Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival
In her New York Times bestselling novel Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker, Jennifer Chiaverini illuminated one of the First Lady’s most private relationships. In Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival, she tells of the famous First Lady’s very public social and political contest with Kate Chase Sprague, memorialized as “one of the most remarkable women ever known to Washington society” (Providence Journal).
Kate Chase Sprague was born in 1840 in Cincinnati, Ohio, the second daughter to the second wife of a devout but ambitious lawyer. Her father, Salmon P. Chase, rose to prominence in the antebellum years, appointed Secretary of the Treasury in Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet while aspiring to even greater heights.
Thrice widowed, Chase found himself at a disadvantage without a wife to host social gatherings crucial to influence-building. Beautiful, intelligent, regal, and entrancing, young Kate Chase stepped into this role, establishing a salon at the Chase home that launched a father-daughter partnership bent on achieving the Presidency. For her efforts, The Washington Star declared her “The most brilliant woman of her day. None outshone her.”
None, that is, but Mary Todd Lincoln. Though Mrs. Lincoln and her young rival held much in common—political acumen, love of country, and a resolute determination to help the men they loved achieve greatness—they could never be friends, for the success of one could come only at the expense of the other. When Kate Chase married William Sprague, the wealthy young governor of Rhode Island, it was widely regarded as the pinnacle of Washington society weddings. President Lincoln was in attendance. The First Lady was not.
The intertwining public lives of these two women never failed to inspire headlines, but the true and lasting influence each wrought in private makes, in New York Times bestselling author Jennifer Chiaverini’s skilled telling, for an even more fascinating story. Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival is an astute and lively novel of the politics of state—whether enacted in houses of government or the family homes of its leaders—set against the vibrant backdrop of Civil War era Washington.
Praise for Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival
March 28, 1861
On the occasion of President Lincoln’s first state dinner, carriages, carts, and hundreds of men on foot crowded the circular drive in front of the White House nearly all the way to Lafayette Square. Kate Chase studied the scene through the window of her father’s carriage, forgetting, for the moment, her misgivings that she was attending the event as a guest rather than the hostess. The crush of people forced their horses to slow to a walk long before they reached the bronze statue of Thomas Jefferson in the center of the driveway, and the tall white columns of the front portico suddenly seemed to be an interminable distance away.
“Father,” Kate said, touching his hand where it rested on the black leather seat between them. “Didn’t you say that the president and his wife had invited only cabinet members, a few dignitaries, and their wives to tonight’s dinner?”
“Wives or daughters, as the case may be.”
“Or daughters,” amended Kate, smiling. “I ask because if the size of this crowd is any indication, it would seem that either you were misinformed, or the vast population of Washington City was.”
“I trust I didn’t misunderstand the president’s invitation,” her father replied. “No, my dear Katie, what you see before you is the capital’s most persistent plague—patronage seekers. They know they won’t be allowed past the doorman tonight, but that won’t stop them from clutching at the sleeves and pleading in the ears of any unfortunate official whom they can accost on the way to the door.”
Kate lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “Then we shall have to be quick and clever to avoid them.”
“Yes, and we’ll keep the distance from carriage to threshold as short as possible.” Salmon P. Chase frowned out the window. Impeded by the throng, the carriage had slowed to a crawl until it finally halted several yards away from the portico. “Although that might prove difficult.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Secretary,” the driver called down. “I can’t get any closer until those other drivers clear away.”
Kate had no desire to spend any more of that lovely spring evening gazing longingly at the brightly lit White House through a carriage window and imagining all she was missing within. “Let’s brave the gauntlet,” she proposed. “The president and his wife are expecting us.”
Her father nodded, more impatient than she to join the gathering inside. He deplored tardiness and did not tolerate it in himself or anyone else. “This will do, George,” he called to the driver. “We’ll walk from here.”
Her father helped her down from the carriage, and as she took his arm, she felt a glow of warmth and happiness fill her heart despite the small, sad ache of disappointment that had nagged her ever since the Republican party had selected Mr. Lincoln rather than her father as its candidate. If not for the perfidy of the delegates from his own state of Ohio, her father surely would have been sworn in as president earlier that month rather than as secretary of the treasury, and Kate, as the widower’s eldest daughter, would have become First Lady.
Salmon P. Chase was, Kate knew to the very core of her being, the better man—better educated than Mr. Lincoln, more experienced, more committed to the noble cause of abolition, and vastly more qualified. Father had been a senator and governor, while Mr. Lincoln—well, Kate liked him, but if she set sentiment aside and forced herself to be strictly objective, she had no choice but to admit that a kindly country lawyer from the West with but one term in Congress to his credit was ill prepared to steer the ship of state, especially through the rough waters the nation faced. Any observer could see that, and in fact, many had, and had said so in the streets and in the press. No one expected much of the new president, and they expected even less of his overeager, overanxious wife, a matron in her midforties who had thus far failed to make a favorable impression on Washington’s social elite.
