For White Shoe
“In White Shoe, John Oller traces America’s earliest super lawyers, hard-charging Wall Streeters who tilted history in the building of the Panama Canal, the birth of gargantuan American businesses, and the pursuit of world peace. A riveting portrayal of the swaggering advocates who deftly pulled the most important strings while raking in the biggest fees.”
- David O. Stewart, author of The Summer of 1787 and Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln’s Legacy
“John Oller has written a book both unique and valuable: a secret history of the original White Shoes, the lawyers of the Gilded Age. Everyone has heard of J. P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller, but few are aware of the attorneys who did their bidding, figures such as Paul Cravath, Francis Stetson, William Cromwell, and Elihu Root. In sparkling prose, Oller captures their clever courtroom connivances, but also their surprising commitment to reforming the very system they fought to uphold. A highly illuminating read.”
- Justin Martin, author of Greenspan: The Man Behind Money, and A Fierce Glory: Antietam—The Desperate Battle that Saved Lincoln and Doomed Slavery
“This well-written and meticulously researched book documents the rise of the big American law firm, the modernization of its management, and the men who led them during the early twentieth century. Mr. Oller develops their involvement in many of the large cases of the day, ranging from antitrust, corporate and federal securities law, labor law, taxation, bankruptcy, regulation, international law and of course constitutional law. As a collective they represented all parts of the American political spectrum, including the Progressive movement through such people as Louis Brandeis and Samuel Untermyer. This is an extremely well executed collective biography of both the people and the law firms that they created. It should be on the shelf of anyone interested in the development of the American legal profession.”
- Herbert Hovenkamp, James G. Dinan University Professor, Univ of Pennsylvania School of Law and The Wharton School, and author of Antitrust Law
“Entertaining ... Mr. Oller, a biographer and former Wall Street lawyer, highlights the role of the white-shoe firms in making their corporate clients understand that the times were changing in an age of reform.”
- Wall Street Journal
“A lucid account of the rise of the modern law firm and the concomitant rise of the modern corporation. Massive law firms abound in the world's financial capitals, organized according to principles set forth by a young lawyer named Paul Cravath in the last years of the Gilded Age. Lawyers today know his last name in connection with organizational methods that are still in place—what Oller (The Swamp Fox: How Francis Marion Saved the American Revolution, 2016, etc.), who spent three decades as a Wall Street lawyer, calls "the creation of a new organizational society." However, as the author shows, Cravath had more in mind than just regularizing office procedures. He and other "white shoe" lawyers of his time, such as William Cromwell and Elihu Root, carved legal paths that led to the current notion that a corporation has legal personhood, organizing a body of laws that helped corporations avoid regulations while enjoying as much economic freedom and wealth as possible. As Oller notes, these lawyers tended to be conservative, even reactionary; a notable example was John Foster Dulles, an entrenched foe of the New Deal, "which Dulles viewed as a threat to free enterprise." At the same time, however, the white shoe lawyers helped develop legal limits that kept the corporations from pushing too hard, with Cravath developing methods for raising capital that curbed the practice of "watering stocks" and proposing "greater restrictions on the issue of new securities than in the past." The corporations were not always grateful, and though the rise of the modern company tracks closely with the parallel rise of the big modern law firm, not all the Wall Street players followed suit in Cravath's devotion to institution-building. Most, however, opted for the big-firm, multipartner, all-for-one model, and even if Cravath would later call big business "the most serious menace of our age in its social consequences upon American life," his model prevails. Students of economic and legal history will find Oller's book insightful and revealing.”
- Kirkus Reviews
“Oller, a retired partner from the New York law firm Willkie Farr & Gallagher, makes the history of such firms surprisingly fascinating in this nuanced look at how their formation and development during the Progressive Era (1890–1916) “led to the creation of a new organizational society” in the United States. Relying on a variety of sources, including oral histories, judicial decisions, and congressional hearings, Oller traces the origins of the “white shoe” law firm back to the 1890s, when law firms shifted from employing clerks with no legal training to hiring skilled graduates from the nation’s top law schools. With the increase in the number, complexity, and size of corporations, lawyers were needed less as courtroom advocates than as practical businessmen able to negotiate disputes with rivals or the government. Oller shows how lawyers’ influence extended well beyond corporate boardrooms; the book’s most interesting section delineates the pivotal role that attorney William Cromwell played in the building of the Panama Canal, which may have included inciting Panama’s revolt against Colombia. Oller doesn’t shy away from detailing early corporate lawyers’ role as tools of monopolistic robber barons, or the endemic prejudice against Jewish lawyers. That balance makes this a valuable addition to the literature on America’s transformation during the Gilded Age.”
