Chase, Ilka

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Born 8 April 1905, New York, New York; died 15 February 1978, Mexico City

Daughter of Francis D. and Edna Wollman Chase; married Louis Calhern, 1926; William Murray, 1938; Norton S. Brown, 1946

A descendant of revolutionary-war diarist John Woolman, Ilka Chase spent her life among the wealthy, fashionable New Yorkers who people her writings. Educated in French convents and U.S. private schools after her parents' divorce, Chase was a Broadway actress (over 20 roles), a film star (over 30 movies), and a radio and television personality (Luncheon at the Waldorf, Penthouse Party, Kraft Theater, The Defenders).

Civilized and witty rather than profound, Chase's two-volume autobiography (Past Imperfect, 1942; Free Admission, 1948) anecdotally describes her stage and screen experiences, as well as her relationships with her husbands and with such literary and theatrical personalities as Clare Booth Luce and Dorothy Thompson. Disturbed in a conventional way by the horrors of fascism and war, Chase reacts even more strongly to their trivial intrusions upon her civilized life: dirty trains, boring army towns, inexplicable delays, and the inevitable depersonalization of the time.

Chase's In Bed We Cry (1943) and I Love Miss Tilli Bean (1946), her first two novels, provide coolly cynical insights into the cosmetics and fashion industry of the period: Chase's characters are self-deceiving as well as customer-deceiving. Like all her heroines, Devon Wainwright and Tilli Bean are handsome and gifted women seeking success in a man's world. Chase adapted In Bed We Cry for the stage, playing the lead herself to popular though not critical acclaim in Boston and Philadelphia, before bringing the show to Broadway, where it failed.

Chase's subsequent novels are less successful than the first two, with the exception of The Island Players (1956). This novel mingles gossipy revelations about the private lives of often-married and divorced theater people and their defenses against aging with moments of brilliant slapstick comedy. As in all Chase's novels, brittle sophistication and assumed cynicism do not preclude a happy ending; her heroines always end up with the man of their dreams.

In a series of travel books, illustrated by her husband's photographs, Chase socializes with the international set, interviews leaders of newly emergent nations, and admires most what is least Westernized in each country visited. Despite Chase's sympathy for the aspirations of her hosts, however, she expresses a typically ethnocentric pessimism about their chances for survival.

Chase's other works, Always in Vogue (with her mother, 1954), Lady's Pleasure (an anthology, 1946), and The Care and Feeding of Friends (recipes and social behavior, 1972), posit an audience with the time, money, and inclination to create a private world of gaiety and sophistication within the surrounding chaos of 20th-century America.

Charming at first, Chase's writing soon becomes predictable, formulaic, unexciting. Aware of the major issues of her time, Chase lacks both the ability to treat them profoundly and the discretion to avoid them. Her frequent stylistic device of twisting clichés ("he worshipped the ground she trotted on") wears thin, yet reflects accurately the repartée of New York in the 1930s and 1940s. As a self-proclaimed feminist who refused to join any movement, Chase is thus a valuable source of anecdotes from that world, in which women carved out individual careers in fields where their gender was the focus of their profession: fashion, theater, radio, and television.

Other Works:

New York 22: That District of the City Which Lies between Fiftieth and Sixtieth Streets, Fifth Avenue, and the East River (1951). Three Men on the Left Hand (1956). Carthaginian Rose (1961). Elephants Arrive at Half-Past Five (1963). Second Spring and Two Potatoes (1965). Fresh from the Laundry (1967). The Varied Airs of Spring (1969). Around the World and Other Places (1970). The Sounds of Home (1972). Worlds Apart (1972). Dear Intruder (1977).


NYT (19 Feb. 1978).