It was March 28, 1861, and she had hosted her first state dinner at the White House as the nation’s First Lady. She was saying good-bye to her guests, including Kate Chase, the daughter of her husband’s Treasury Secretary, Salmon P. Chase. “I shall be glad to see you any time, Miss Chase,” she said to the tall, elegant 20-year-old woman.
“Mrs. Lincoln,” said Chase, “I shall be glad to have you call on me at any time.”
What effrontery! Yet, two weeks before the start of the Civil War, the battle for dominance of Washington, D.C., society was already well underway between the diminutive, Kentucky-born Mary Lincoln and the queenly Kate Chase. And Chase was winning.
It was no contest. As John Oller shows in his nuanced and finely balanced American Queen: The Rise and Fall of Kate Chase Sprague, Civil War “Belle of the North’ and Gilded Age Woman of Scandal, Chase had whatever that ineffable quality is that draws eyes and interest and fascination. “She was,” one woman recalled, “tall and slim…with an unusually long white neck, and a slow and deliberate way of turning it when she glanced about her. When she appeared, people dropped back in order to watch her.”
As the oldest surviving daughter of Salmon P. Chase, one of the founders of the Republican Party and a perennial presidential candidate, Chase grew up among hard-bitten, ambitious politicians — and knew how to turn them into butter.
Consider this description of her at 18 by Carl Schurz, a German immigrant who was a Civil War general and an American statesman for half a century:
Soon she came, saluted me very kindly, and then let herself down upon her chair with the graceful lightness of a bird that, folding its wings, perches upon the branch of a tree…She had something imperial in the pose of the head, and all her movements possessed an exquisite natural charm.
The title for Oller’s book echoes the one used in 2001 for a biography of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis by Sarah Bradford, America’s Queen. Like the wife of John F. Kennedy, Chase was the epitome of elegance for Americans of her era, described as “a magnificent creature” and “the most splendid woman of the present time” and “the acknowledged queen of fashion and good taste.”
In some ways, she was like Hillary Clinton in her intense interest in politics, but she was no policy wonk. Instead, Chase was filled with ambition for her father and the other men in her life. Oller details how, even though as a woman she could not enter the convention hall, she was the unofficial manager for her father’s unsuccessful attempt to switch parties and win the 1868 Democratic presidential nomination.
In 1863, she married Rhode Island Gov. William Sprague IV, and, after that marriage fell apart, she engaged in a long and very public affair with another politician, Roscoe Conkling, a Republican power broker in New York who served in the U.S. House and Senate.
Although attempts have been made to turn Chase into a proto-feminist, Oller asserts, “But just as Kate’s political life was driven more by the personal than the ideological, so too were the actions she took in her marital life.”
No radical, she did what she wanted to do because she could.
Later in life, her finances hard hit by a national recession, Chase worked as a field hand and sold produce in suburban Washington to make ends meet for her and her developmentally disabled daughter Kitty.
According to her sister, Chase’s fall from public grace — the scandal with Conkling, her divorce from Sprague and her near-poverty before her death in 1899 — was tragic. But Oller disagrees.
She may have lost her worldly possessions and discarded her once-burning ambition, but she traded them for a life of greater freedom and independence. She became entirely her own person, a rare feat for women of her day. And through it all she displayed a resilient and indomitable spirit.
Patrick T. Reardon
This review initially appeared in the Chicago Tribune’s book section Printers Row on 11.9.2014.