- Publisher’s Weekly (starred review)
“An engaging and revealing tale regarding the handful of New York City attorneys who effectively created big business as we’ve known it.”
- Corporate History International (blog)
“In his legal history of the period 1890–1920, retired attorney Oller explains how ‘white shoe’ Wall Street law firms, by representing the interests of their clients, helped steer the United States between the extremes of unchecked capitalism and the alternative of state socialism. Prominent lawyer Paul Drennan Cravath, Oller says, created the model for white shoe firms with his focus on efficiency, teamwork, and the hiring and grooming of young associates fresh from top law schools. Oller recounts the role of attorney William Nelson Cromwell in lobbying the U.S. government to take over his French client’s project that ultimately resulted in the Panama Canal. Using brief biographical sketches, Oller introduces a host of prominent white shoe attorneys including Elihu Root, Charles Evans Hughes, and John Foster Dulles. He traces their contributions in establishing landmark case law, influencing legislation, advising presidents, and filling key government posts. These elite attorneys, according to Oller, were brilliant, religious, charitable, and patriotic.
”VERDICT This fast-paced history of the period from the white shoe perspective will be both entertaining and enlightening for most readers.”
- Library Journal
“If you’re not familiar with the term “white shoe,” never fear. Author and retired Wall Street lawyer John Oller explains this and much more in the captivating White Shoe: How a New Breed of Wall Street Lawyers Changed Big Business and the American Century. (For the record, “white shoe” refers to the white buck shoes worn by the Ivy League college men who shaped the leading firms on Wall Street.)
If Oller once wrote dry, impenetrable legal briefs, there’s no hint of it here. His narrative sparkles with details that set this study of the legal profession’s influence on big business into a fascinating historical context. Oller begins at the turn of the 20th century, when most lawyers were willing to adopt the newly introduced paper clip—but not much else. (The profession was also slow to use telephones and typewriters.)
Enter Paul Cravath, one of several colorful figures brought to life in Oller’s book. Cravath launched an entirely new model of management for a law firm, and represented George Westinghouse in a legal battle with Thomas Edison in what has become known as the “light bulb war.” Other figures who reshaped the profession were Frank Stetson, who represented J.P. Morgan; William Nelson Cromwell, the man who “taught the robber barons how to rob”; and John Foster Dulles, who, Cravath argues, had a large hand in shaping the entire 20th century.
In an epilogue, Oller quotes attorney Paul Cravath in 1929, before the stock market crash, who opines that big business is “perhaps the most serious menace of our age in its social consequences upon American life.” Now, nearly a century later, as America continues to grapple with the role of corporations in politics and policy-making, it’s worth looking back at the men and forces that have made big business what it is today.”
“John Oller describes how Paul Cravath, William Nelson Cromwell and their ilk advised the plutocrats of the early 20th century and in the process created the modern law firm.”
“As a historian, the author displays a masterful grasp of the public figures, politicians, business innovations, capital formation strategies, social conditions and legislative reforms that do the story justice. Impressively researched . . . As Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. once observed, one must look back to understand properly what is happening today or what will happen tomorrow. This book promotes such understanding.”
- New York Law Journal
“This book offers a fascinating and distinctive perspective on the 20th century, on the legal profession in American life, and its mark on Wall Street. It is worth a read.”
- The Federal Lawyer magazine
For The Swamp Fox
“Not only a new Francis Marion, but a new American Revolution emerges from these riveting pages. Best of all, John Oller has performed this feat with solid, totally convincing research. This is a book that every American will learn from—and enjoy.”
- Thomas Fleming, bestselling author of The Great Divide
“John Oller’s thrilling narrative drops us into the steamy swamps of South Carolina as Francis Marion and his small militia repeatedly bloody larger, veteran redcoat armies, often serving as the only surviving patriot force between the British and fall of the colony. The Swamp Fox paints a vivid portrait of the unassuming man who created a new, potent brand of guerrilla warfare, one that balanced audacity with tactical genius and resolute ethics. Oller’s engaging work rightfully places Marion in the first ranks of great American heroes.”