Fortunately, Mr. Lincoln would have Salmon P. Chase to advise him. As for Mrs. Lincoln, for the good of the nation and the Republican party, some kind lady ought to befriend her, become her confidante, and help her navigate the thorny maze of Washington society.
Kate resigned herself to the likelihood that no one was better suited for the role than herself, though she was more than twenty years younger than Mrs. Lincoln.
“Mr. Secretary,” a voice rang out. Glancing to her left, Kate glimpsed a freckled young man in a brown suit two sizes too large for his bony frame, waving a handful of papers and grinning hopefully. “Mr. Secretary, a moment of your time, if you please.”
“He’s no one,” Kate murmured, not unkindly. Her father was terribly nearsighted, but he hated to wear his spectacles in public and often relied upon Kate to identify people at a distance. He had been known to pass good friends and acquaintances on the sidewalks or halls of Congress without recognizing them, an unfortunate habit that contributed to his reputation as being aloof and uncongenial.
As other eager, avaricious faces turned their way, Father offered Kate his arm. “Let’s make haste.”
Quickly Kate slipped her hand into the crook of his elbow and hurried off beside him. “Perhaps you should throw a few minor treasury appointments after us to distract them,” she teased, breathless. “Rather like Aphrodite’s golden apples, but in reverse.”
“I’ll have no Hippomenes catch my Atalanta,” her father declared, quickening his pace as he guided her through the crowd. Laughing, Kate did her best to keep up with him, though she was shorter than her father by nearly half a foot and encumbered by her corset and hoopskirt.
At last they reached the portico, where the burly, white-haired doorman greeted them in an Irish brogue and admitted them into the vestibule. They passed through the main hall into the Blue Room, a graceful ellipse with tall windows overlooking the south lawn and the Potomac River. It seemed to Kate to be in better repair than the other public rooms of the Executive Mansion, which were shabbily furnished with threadbare and tobacco-stained rugs, broken furniture, torn wallpaper, and ruined draperies, from which souvenir collectors had snipped pieces until they hung in tatters. Here, however, all was in elegant order. The chairs and settees were upholstered in rich blue and silver damask, the woodwork brilliantly gilded. Ornate mirrors on the marble mantel reflected the light from the chandeliers hanging high above from a frescoed ceiling of cerulean blue, beneath which men of influence clad in evening black and their ladies in elegant gowns of every hue mingled and chatted, the soft blue-and-white carpet muffling their footsteps.
Before passing from the brightly lit hall into the Blue Room, the Chases paused in the doorway, long enough for almost thirty pairs of eyes to turn their way. Conversations paused as the guests took in the newcomers, and as Kate smiled warmly and nodded gracefully to one acquaintance after another, she drew herself up proudly, knowing how she and her father looked to them. Salmon P. Chase—tall, broad-shouldered, and powerfully built, his features strong and regular beneath a high, clear brow projecting intelligence, courage, and dignity—was the very image of a statesman. And Kate herself—auburn-haired, hazel-eyed, young, slender, vivacious, becomingly attired in a gown of pale-yellow silk, her hair arranged in a simple, elegant twist and adorned with white flowers—was the very ideal of the accomplished, dutiful daughter. “You look like the king and queen of Washington,” her younger sister, Nettie, had sighed wistfully upon their departure from home. Father had taken a moment to lecture his youngest child on the superiority of American democracy to European monarchy, which she accepted with a good-natured shrug, with none of the shame and remorse Father’s admonishments evoked in Kate.
As John Nicolay, the president’s private secretary, made the customary introductions, Father escorted Kate across the room, where Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln waited to receive their guests. The president’s gaunt features became warmer, his eyes brighter, when he smiled, as he did when he shook Father’s hand and then Kate’s. “How is little Nettie?” Mr. Lincoln asked, his thick, dark brows rising quizzically, an amusing complement to the high, thin quality of his voice.
“Very well, thank you,” Father replied formally, bowing to Mrs. Lincoln.
Seeing her father and the president together, Kate almost laughed aloud, taken anew by the remarkable distinction between them. If Father looked every inch a statesman, Mr. Lincoln resembled a frontier schoolmaster with no wife to remind him to brush his hair and straighten his coat. “Nettie is indeed well”—she amended her father’s reply—“but I confess she was disappointed to be left at home.”
“Why didn’t you bring her along?” Mr. Lincoln asked, genuinely perplexed.
