Pretty Is As Pretty Does; Kate Chase

Beauty can't buy love. Courtesy Library of Congress
Beauty can’t buy love.
Courtesy Library of Congress

Kate Chase’s mother died when she was five. Her father Salmon P. Chase had the unlucky habit of marrying women who up and died. Kate was named after Salmon’s first wife when Kate was born to his second wife. After the death of Kate’s mother (the second wife) he married yet again. A bunch of Salmon’s kids died young so he was happy when another girl was born. Kate was not. Jealousy and unresolved grief made Kate a difficult child and so off she was sent to a rigorous New York City boarding school. (Difficult girls must be sent away).

Eventually the hated stepmother died too and Kate came back to her father an intelligent and stylish young lady with shared political ambitions for her father. Is it surprising that Mary Todd Lincoln hated her? Kate threw fantastic parties. She was young and pretty.

She was about eighteen years old, tall and slender and exceedingly well formed. . . . Her little nose, somewhat audaciously tipped up, could perhaps not have passed muster with a severe critic, but it fitted pleasingly into her face with its large, languid, but at the same time vivacious hazel eyes, shaded by long dark lashes and arched over by proud eyebrows. The fine forehead was framed in waving, gold-brown hair. She had something imperial in the pose of the head, and all her movements possessed an exquisite natural charm. No wonder that she came to be admired as a great beauty and broke many hearts. After the usual commonplaces, the conversation at the breakfast table, in which Miss Kate took a lively and remarkably intelligent part, soon turned itself upon politics.” Carl Schurz Wikipedia

Yet her wit and beauty could not save her from herself. Was it the tragedy of not having a mother and being hated by the other women in her life–including that horrible Mary Todd Lincoln that led her to marrying a loser? Her father was busy. Did he not notice the hearts she broke including that of a married man? This was before William Sprague.

William Sprague, dissipated ne'er-do-well
William Sprague, dissipated ne’er-do-well

Young William Sprague a newly elected senator from Rhode Island caught Kate’s eye in his dashing uniform. He’d made a name for himself at Bull Run and his family had heaps of money. The press loved their tumultuous relationship and then their wedding (Mary Todd Lincoln refused to attend).

I imagine that Kate fancied herself a good judge of character. She thought she knew best–for who else was there to mind her? Perhaps she cried herself to sleep at boarding school lonely and afraid of the city noise outside her window. Pretty girls with intelligence usually have more enemies than friends amongst their peers and the matronly and bitter old women who resent reminders of their wrinkles and lost dreams.

I imagine Washington society women vying for invites to her galas while secretly loving every new whisper about William Sprague’s drinking and open affairs. Ha! See how the mighty have fallen and wasn’t that tiara Kate wore ridiculous? Behind Kate’s enormous appetite for expensive shoes and furniture lurked the worst sort of self-loathing. With all my wit and beauty I’ve gotten no where, she may have thought on sad and rainy days in her mansions.

Her husband arrived home early to find her lover in their living space. It was rumored that Kate’s last two daughters where not William’s. They divorced. The daughters stayed with Kate, but the son went with daddy. When Kate’s son was 25 he killed himself. Was that the final straw? Kate lived out her days as a recluse (except for when her poverty forced her to sell eggs door to door).

What if women didn’t see women as rivals? What if we looked at the co-worker through the lens of mother, of fellow lonesome traveler, of a sympathetic daughter? What if Kate had a mother?

Thanks to Kate Loveton for introducing me to Miss Chase.

The Nanny Diaries 19th Century Style

black nannies

One of my best friends was  a nanny. Minding the children was the easy part. Living in the family’s basement (though it was a nice basement) with no car, no legal rights (she over stayed her visa) and no windows was kind of bleak. Thank God she had me to take her drinking in Hoboken every Friday night. I remember how attached the children got to her and how upset they were when she left. My friend always grew to resent the parents of these children–annoyed that they had so little time for their own kids.8679708b43595b144c4a073d9f95e458 She worked in a very prosperous part of New Jersey and the parents felt my friend was lucky to have the opportunity to mingle with  the cultural elite. I enjoyed it, but I could leave at any time.

I wonder what these women thought. Some of them may have been slaves but others definitely were hired on. Some photos are from the US, but some were taken in other parts of the world. Obviously no one thought there was anything shameful about having a nanny or a nurse as they were usually called in the 19th century. If you look carefully at the first picture it appears that this nanny (with the nicest eyes I’ve seen in a long time) was married. Men sometimes make you smile like she does–or maybe her employers loved her and she loved them.

Playing horsey in Brazil.
Playing horsey in Brazil.

Now sometimes when parenting or minding children we find ourselves in weird positions we wouldn’t like to share with the world but seem fun at the time. If this was just a snapshot it might not seem so odd but . . .

A relative of mine adopted a Korean child and pretty much treated her like a house servant. I wonder how my relatives rationalized it. The girl had a brief rebellion, took a job at a fast food joint and if I remember correctly started dating bad boys for a while. What blurred lines there are in life!

My mother’s friend had a 98-year-old mother who needed home care assistance (the old lady disagreed and would often get up extra early to do her own bath and fix her hair before the lady from Trinidad arrived. The helper soon became a dear friend to everyone in the family and remains so long after the feisty old woman’s death.

What do we make of imaginary boundaries? What should we make of color boundaries? If we saw white nannies in these pictures would we think it quaint? Home health care aides do the work none of us want to do, but work that is so very important to the poor person too sick or weak to do for themselves.5140655625_2604153e48

I love the girl in this picture. She doesn’t seem to be enjoying her job. She looks like a very modern teenager. She’s probably already annoyed with changing diapers. The mother’s body language almost suggests a tug of war for baby though the teenager could care less.

My mother who pretty much raised herself often wondered why people had children if they didn’t want to raise them. My grandmother liked men and sex, but I’m not so sure she loved the responsibilities of child-rearing. I wonder if these women sometimes felt as my friend did–a mix of sadness and possessiveness towards the children being raised by hired help.