- John F. Ross, author of War on the Run: The Epic Story of Robert Rogers and the Conquest of America’s First Frontier
“John Oller’s The Swamp Fox is a much anticipated fresh look at the life of Francis Marion, focusing on Marion’s distinguished military career during the American Revolution. Incorporating historical material either previously inaccessible or overlooked, Oller has not simply built on previous biographies. Instead, he offers new perspectives on our lowcountry South Carolina partisan told within an engaging narrative that situates Marion’s campaigns within the greater British and American strategies. For those interested in the Swamp Fox, or partisan warfare, this book is highly recommended.”
- Steven D. Smith, Research Associate Professor, University of South Carolina, and author of Archaeological Perspectives on Partisan Communities: Francis Marion at Snow’s Island in History, Landscape, and Memory
“A tour de force—a scholarly presentation which has been long needed. Brilliantly written and documented.”
- Christine Swager, author of The Valiant Died: The Battle of Eutaw Springs
“Well written, well researched, fast paced, it deserves a large reading audience."
- John Buchanan, author of The Road to Guilford Courthouse
"A captivating and long overlooked study of a little known chapter in the American Revolution. Oller's work should be read by all students of early American history and in particular by those interested in better understanding how the American Revolution was won."
- New York Journal of Books
"In his latest work, Oller (American Queen) details how during the American Revolution South Carolina forces led by Continental Army officer Francis Marion ensnared the British Army into guerilla-style warfare that alleviated pressure on George Washington's troops in the North. Marion used his militia to outwit the British by fighting unconventional battles. Oller effectively describes these conflicts along with Marion's leadership style, which included not allowing his soldiers to partake in any reprisals; if they did, there would be harsh discipline. Oller's exemplary knowledge about South Carolina's forgotten tussle during the revolution will engage readers interested in works such as Walter B. Edgar's Partisans and Redcoats, John W. Gordon's South Carolina and the American Revolution, and Henry Lumpkin's From Savannah to Yorktown. VERDICT Highly recommended for military aficionados and students of Southern U.S. history or the American Revolution."
- Library Journal
"Oller's account of Marion and the South Carolina battleground gives readers a fresh view of a lesser-known Revolutionary War campaign,"
- Publisher's Weekly
"Not many people today are likely to know much about Francis Marion. . . That’s a shame, because the . . . Swamp Fox . . . was one of the most effective fighters for the Patriot cause in the war for American independence. John Oller has written a book that easily and entertainingly corrects that deficiency. . . Oller has created a revealing synthesis of the wartime general who so effectively stymied British plans in the Carolinas and the private man who avoided the limelight whenever he could, preferring to attend to his family and estate. . . Francis Marion’s masterful campaigns in the Carolinas earned him his place as perhaps America’s greatest guerilla fighter. . . What he was, was the right man for the right job at the right moment in history. John Oller’s new book makes that argument very convincingly."
- Carolina Chronicles Magazine
"In recent decades, special forces have emerged as the “go-to” troops of the American military . . .their mission is to harass the fringes of larger forces, using ambushes as a force-multiplier, and to provide intelligence to the troops that they support. The master of such fighting during the American Revolution was Francis Marion . . . Mr. Oller's deeply researched book is rich with details on how intelligence contributed to America's independence, and desribes techniques used by American special forces today. A splendid military read."
- Washington Times
"Now, Marion has the biography he deserves."
- Houston Press
"A well-researched biography . . . packed with fascinating tidbits for those who cannot get enough of military histories and/or accounts of the American Revolution."
- Infodad.com: Family-Focused Reviews
"Oller had done an impressive job documenting the life and times of Francis Marion . . . Despite the sparse available data for portions of Marion's life, Oller manages to fill in the gaps with enough surrounding history to keep the narrative flowing."
- What Would the Founders Think? (website)
"John Oller's new biography of Francis Marion has rescued the story of a patriot and a military genius . . . Oller presents a balanced portrait of a man whose contributions went beyond his military prowess. . . Oller’s narrative style conveys the excitement of Marion’s life as the “Swamp Fox” and the excitement and horror of war. It also provides a clearly understandable description of troop movements and geography that enables the reader to understand the physical aspects of the story. Modern readers will recognize place names they see on summer trips to the beach."
- Roanoke (VA) Times
"John Oller sets the record straight in this separation of the myth from the real Revolutionary War hero who became known to us as the Swamp Fox for his cunning guerrilla tactics against the British. , , , Oller chronicles the action with flush detail, carrying us from one skirmish to the next ambush, while watching Marion narrowly dodge the death squads sent out by the Redcoats. . . . Whoever said that history had to be boring? The way Oller writes it, you won’t be able to put it down."
