cheers, cheers, cheers.

“Why don’t you write a motivational book, after that speech?”

(No. Please, no.)

When she was through, they stood for her, they clapped as though she really were a hero.

“They didn’t give Leslie Stahl or Elizabeth Dole a standing ovation,” Julie said, and then turned to see someone from the next table lunging to swipe our flowers.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Mike Hyatt.