Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of KATHERINE DUER MACKAY, 1878-1930
By Donna Greene, independent historian
Socialite, founder of the Equal Franchise Society (1908)
Like a nova, Katherine Duer Mackay appeared on the scene suddenly around 1908 as one of the most effective stars in the quest for women's suffrage and then quickly exploded into oblivion due to her scandalous affair with her husband's doctor.
Today, the woman who might otherwise have been remembered with the likes of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Carrie Chapman Catt as among the most influential suffragists of her time is instead remembered – when remembered at all – as the mother-in-law of Irving Berlin.
Even at the time of her death her activities on behalf of the women's vote were not even mentioned in her April 20, 1930 New York Times obituary until the sixth paragraph. The sole reference states:
"While she was Mrs. Clarence H. Mackay, Mrs. Blake [her name upon her remarriage] was prominent in New York society, entertained a great deal and was noted for her beauty, her distinctive taste in dress and in decoration and also as a supporter and active worker for various causes that appealed to her, including the campaign for women's suffrage."
It did not always appear that her legacy would be so short-lived and forgotten. Born in New York City in 1878, her parents Ellen (sometimes spelled Ellin) and William Alexander Duer, a lawyer, traced descendants to the British aristocracy. In 1898, at the age of 19, she married Clarence H. Mackay, who became chairman of the Postal Telegraph-Cable Company and was one of the wealthiest people in the city. Known for her beauty, charm and elegant taste, she was an influential member of New York society both in Manhattan and in the summer retreat for the rich and famous of Newport, Rhode Island.
Her evolution into an important advocate for women's suffrage (and her eventual fall) is well-documented by Johanna Neuman in her 2017 book Gilded Suffragists, The New York Socialites Who Fought for Women's Right to Vote. (New York University Press).
"Katherine Duer Mackay...was an unlikely choice to lead the suffrage charge," Neuman writes. She hosted extravagant dinners, presided over a home designed by Stanford White (called Harbor Hill, in Roslyn, N.Y.) and in 1904 published a novel, The Stone of Destiny. She was frequently written about in the newly emerging society pages of newspapers and other publications.
Her first venture into the political world appears to have been in 1905 when the mother of three ran for a seat on the school board in Roslyn. Although women were not then allowed to vote in municipal elections in New York, they did have the right to vote – and run – in school board races. She was elected (the first woman), embracing a reform agenda that including the end of corporal punishment.
As detailed by Neuman, Mackay did not initially espouse the women's suffrage cause. However, as one of the first members of the Colony Club, an all-women's social club that originated in Newport but flourished in New York in 1907, she and other members softly and privately debated the issue and heard from prominent speakers.
"In its first years, the Colony Club had seen the growth of society's involvement in suffrage," writes Neuman. "Within its wall raged a debate over whether the vote would bolster or weaken their inherent social power, the step child of privilege."
Venturing into activism outside of the Colony Club, Mackay showed off her feminine side, always well-dressed and charming. As described and quoted by Neuman, Harriet Stanton Blatch, the daughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, was the first of the suffrage leaders to recognize Mackay's potential importance.
"Blatch thought the situation clear. ‘Here was a young and beautiful woman, a social leader, longing for a broader stage to move upon than the usual outlet given by fashionable society.'"
With Blatch's help, Mackay launched in 1908 the Equal Franchise Society, described by Neuman as an invitation-only group "organized not to reach the masses but to invite the elite to experiment with a ladylike approach to the public square."
It was eventually housed at One Madison Avenue, on the 29th floor of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Building.
Most significant, her involvement helped the suffrage movement raise funds via sold-out speaking engagements and intense press attention. "Mackay understood that reporters who came to ‘cover her clothes' could also be enticed to take a statement on suffrage," Neuman writes.
In 1909, she traveled to Albany to lobby legislators for a constitutional amendment to give women the vote. Despite the lack of success, she rejected more boisterous tactics, declining to introduce Emmeline Pankhurst, the militant English suffragist, at a fundraising event.
And then it was all over. The nova exploded. The press turned against her. First it was for relatively small reasons: they said she was getting too arrogant or only into the movement for selfish reasons.
Then there was the scandal. She fell in love with Dr. Joseph A. Blake, a prominent surgeon who had operated on Clarence Mackay's throat in 1910. Rumors were rampant. She resigned from the Roslyn school board in 1911 and finally in 1913 , she and Clarence were divorced. Blake's wife sued Katherine Mackay for alienation of affection, and the newspapers covered the scandal at every stage. By then her activities on behalf of the vote had diminished, in fact she had surrendered her American citizenship to obtain her divorce in France.
She and Blake were married in Paris within 24 hours of his divorce -- a marriage that also ended when, while she was dying of cancer, Blake divorced her to marry a 24-year-old nurse.
Katherine Duer Mackay Blake died of bronchial pneumonia at her residence in New York City on April 19, 1930. She had three children with her first husband, including a daughter who married composer Irving Berlin, and four children with her second husband.
New York Times database, various articles
Johanna Neuman, Guilded Suffragists, The New York Socialites Who Fought for Women's Right to Vote (New York: New York University Press, 2017).
Old Fulton New York Post Cards, database, various articles: http://www.fultonhistory.com/Fulton.html