- Seattle Book Review
"The publication of John Oller’s The Swamp Fox is . . . good news for readers eager for a fresh look at the South Carolina partisan. . . He employs primary sources to good effect, including the pension declarations that have proved invaluable to students of the Southern Campaign. His book also benefits from use of the fine secondary work on the war in the South that has appeared in the past few years. As a result, Oller is able to shed light on the many Marion anecdotes and apocrypha left behind in the wake of Parson Weems. While he approaches the Swamp Fox legend critically, Marion himself emerges from this study with his reputation for enterprise and patriotism intact. . . Longtime aficionados of the Rev War in the South will appreciate the insights in The Swamp Fox, but Oller’s book is also accessible to readers who are new to the subject. Informed, illuminating, and engaging, it’s a welcome addition to the literature on the battle for American independence."
- Past in the Present (history blog site)
"Oller delivers an eminently readable and interesting account of Marion's life . . . I highly recommend 'The Swamp Fox' to both casual readers as well as to Revolutionary War historians."
- Gene Procknow ("The Human Spirit, Nature and the American Revolution" website)
"This is a refreshingly honest and well-written account of a genuine American hero. . . a very good book–solid history told in an exciting but not over-the-top or fawning manner."
- Jim Lee (author blog)
"An excellent book that describes the exploits of one of the saviors of the American Revolution in the South."
- Collected Miscellany (book readership blog)
"There are those of us old enough to remember The Swamp Fox, an 8 episode television series presented by Walt Disney about the courageous soldier and leader in America’s Revolutionary War, Francis Marion. This book, by John Oller, takes the romantic embellished historical figure of the TV and folklore, providing a detailed and well documented biography . . . He brings Francis Marion to life . . . This is a very detailed and informative book about this man, his life, and his importance in the success of the Revolutionary War. It was an absolute pleasure to read and learn about so important an individual to this nations’ freedom."
- Portland Book Review
"It’s surprising that it has taken as long as it has to have a genuinely new and insightful book about Marion, but that is exactly what we have in John Oller’s The Swamp Fox: How Francis Marion Saved the American Revolution. Oller is not a professional historian, but a journalist and a lawyer. This is noteworthy because being both probably taught him to do something too many professional historians seem either incapable or unwilling to do today; tell a good story in a well-written narrative. Oller does just that, but he also does more. His is a military biography that goes right to core of what we most want to know about Marion. We want to know about General Marion the warrior, the tactician, the master of guerrilla warfare, the leader of men in battle. This is precisely what we get. Oller puts real history behind the legend of Marion, giving us a detailed and engaging account of The Swamp Fox’s military career. Beside the clear prose, the great strength of Oller’s book is the solid research behind it. . . . Oller is able to tell us more about Marion than any previous biographer. The picture we have is of a real man who was every bit as extraordinary as the legend, a master of partisan warfare and a true patriot who deserves a place alongside Washington in the pantheon of heroes of America’s Revolutionary era."
- Jeff Rogers, Abbeville Institute
"John Oller delivers the goods. Well-researched, footnoted thoroughly, yet very readable, Oller has given us a book we’ve needed and wanted for several decades."
- Marion D. Aldridge ("Where the Pavement Ends," book review website)
"Anyone who loves American history or military history would love this book."
- Minneapolis Star-Tribune
"John Oller’s The Swamp Fox: How Francis Marion Saved the American Revolution may be the best Marion biography to come out in recent years. Oller’s extensive research strips away the myths and legends of previous biographies in depicting a man of unquestionable character that became one of the fathers of modern guerrilla warfare. Oller’s Francis Marion is singularly responsible for resurrecting the spirit for independence in South Carolina and reversing the tide of defeat for American patriot forces. . . .Historians and students of the American Revolution alike will be impressed with Oller’s depiction of Marion and his efforts to resurrect the spirit for independence in South Carolina during the dark days of 1780."
- Military Review (the professional journal of the US Army)
"In The Swamp Fox, biographer John Oller presents a carefully researched account of the life of South Carolina militia general and guerilla leader Francis Marion, one of the American Revolution’s most divisive and elusive figures. With an engaging narrative and a level of detail sure to delight many military historians and enthusiasts alike, Oller reconstructs Marion’s participation in the Revolutionary War . . . The strength of Swamp Fox lies in the meticulous detail in which Oller presents Marion’s exploits. Mining military records on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as scholarly works and remembrances from the early nineteenth century to the present, the author guides the reader through each of Marion’s battles and deftly reconstructs the swampy arena in which they took place. The cast of characters around the general are also fleshed out well, as are his British and loyalist opponents, lending the descriptions of campaigns and battles a rich and layered character. This level of detail allows Oller to convincingly portray Marion as “one of the earliest guerilla warriors who understood the importance of moral, material, and intelligence support from the local civilian population,” comparing the Swamp Fox to more well-known leaders of popular resistance movements like Mao Zedong (p. 107). . . Well researched and satisfyingly written."