“Oh, Mr. Lincoln,” his wife chided him, laughing shortly. Her eyes were sharply blue, her complexion white and smooth, her neck and arms elegantly molded, but she was otherwise plain and tended toward stoutness, which her short stature and her husband’s great height unfortunately exaggerated. “Children, at a state dinner for the cabinet? Not even Tad and Willie will be in attendance tonight.”
Mr. Lincoln smiled benignly down upon his wife. “I’m fortunate to have you here to remind me of such things.” He turned back to the Chases with a self-deprecating shrug. “When I consider the reams of paper piled upon my desk, which are almost certainly accumulating greater heights even as we speak, I can only hope that an instructive book on presidential manners lies at the bottom.”
“At the very bottom, do you mean?” teased Kate, detecting an ironic note in his tone. “So deeply buried that no one can expect you to unearth and to read it?”
Mr. Lincoln’s laugh rang out, rich and full. “Why, yes, Miss Chase. You understand me perfectly.”
Father beamed proudly, but as she shook Mrs. Lincoln’s hand, Kate detected a flicker of annoyance in the First Lady’s eyes above her gracious smile, and she was not sorry to move on. There were wives and daughters to befriend, gentlemen to charm, and people of influence to impress, but as she and her father made their way around the room, Kate often thought she still felt Mrs. Lincoln’s blue eyes upon her, taking her measure with scrupulous, unforgiving precision.
Kate soon forgot Mrs. Lincoln’s displeasure, swept up in the pleasure of making new acquaintances and engaging in lively conversation that occasionally, and rather delightfully, leaned toward debate. United States attorney general Edward Bates, black-haired and white-bearded, spoke longingly and endearingly of the Missouri home he had only recently departed, while General Simon Cameron, with his keen, deep-set eyes and thin mouth, struck her as insistent and shrewd. One by one Kate addressed them all, and the ladies who had accompanied them, complimenting their attire and inquiring about their children. Kate especially liked the wife of the secretary of state, Frances Seward, whose dark, intelligent eyes belied the frailty of her form. Unfortunately, Mrs. Seward spent little time in Washington City, preferring her gracious family home and more temperate climate of Auburn, New York—but her frequent absence, and that of the vice-president’s wife, did leave Kate the second highest-ranking woman of the executive branch according to protocol and tradition, behind Mrs. Lincoln, who never let her forget it.
A moment came when Kate found herself unaccompanied, but just as it occurred to her that they should have been called in to dinner by then, Mrs. Lincoln appeared at her side. “Dinner will be delayed somewhat longer,” the First Lady explained, drawing her apart from the others. “General Scott has not yet arrived.”
“Oh, of course we must wait for him,” Kate replied. “I hope he wasn’t swallowed up in the crush outside.”
“I’m sure he wasn’t. A crowd of patronage-seekers is no match for a gentleman who commands entire armies.”
Kate smiled. “I’m sure you’re right.”
“Be careful what you say in this city, even in jest,” Mrs. Lincoln cautioned, linking her arm through Kate’s and strolling away from the other guests so that Kate was compelled to come along. “Rumors fly so swiftly in Washington that if I were to cross this room right now, I would not be surprised if the people on the other side greeted me with the dreadful news that General Scott met his demise at the hands of a mob on our front doorstep.”
Kate laughed easily. “Thank you for the warning. I’ll take heed, I assure you.”
“Speaking of rumors.” Mrs. Lincoln halted, slipped her arm free from Kate’s, and fixed her with an inscrutable look. “You do know the rumors circulating about us, don’t you?”
“Why, no,” said Kate. “Why should there be any rumors about you and me?”
“Because people enjoy gossip even more than they relish believing that accomplished women cannot get along.” Mrs. Lincoln smiled, but she glanced past Kate’s shoulder as if wary that they would be overheard. “They say that you and I are embroiled in a terrible feud.”
Kate was so astonished she laughed. “And what reason do they give for it?”
“My overwhelming jealousy at the attentions my husband showed you at the military ball given in his honor when we stopped in Columbus in February on our way to Washington.” Mrs. Lincoln’s smile tightened as she nodded to a cabinet official passing nearby. “They say he danced with you more often than was seemly and showered you in compliments, while I looked on, weeping by some accounts and seething according to others.”
“That’s nonsense,” Kate exclaimed, quickly lowering her voice. “I wasn’t even in Columbus when your train passed through.”
“Why, no, you weren’t, were you?” mused Mrs. Lincoln as if she had only just remembered—although an edge to her voice immediately told Kate that the perceived slight had been in the forefront of her thoughts all evening. “You knew the president-elect and his wife and sons would be passing through your own city, and yet some urgent business of far greater importance compelled you away.”
