Biography of the 19th-century socialite who made her way to or near “the center of more major events…than any woman and most men of her time.”
Born at a time in American history when females could neither vote nor hold office, Kate Chase Sprague (1840-1899) came to wield more political influence than any American woman ever had before. Her father and first political teacher was Salmon Chase. After he won the governorship of Ohio in 1855, Chase made his beautiful and accomplished daughter into his hostess and political confidante. When he accepted Lincoln’s appointment as treasury secretary on the eve of the Civil War in March 1861, Kate immediately established a social “court” in Washington that outshone that of Lincoln’s far-less-glamorous wife, Mary. Both father and daughter became known for the brilliance of their gatherings as well as the ruthlessness of their communal desire to eventually occupy the White House. In an effort to secure the money they needed to fund their political dream, Kate married the wealthy but erratic Rhode Island businessman-turned-politician William Sprague. While her staunchly anti-slavery father eventually broke with the Republican Party he helped found and made an unsuccessful run for the presidency as a Democrat, Kate’s marriage to Sprague foundered. She became the mistress of the charismatic, and married, New York state senator and Republican Party boss Roscoe Conkling. Their scandalous affair shared the headlines with other major events of the day, including the assassination of President James Garfield in 1881. Divorce the following year “dethroned” Kate from her unofficial status as American political “Queen” and made her a social outcast who would die in poverty at the age of 58. Oller’s work is less the story of a woman’s political rise and fall and more one that reveals how the social limitations of the past created tragic outcomes for talented females.
A well-researched, thoughtful biography of a woman who “became entirely her own person, a rare feat for women of her day.”