AMERICAN BELLES OF THE 19TH CENTURY
By Virginia Tatnall Peacock
By Virginia Tatnall Peacock
Editor’s note: Part I of this excerpt was published on this blog on December 8, 2014.
Part II The Washington DC Years
At the capital of the nation Kate Chase attained a social prestige never before enjoyed by so young a woman, and a political power which no woman before or since her day has ever possessed. Men of such eminence and distinction paid her the court of an homage so absolute that it would be difficult to estimate how much of her father's prominence was owing to her. Radiant as she was in her youth and beauty, the most lovable side of her character ever discovered itself in her tender, worshipping affection for him.
In September, 1860, some months before Chase left Ohio, there was unveiled at Cleveland, on the shores of the Lake to which his valor brought fame, a statue of Commodore Perry, many of the States sending deputations to do honor to his memory. At the head of Rhode Island's troops, in the military parade which opened the ceremonies of the day, rode the governor of that State, his alert young figure impressing itself upon all the spectators of the scene.
That night, during the ball at the Kennard House which closed the event of the day, Colonel Richard Parsons presented him to Kate Chase. She was 20 old at the time, and her slender young figure already possessed that beautiful symmetry that later found such unqualified favor in the eyes of Worth, that great modern connoisseur of the proportions of the female figure, drawing from him such commendation as he never accorded to any other woman.
In a ball-gown showing the faultless contour of her neck and throat, and the exquisite poise of her lovely head, she was the revelation of a perfection which the human form rarely attains. Hazel eyes, auburn hair, and the marvellous whiteness of skin that usually accompanies this combination, a full, low, broad brow, mobile lips, a small, round chin, and a nose whose suggestion of an upward tilt added its own peculiar touch of piquancy to a face that was altogether charming rather than classically beautiful,—thus to the eye was Kate Chase, whose fame then superseded that of every woman in Ohio, and was shortly to surpass that of every woman of her generation in America.
|U.S. Senator (D-RI) William Sprague|
The outbreak of the war took him to Washington. Still governor of his State, he had raised a regiment and equipped it at his own expense, for he was a man of immense wealth. His generosity, his patriotism, and his valor at Bull Run, together with his youth and the success of his political career, appealed to the enthusiasm of his countrymen.
The news not only that he was to marry, but to marry a woman so universally idolized as was Kate Chase, heightened the effect his achievements had already produced upon the mind of the public. With a delicate sort of beauty and a somewhat clerical appearance that belied his reputation for military prowess, he had at the moment a fame quite equal to that of his bride.
Their marriage, which took place at Washington on November 12, 1863, was the social event of that turbulent period. All the details of the ceremony and of the reception which followed it, and which were planned by her, were on a scale of magnificence worthy of the woman whose advent into Washington had marked a new epoch in its social history.
She was the inspiration of the wedding-march composed for the occasion and played by the Marine Band. Under circumstances when a plain woman is an interesting figure, of what moment was not the appearance of one who could not, even on ordinary occasions, enter a church without her presence being in some mysterious way heralded to its remotest recesses so that every head involuntarily turned towards her!
The first days of their married life were spent in Rhode Island, where Mr. Sprague built for his bride the beautiful home that was worthy of her lofty conceptions of a magnificent existence, Canonchet. It was one of the first of the palatial homes of that period, and of which this country now possesses so many, and the cost of its construction was unprecedented in the annals of a people incredibly rich in all life's comforts, but with their luxuriant tendencies for the most part still latent.
From the governorship of his State Sprague went into the United States Senate, and Kate Chase appeared in Washington as the wife of the youngest member of that body. The elegance of the new home there over which she presided, her husband's wealth and prominence, her maturer beauty, and the dignity with which she carried a matron's honors, all tended to bring her before the popular imagination in a more enchanting light than even the glories of her girlhood had done.
The birth of her first child, a son, was a matter of national interest, and the press of the day contained lengthy accounts of the dawn of the little life for which fate held in store so forlorn and tragic an ending. His christening robe was as elaborately described as if it had been that of a royal infant, and the figures of the handsome settlement made upon him were widely published.
Chase, however, still loomed the central figure of his daughter's life, for he continued to confide in her and take counsel with her in all that concerned him personally, as well as those measures that hand his name down as that of the greatest Secretary who ever presided in the Treasury Department. He was the intellectual power of Lincoln's cabinet, and though he contributed much to the success of his administration, there was small sympathy between the men personally, and being overruled by the President in some of the details of his department, Chase, in 1864, resigned his position as a member of the cabinet.
MODERN READING: Out this fall (2014) is John Oller’s biography “American Queen—The Rise and Fall of Kate Chase Sprague, Civil War Belle of the North and Gilded Age Woman of Scandal.” Available on Amazon.com
Donn Piatt, who was one of the many young Ohioans to whom he was a shining example and a high ideal, said of Chase, that though he came in direct and intimate contact with Lincoln for three years, he never appreciated nor understood the man who could clear the heavy atmosphere of a cabinet meeting, called to consider some such stupendous proposition as the emancipation proclamation, by a hearty laugh, induced by the reading of a chapter from Artemus Ward.