For American Queen:
“Beautiful, brilliant, and wildly ambitious, Kate Chase was a master of political intrigue and behind-the-scenes power in an era when women were told to be seen and not heard. A terrific work of historical research and reconstruction, American Queen follows her fascinating but forgotten life to tell the story of the Civil War and its scandalous aftermath—its assassinations, impeachments and sexual hijinks—from an entirely fresh perspective."
- Debby Applegate, Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher
“No woman of her time walked as close to the power of the land as Kate Chase Sprague. None of the men in her life exceeded her in ambition and drive, or in intriguing for success. John Oller’s American Queen eloquently traces her rise and fall, bringing out new material that gives context to an already rich life. Proud at her heights, unbroken by tragedy, this almost American Queen's story is as fascinating as it is improbable. In many respects this thoroughly nineteenth century woman sounds very modern, indeed.”
- William C. Davis, Civil War historian and prize-winning author
“A fascinating portrait of a strong, accomplished, and resilient woman, who was ahead of her time—and happens to be my great-great grandmother!"
- Kris Carr, New York Times best-selling author and motivational speaker
“The story of Kate Chase literally jumps off the page in John Oller’s brilliant evocation of her tumultuous life. She is the Northern Scarlett O’Hara, whose political and social ambitions—and machinations worthy of Machiavelli—ultimately consume her. Oller’s skilled and even-handed treatment of his subject allows the reader to empathize with this fascinating and complex woman despite her flaws.”
- Heath Hardage Lee, author of Winnie Davis: Daughter of the Lost Cause
“John Oller’s book adds many new dimensions to one of the most famous women in the United States in the 19th Century.”
- Richard Vangermeersch, Professor Emeritus, University of Rhode Island and librettist for the opera, William Sprague and His Women
“Oller details Sprague’s fascinating life, introducing readers to an inspiring woman in spite of her faults: haughtiness; personal, rather than ideological, politics; financial profligacy . . . an accessible, attention-grabbing work.”
- Publishers Weekly
“Oller’s work . . . 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.'”
- Kirkus Reviews
“In the wake of the recent resurgence of interest in the Civil War comes a biography of a once-formidable figure in the world of Washington whose fame is finally being rekindled. Oller . . . writes sympathetically of Kate Chase Sprague (1840-99), the daughter of Treasury Secretary and Chief Justice Salmon Chase. The author takes us through his subject's life as she moves from a high-class social butterfly who rubs elbows with the political elite, has designs on becoming first lady via her father's ascent to the presidency, and butts heads with Mary Todd Lincoln, to a poverty-stricken divorcee whose scandalous affair with a senator helped end her unhappy marriage to a volatile governor. Though some may view this as a sad tale, Oller depicts Chase as a headstrong, resilient, and ultimately content woman. - VERDICT - Well written, fast paced, and with a compelling attention to detail, this work should be a fascinating read for Civil War buffs [and] fans of Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals (in which Salmon Chase is a main character).”
- Library Journal
"Kate Chase is probably the most tragic story you’ve never heard from American History. The daughter of Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, Kate grew up with her eye on American Politics and raising herself as high as a woman at the time of the Civil War could. Hated by Mary Todd Lincoln, Kate was the envy of Senators’ wives at the time period. Though her youth was spent married to Senator (and then the Governor of Rhode Island) William Sprague, Kate was cheated on and treated with disdain. She died in poverty as an old woman, but always lived on her own terms.
In John Oller’s new book, American Queen, Kate Chase finally gets her say. Oller’s book is sympathetic and kind to a woman that men wanted and women wanted to be for most of her days in Washington DC. The book highlights the nature of the political climate as well as the changes to life after Lincoln’s unexpected assassination. Kate’s story is not an easy one to read and more than once I found myself angry for her, even as she maintained an aura of strength and poise like a figure of American royalty.
If you’ve never heard of Kate Chase or her contributions to American politics, now is the time to hear her story."