“Not of greater importance, but essential nonetheless.” Kate drew herself up to her full height and regarded the first lady steadily. “Governor Dennison had appointed my father a state delegate to the Peace Convention. My family had already come to Washington City by the time you reached Columbus, or I would have been there to meet you. I trust Governor Dennison’s wife welcomed you as well as I would have done.”
Mrs. Lincoln’s smiled deepened and hardened. “Or better, perhaps. Almost certainly better.”
With that, she moved off in a swirl of silk skirts, leaving Kate watching after her, utterly astonished.
Soon thereafter, word came that General Scott was ill and would not be able to join them after all. Mr. Nicolay signaled for the Marine Band to strike up a spirited march, and as the brisk, merry tune played, Kate quickly composed herself, found her father, and let him lead her into the state dining room. Mr. Lincoln’s place was in the middle of one side of the long table rather than at the head, while Mrs. Lincoln sat opposite him, and the others were seated all around according to rank. Kate found herself across the table from a Mr. William Howard Russell, a correspondent for the London Times, who seemed as charmed by Kate’s conversation as she was by his wit and accent.
The food was excellent, the talk around the table bright and lively and quick, but whenever Mr. Lincoln spoke, all other voices hushed and all faces turned to him expectantly as he spun an amusing tale or made a point with a clever witticism. From the first course to the sweets, Mrs. Lincoln was so merry and chatty and smiling that Kate found herself wondering if she had imagined the strange confrontation in the Blue Room.
After the meal, the gentlemen withdrew to the Red Room, but just before the ladies were led off to an adjoining drawing room, Kate observed Mr. Nicolay whisper in her father’s ear, and then in Mr. Seward’s, and on to each member of the cabinet in turn. Just before a servant closed the door between the rooms, Kate glimpsed Mr. Lincoln and his cabinet quietly disappearing into another chamber while the other gentlemen lit cigars and poured brandy, apparently oblivious to their quiet departure.
Kate frowned at the closed door. Her curiosity would have to remain unsatisfied until the drive home, when her father would surely tell her everything.
She chatted easily with the other ladies, even Mrs. Lincoln, but her thoughts were with her father, wondering what intriguing subjects of national importance the men were discussing. Had the president finally decided whether to send provisions to Major Anderson’s men holding Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor? Had Virginia at last declared its intention to remain in the Union or to secede with the South? How she wished she could put an ear to the wall and listen. Her father was open and frank when he confided to her the substance of such clandestine conferences, but sometimes he missed the subtleties of tone and implication and expression, and thereby a significant amount of any conversation. He relied upon her for those observations, and for a great deal more besides.
She managed to stifle a sigh of relief when at last the gentlemen rejoined the ladies. She sensed a new tension in the air as she studied the cabinet secretaries and tried to read their expressions, but like her father, they were careful to maintain a facade of the former joviality of the party. She noticed that Mrs. Lincoln’s keen gaze was often upon the president’s face, and she knew that Mrs. Lincoln was as eager to hear his account of the secret meeting as Kate was to hear her father’s.
When the evening at last drew to a close, Kate slipped on her shawl, took her father’s arm, and bade Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln good night. “I do hope we will prove all the rumors false and become good friends,” Kate told the First Lady quietly while her father and the president were otherwise distracted. “There is already too much division in our country for us to contribute to it. If malicious gossips are eagerly anticipating a fight between us, let’s conspire to disappoint them.”
“Why, I hope we will become good friends too,” Mrs. Lincoln replied grandly, too loudly and too brightly, not for Kate but for everyone else. For Kate she reserved a private, haughty glare that announced she meant not a word of it. “I shall be glad to see you at any time, Miss Chase.”
Kate’s temper flared. She had spoken with utter frankness and sincerity, but Mrs. Lincoln was determined to be disagreeable. “Mrs. Lincoln,” she said, smiling graciously, “I shall be glad to have you call on me at any time.”
Mrs. Lincoln’s eyes widened with shock at her impudence, but Kate’s smile only deepened as she turned and left the White House on her father’s arm.
Those who had overheard the exchange might conclude that Kate had innocently misspoken, that because of her youth and inexperience she was unaware of the custom that decreed that the First Lady did not call on others. Mrs. Lincoln was first in Washington society by virtue of her husband’s exalted position, and so, as an inviolable rule, others came to her. But it had been no girlish mistake. Kate understood precedent perfectly well, and she knew that by assuming that Mrs. Lincoln would call upon her like any other lady of Washington society might, she was claiming a higher rank than the First Lady.
Kate knew it, and Mrs. Lincoln knew it too.
Kate had tried to befriend her, but she had been coldly and unreasonably rebuffed. She would not try again.
If Mrs. Lincoln was determined to have a rival, Kate would be happy to oblige.