Lincoln, however, with his keen knowledge of human nature, discerned Chase's character more readily, and justly estimating the judicial qualities of his superior mind, he sent his nomination as Chief Justice of the United States to the Senate. It was immediately and unanimously confirmed by that body, and on the 6th of December, 1864, Chase, already a great man, entered upon the duties of that office, to which, with one exception, no name has given greater renown.
On February 24, 1868, the House of Representatives passed a resolution to impeach the President of the United States. During his trial, which terminated on May 26 of the same year, the country passed through a storm of violent political passion. Above the roar of an angry people and the threats which assailed him daily from all sections of the country, rose the august presence of the great Chief Justice, hearing but not heeding, feeling but not fearing their sting.
Throughout the country there was no name more frequently heard during those days than that of Chase, and in Washington the President himself was not a more prominent figure. He followed his usual custom of walking to the court in the mornings, being frequently accompanied by the daughter who had so often been his companion in days when there had rested upon him no such burden as the grave question then in hand imposed.
She forms one of the bright spots in the memory of that dark period, and he often lifted his eyes during the sessions of the court to refresh them with a glimpse of her face, in whose luminous sympathy there was inspiration. She sat in the gallery of the court chamber every day, surrounded always by men whose names go down in history among those of the foremost of their period and country,—Garfield, Conkling, Sherman, Carl Schurz, with Grant, the military idol of the hour, and Greeley, of editorial eminence.
The chief-justiceship of his country is generally supposed to fill the measure of a man's political aspirations. Upon Chase, however, the honors of his office imposed no such quietus, and in 1868 he again came forward for the Presidential nomination. As a Democrat, who had left his party only on the slavery question, he offered himself as a candidate for the nomination of that party. During the convention, which met in New York, Mrs. Sprague, more ably with her maturer mind and greater resources at her command than she had possessed in 1860, endeavored to bring about the realization of that dream of his whole public life. She was the first, however, to recognize the fact that the only platform on which he could secure the nomination asked more than he could honorably grant. Chase, watching the convention from a distance, confirmed her judgment.
Our history furnishes the names of three men whose ungratified ambition for the Presidency robbed them of their motive in life. Chase, however, survived his disappointment longer than either Webster or Blaine. He was, by nature, profoundly religious, and he endeavored to support with Christian heroism a blow whose crushing force undermined his very vitality.
In 1870 he suffered a physical collapse, from which, however, stimulated by his remarkable will-power, he rallied so far as to be able to resume his duties on the Supreme Bench.
On March 23, 1871, the younger of his daughters, the child of his third marriage, was married to William Sprague Hoyt, of New York, a cousin of her sister's husband. Her wedding fastened another brilliant memory upon her father's Washington home at Sixth and E Streets. In the drawing-room, to which she had already brought so much fame, Kate Chase again stood beside her father, and their presence on that day constitutes to many people still living at the capital a memory picture which, with all deference to the bride, yet supersedes all others of that eventful day.
He was a magnificent man, over six feet in height, fair as a Saxon in coloring, with a fine head, clearly defined and well-made features, and a noble beauty of countenance; and she, robed in blue velvet of a turquoise tone, that brought out the glorious red-gold of her hair and the hazel of her eyes, with an Elizabethan collar rolling high about her patrician neck, tall, slender, and full of willowy grace. Perhaps the picture abides because it was the last before the falling of those lengthening shadows whence neither ever emerged.
On March 4, 1873, Chase administered the oath of office to President Grant, and in May of the same year he occupied his chair as Chief Justice for the last time. A few days before the last on which he had felt able to go to court, his daughters and his grandchildren, whom he was accustomed to have much with him, being away from him, a sudden sense of loneliness, a yearning for some loving human presence, seems to have overpowered him, for he wrote to a young relative in New York that he was going to her to be for a while with her and her children. The day after he arrived, however, he went forth quietly and perhaps suddenly on that lonely voyage whence neither love nor the glow of any human presence may withhold us when it comes to be our turn.
His body was sent back to Washington, where it arrived on Sunday morning, May 11, 1873. There, clad in the awful dignity of death, he lay a day and a night within the bar of the court his living presence had rendered so illustrious. A simple wreath of white rosebuds, not more spotless than the life of him they crowned, was the last offering of the daughter to whom his death, so far as the world knew, brought her first sorrow.
She had, however, already come to the turn in her short road of happiness, and had confronted not alone the spectre of disillusion, which in itself would have been formidable enough to a woman of her temperament, but a substantial form of unhappiness that neither her pride nor a brave spirit that never quailed before it could long conceal. Her life has been so probed, so bared to the scrutiny of the world, that but little of its sorrow can be left to conjecture. That in one of her own deficiencies lay undoubtedly the cause of much of her unhappiness, while it served to render others less culpable, in no degree lessened the force of the misery it entailed upon her.
A knowledge of the proper value of money, abnormally developed in many, was totally lacking in Kate Chase. It appealed to her simply as a means of gratifying the needs and wishes of the moment, never as something to be hoarded for the satisfying of those of a future time. History contains the names of many men and women otherwise illustrious but born apparently with the same defect. The great wealth which came to her through her marriage she expended lavishly, not alone upon herself, but upon all whose happiness it was thus in her power to augment, for such princely natures are rarely selfish.