- Victoria Irwin, FangirlNation
“Mary Todd Lincoln was in her glory. 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 goodbye 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 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 at 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 was not allowed on the convention floor, 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, "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 half-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.”
- Chicago Tribune
"As Oller deftly delineates, Sprague’s story is fascinating in itself. She is a fit subject for a biography because of her commanding presence in an era when women were not expected to have any say in public affairs. She regularly made the national news and set a style and manner that showed what women could do given proximity to power. Even though she dressed in the constricting fashions of her time, she behaved boldly and decisively, thus giving the lie to the genteel conception of women as the tender second sex not meant to consort with dirty politicians in the public arena.
Oller commands his sources in a riveting narrative that is all the more persuasive because he does not make large claims for his subject. It is enough, he realizes, for a biography to portray and assess a remarkable human being — one who struggled with and overcame many of the confining conventions of her age — in her own terms."
- Minneapolis Star Tribune
"Oller proves that, without a doubt, [Kate Chase] influenced at least a quarter century of American politics and history in ways that really can’t be ignored. Women couldn’t vote when Kate, the daughter of Abraham Lincoln’s Treasury Secretary and Supreme Court Chief Justice Salmon Chase, made sure that she was at the center of everything that happened in Washington, D.C.
She wasn’t content to throw parties and look pretty, both of which she excelled at. She wanted to influence the course of things and she did. Oller makes the comparison that while for most citizens politics is local but for Kate politics were personal and she most of her influence trying to get her father, and later her lover, elected president.
She never succeeded but that didn’t stop her.
Another area of surprise is that even though Kate lived and moved over a century and a half ago, things haven’t changed much. The newspapers then, even far-flung ones in dusty Kansas towns, were fascinated by her. They reported on the clothes she wore, the men who courted her, the children she had, the parties she threw, and the affairs she may or may not have had. Celebrity” wasn’t a concept at the time, but she was a celebrity in every sense of the word. She refused to be limited by anything and the news media ate up everything she did.
This, in one of the most interesting sections of the biography, irritated Mary Todd Lincoln to no end and the supposed “war” between the two Washington hostesses is filled with vague half-truths concealing the actuality of what happened. It’s almost like a Civil War version of The Real Housewives of … and would play well in any gossip website.
AMERICAN QUEEN should be required reading for anyone taking a class in American history, anyone interested in this period of American history, and any woman who wants to know what ignoring societal limitations looks like."
- Adventures With Words (review website)
John Oller has written an absorbing book. For the most part the author is objective, leaving it to readers to draw their own conclusions. . . .
Oller drew upon family papers provided by Kate Chase’s descendants and other previously untapped resources to write this dramatic and meticulously researched story. It encompasses far more than this review reflects.
The author brings into focus a master of political intrigue and a beautiful, ambitious and resourceful woman who was determined to live life on her own terms. Oller’s book evokes an era and the American Queen who, for a time, ruled it."
- What Would the Founders Think (website)
“Anyone who thought hanky-panky began in Washington with John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson or Franklin Roosevelt would be quickly disabused of that notion by the life of Kate Chase as chronicled in American Queen.
Mr. Oller tells a story that sounds too good to be true, but he traces it back to a reliable source. Mary Lincoln, short, full-figured and 42, told Kate Chase, a willowy creature of 20, after a state dinner that she would be glad to see her visit at the White House. “Mrs. Lincoln, I shall be glad to have you call on me at any time,” Kate Chase replied, breaking both Washington protocol and broader rules of civility.
That story is one of many that Mr. Oller, a lawyer and former journalist, tells very well in his biography of the “American Queen.”
- Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
"Oller’s treatment of Kate is clearly sympathetic, but he is clear-eyed in relating her shortcomings . . . He believes that in her retirement years she achieved an inner peace and does not believe she was the tragic figure of popular history."
- Sandusky (Ohio) Register
"This immensely readable and grippingly sumptuous biography of Kate Chase Sprague (1840-99), an icon of the Gilded Age — she owned an $18,000 French silk dress — conjures up a charismatic and glamorous creature who stunned politicians, the press, presidential candidates from Garfield to Hayes to Horace Greeley, and most everyone within her mesmerizing range.
Some called her “stereotyped and stilted. There were no outburst of naturalness … a certain stateliness … an electrical power that does not magnetize.” Others fell under her spell, bewitched, bothered and bewildered.
She was the daughter of Salmon Chase, a stiff distant anti-slavery governor of Ohio, senator, Lincoln’s treasury secretary and Supreme Court chief justice, burning with a “maniacal desire for the presidency.” He linked the Lords of the Loom in the North to the Lords of the Lash in the South. Kate worked every angle for his success.