She gave, all her life, frequently with a generosity wholly out of proportion to her means. Sprague probably did not realize her munificent tendencies till after the shrinkage in his fortune caused by the financial panic of the early 1870s. They then became the cause of those fatal misunderstandings whence sprung later conditions of insupportable wretchedness. A divorce was granted her by the courts of New York, with permission to resume her maiden name, of which she availed herself some years later, when Sprague married again.
With her three daughters she retired to "Edgewood," a suburban home on the hills two miles north of Washington, which had come to her from her father and which is closely identified with the last years of both their lives. The house, an ample unadorned brick structure, stands on the brow of a hill overlooking the river, the city, and other hills in its vicinity. From her father she had also inherited an income somewhat smaller than might have been anticipated, for, although he had piloted the nation through the financial difficulties of the war, his personal finances were not flourishing.
She found a legal adviser in a friend of her father's who had been a frequent visitor at Edgewood during Chase's lifetime, attracted thither both by his admiration for Chase and by the pleasure of that intercourse with his gifted daughter which he shared in common with many men of brilliant minds, few of whom ever came in contact with her without succumbing to a species of intellectual infatuation. With all the feminine graces that attract, however, she had many of a man's characteristics, and was capable of maintaining their intercourse at all times on an intellectual footing. The idle gossip of people who had no conception of the true loftiness of her soul, magnified by those who still felt and feared her political power, cast its blight upon her life. Silently scorning a world that so cruelly misinterpreted her, she voluntarily abandoned her place in its midst.
She took her children to Europe and there educated them, remaining as long as her resources would permit. When they were exhausted she came home. Edgewood gave her a sorry welcome. Everywhere, within and without, it showed signs of long neglect. Yet such as it was, it was home and full of memories of her father, whose portrait still hung in its broad hallway, and whose marble bust still adorned its library.
There, too, were his beloved books that he had craved in his youth when he had turned from nature, which became, however, the tender solace of his ailing years, when he liked to be alone with her and his own thoughts, while he took long tramps over the hills. There, during the last three years of his life, he had pursued conscientiously that tranquil existence which he realized could alone prolong his days. To his daughter it was all that remained, and even it was slipping from her grasp. The men of her father's generation were gone, and she was as a stranger in the land that had once resounded with the echo of her name.
Edgewood was advertised for public sale. Something of its history crept into the press of the country. It struck a chord of memory and appealed to a class of men who had the means of gratifying their sympathies, men of a younger generation, but who venerated the memory of Chase and gave substantial proof of their veneration when they saved his home for the daughter he had so idolized.
She never evinced any desire to resume her place in that life in which she had once been a motive power. Among those who knew her best she had loyal friends who loved and admired her to the end. Her servants had always worshipped her, and her own children frequently lost themselves in the spell her presence wrought.
Her eldest daughter went upon the stage, but married shortly after her début and abandoned whatever hopes she may have had of a histrionic career.
It was a singular fate that the last days in the life of a woman whose youth had scarcely known a moment's exemption from the pursuit of an admiring world should have been passed almost exclusively in the society of the gentle daughter, whom she ever lovingly called her little Kitty.
Two loyal canine friends followed in her footsteps to the last, studying all her movements with a vigilance that was not without its measure of flattery, and receiving from her a degree of consideration that she never failed to show to those of lowly condition in whom she recognized merit not always visible to a more conventional eye. Often the only sound about the lonely house that greeted an occasional visitor, was the friendly thump of the collie's tail against the porch floor, the shrill tone of inquiry in Chiffon's bark, or the melancholy wail of a violin.
When Edgewood was finally closed and abandoned after Kate Chase's death, new homes were found for her two dog friends: for the collie, at Brookland, a suburb of Washington, and for the terrier, in the city itself. A few days later both had disappeared, and a boy who had occasion to go to Edgewood found them on the porch of the deserted house. It had been a long tramp for them, especially for the little terrier, which had had to thread its way across the city. Buoyed up with hope, they had arrived from their opposite directions only to realize that a life which at least had been happy for them, had come to its end.
With that rare courage with which she had borne all the other ills of her life, Kate Chase endured uncomplainingly the physical sufferings which its closing days brought to her, endeavoring at first to put them from her and with an aching body to go on heroically with her daily life as she had often done with an aching heart. She surrendered only a few days before the end, realizing then the unusual gravity of her condition, and in the small hours of the morning of July 31, 1899, with her three daughters beside her, she at length closed her tired eyes tranquilly and without fear, to open them never again upon a world that had long since forgotten the once-cherished name of Kate Chase.
For the last few hours yet to be passed beneath the roof of Edgewood, they laid her in the room wherein her life had centred in both its glad and sad days,—her father's library. Its windows overlooked in the foreground the garden in which she had spent of late so many lonely hours, and in the distance, lying beneath the spell of a summer's day, the beautiful city, where regnant woman never held greater sway than she in whose quiet face there was now no trace either of the triumphs or the weariness of her life, but the contentment of grateful rest. She was interred by his side.