She married William Sprague, the “boy” governor, then senator from Rhode Island, who ran the biggest textile mill in the world, was worth $10 million, mercurial and volatile, and who admitted that his mind was “sadly disconnected.” He was 30. She was 20. Their marriage was a disaster from the start. Their only son of four children committed suicide. In the Panic of 1873, Sprague lost nearly everything. Later divorced Kate ended up selling eggs and milk from her father’s dilapidated mansion in Washington.
Oller, the biographer of ’30s film star Jean Arthur, plumbs the depths of Kate’s political acumen, including her moves which cost Samuel Tilden the presidential election in 1876. She fell in love with Roscoe Conkling, as “vain as a peacock, and a czar in arrogance,” head of the party machinery in New York, up to his neck in power plays and feuds. Their affair became the biggest scandal of the 19th century.
Kate knew politics, but for her it was personal, wheeling and dealing in parlors and at dinners in an age “in which monumental intraparty battles were fought over inconsequential patronage matters.” She fought for the role of top social diva versus Mary Lincoln. But it all amounted to not much.
Kate remains a glittering manikin who left no real legacy. Neither did Sprague, nor Conkling. But their lives appall and delight in this fascinating biography."
- Providence Journal
“[A] lively book…It’s a joy to say that a biography, even of someone you hadn’t heard of before, can be good fun all the way through.”
- Hudson Valley News
"immensely readable ... a fascinating balancing act."
- Civil War Book Review
“A ripped-from-the-headlines romp through the 1800s…A fascinating look at Kate Chase Sprague…A careful and vivid biography worthy of a read.”
- San Francisco Book Review
"John Oller has delivered a book full of engaging detail and captivating characters . . . Yet this vivid portrait of a vivacious and complex woman who defied the dictates of her day is no mere biography. . .
"Oller weaves in fascinating details of rivalries and alliances launched in Civil War Washington which influenced political agendas during Reconstruction and what followed, the so-called Gilded Age . . . [a] snap, crackle and popping narrative . . ."
- Civil War Monitor (Catherine Clinton)
"This book is magnificently presented with historical information that is quite astonishing. John Oller is an amazing strategist who takes you through the Civil War period with careful precision without belaboring the point. He concentrates on the woman...the one who lived long before her time but still is a lesson in progress today. Suffice it to say that Kate Chase Sprague would prove to be a political nemesis for many on the present campaign trail and she would do it with style and class. Beauty, brains and dignity. It is doubtful that anyone could trump that!"
- Front Royal (VA) Women's Resource Center
"American Queen is a strong biography. In well-written yet accessible prose, Oller provides a fascinating understanding of Chase’s life as a whole, from her marriage dynamics to her political maneuverings. The author does excellent work in locating the strand of Chase’s influence throughout the politics of the later nineteenth century. Perhaps most important, Oller’s insights regarding Chase’s political philosophy are a valuable contribution to the historiography of American politics from the 1860s to the 1880s. The work therefore comes recommended for general audiences and scholars alike."
For An All-American Murder:
“John Oller has taken up a murder case that Jim Yavorcik and I reported for the Ohio State Lantern when we were Ohio State University seniors in 1975-76. The comments that John has elicited on Facebook in this unsolved case show how the emotions and frustrations of the family, friends and classmates of Christie Mullins have been reignited nearly 40 years after the violent death of this 14-year-old girl . . . Exceptionally well written. It’s an insightful look into the angst that people can carry for decades when the criminal justice system is unable/unwilling to provide closure. The case should be re-opened.”
- Rick Kelly, Director of Crisis Communications, Triad Strategies, LLC, Harrisburg, PA
“Many of our lives were changed forever the day Christie Mullins was killed. John Oller did a great job researching. Please help get the truth out there.”
- Alan North, Columbus, Ohio
“Congrats to you John Oller for your well done report. It certainly brings home that this is still a cold case. I am glad that you put this together so that we could read about the crime with the eyes of adults. I hate that we lost her in the way that we did.”
- Mary Keenan Weidl, Westerville, Ohio
“A tragic, fascinating story well-told.”
- Greg Victor, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“I teared up through some of it . . . I miss her and time has not and will not change that. I think all of us feel the same. Thank you John.”
- Lisa Siegwald-Baird, Columbus, Ohio
“Well written and really ripe for cold-caser to pick it up. Would be great if it happened and articles like this are how that stuff gets back on the radar.”
- Jenny Murphy, Columbus, Ohio
For Jean Arthur:
“Jean Arthur is a fascinating study of a woman who was a living contradiction: an iconoclast who rose to the top in Hollywood, the land of the cookie cutter . . . a star who sunned all the trappings of stardom . . . a great actress who was continually plagued by self-doubt.
“I can’t say enough about this book. Oller has taken on a challenge that would have humbled many an experienced biographer. His sympathetic bent and attention to detail make this an exceptional piece of work in every way.
“Every time I think I’ve read all there is to read about vintage Hollywood, I’m disarmed and delighted to find original and important new books on the subject. Jean Arthur: The Actress Nobody Knew [is] among the best I’ve read in years.”
- Leonard Maltin, film critic
“A biography that neither blinks nor blurs in its examination of a very colorful and eventful life.”
- Los Angeles Daily News
“Jean Arthur starred in some of the brightest screwball and social comedies of the 1930s and '40s: Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, You Can't Take It With You, The More the Merrier, The Talk of the Town, The Devil and Miss Jones. Yet Arthur was something of a mystery woman: She shunned interviews, hated the trappings of Hollywood, wanted simply to do her work and be left alone.
“The fact that John Oller's biography is the first book about this much-loved star demonstrates how thoroughly Arthur succeeded in pulling a veil over her life. Oller's insightful, painstakingly researched analysis of Arthur's life and career raises the curtain on the complex, conflicted person behind the screen persona.
“For starters, Oller unearths the star's correct date and place of birth—1900 in Plattsburgh, N.Y. (most published materials, right up to the obituaries in 1990, incorrectly reported 1905 in New York City).
“Of all the aspects of her life Arthur strove to conceal, the most basic was that her easygoing naturalness, so appealing on the screen, was the result of a constant and conscious struggle to overcome crippling shyness and insecurity. Oller posits that her insecurity grew out of a rootless childhood and her troubled relationship with an errant father who meandered in and out of the family's life.
“After an early go at modeling in New York, Arthur went to Hollywood in 1923 and spent the next decade struggling for recognition. Discouraged, she returned to New York in 1931, appearing in several Broadway or Broadway-bound productions. She honed her craft, began to develop as a comic actress and got some good personal notices.
“Back in Hollywood by 1935, she found her long-awaited breakthrough as Edward G. Robinson's leading lady in The Whole Town's Talking. Soon she was starring opposite Gary Cooper, James Stewart and Cary Grant, working for such directors as Frank Capra, George Stevens and Howard Hawks.
“Yet as her acclaim and popularity grew, so did her insecurity. Having struggled for so long to achieve prominence, she became increasingly anxious about doing anything less than her best. After her last Columbia work in 1944, she made only two more films: A Foreign Affair (1948) and the western classic Shane (released in 1953).
“From the mid-'40s on, Arthur spent much of her energy trying to conquer Broadway. Her efforts resulted in one personal success—the hit 1950 revival of Peter Pan—and a string of abortive disasters.
“Her private life proved just as erratic, producing an unhappy love affair with producer David O. Selznick and a bumpy marriage to film executive Frank Ross that ended in divorce.
“Oller's sensitive and admiring book unfolds a strange, somewhat sad, yet fascinating life. Best of all, the author captures the special shine of a unique star who turned out to be a genuine eccentric, maddening at times, but lovable in her vivacious humanity.”
- Everett Evans, Houston Chronicle.
“It would appear that writing a compelling, readable, and entertaining biography is a daunting task. So many are dry, filled with facts and dates of little interest, or just plain dull. The difference here is that John Oller can actually WRITE. Ms. Arthur is, without doubt, one of the sorely neglected stars of any era. Her comic genius in The More the Merrier alone would merit a critical gushing today if anyone in the 21st century had even a modicum of the lady's superb timing and class. That she has appeared in several other classics (perhaps most notably Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) certainly warrants a full scale biography and Mr. Oller succeeds brilliantly.
“The notoriously private Ms. Arthur is not painted as arch nor perverse; simply a woman with a different take on life and Hollywood. She saw there was more to life than glamour and makeup (even attending college during career lulls) and her 'eccentric' personality becomes all the more endearing under Mr. Oller's critical, yet always fair, judgments. The book isn't overstuffed with facts and dates; just what is needed. I wish all biographers would realize that sometimes less is, indeed, more. Highly recommended.”
- Ralph Peters, Amazon customer review