Trask, Kate Nichols (1853–1922)

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Trask, Kate Nichols (1853–1922)

American writer and philanthropist who founded the Yaddo artists' colony. Name variations: Katrina Trask. Born on May 30, 1853, in Brooklyn, New York; died of bronchial pneumonia on January 8, 1922, at Yaddo, near Saratoga Springs, New York; daughter of George Little Nichols (an importer) and Christina Mary (Cole) Nichols; educated by tutors and in private schools; married Spencer Trask (a banker-financier), on November 12, 1874 (died 1909); married George Foster Peabody (a financierand philanthropist), on February 6, 1921; children: (first marriage) Alan, Christina, Spencer, Katrina (none survived early childhood).

Published first book after the deaths of her children (1892); planned Yaddo Artists' Colony (1913).

Selected works, under name Katrina Trask:

Under King Constantine (1892, first edition published anonymously, later editions published under Katrina Trask); Sonnets and Lyrics (1894); White Satin and Homespun (1896); John Leighton, Jr. (1898); Christalan (1903); Free, Not Bound (1903); Night & Morning (1907); King Alfred's Jewel (1908); In the Vanguard (1914); The Mighty and the Lowly (1915).

Kate Nichols was born in 1853 in Brooklyn, New York, daughter of Christina Cole Nichols and George Little Nichols. Her maternal grandparents had emigrated to New York from Holland early in the 1800s and anglicized the family name from "Kool" to "Cole." Her father, of English ancestry, was a partner in a large importing company based in New York City and a politically active Republican. Trask, who grew up in an environment of wealth and social prominence, demonstrated literary talent from childhood. She was educated by a series of tutors at home, then in elite private schools. On November 12, 1874, she married Spencer Trask, a banker with a prominent Wall Street bank. His family had been established in New England for generations, and during the industrial expansion that followed the Civil War, he had become a wealthy financier, a member of the board of directors of several railroads, and president of New York's Edison Illuminating Company. In 1896, Spencer and others organized and financed the restructuring of The New York Times and placed Adolph Ochs at the newspaper's helm. Spencer became chair of the reorganized publishing company.

Despite her early literary leanings, Trask did not start writing seriously until late in life. She and Spencer had four children—Alan, Christina, Spencer, and Katrina—but all died in infancy or early childhood, the last in 1888. Trask, who experienced profound grief, illness, and despondency over their deaths, turned to writing for solace. In 1892, urged on by her husband, she anonymously published Under King Constantine, a trio of long love poems. The book was a success, with one critic praising Trask's writing for its "spiritual loveliness." For the second edition (there would be five), she agreed to use the name Katrina Trask on that and all subsequent works. Trask wrote poems, sonnets, novels, blank verse, and plays from 1892 to 1915. Her most notable works include the novel Free, Not Bound (1903); the blank-verse narrative Night & Morning (1907); and King Alfred's Jewel (1908), a historical drama written in blank verse. A pacifist, Trask also wrote the antiwar play In the Vanguard (1914). First staged in the year preceding the start of World War I, it ran to eight editions, was performed widely for church groups and women's clubs, and became her best-known work.

Trask's works deal with love, marriage, spiritual strength and ethics, and romance. She was a conventionally religious woman whose style now seems sentimental; she employs emotional devices to represent her thoughts on social reform, pacifism, and morality. Her friends and literary associates were traditionalists like Henry van Dyke and Richard Henry Stoddard, who, at the turn of the 20th century, sought to preserve traditional values and cultural standards. The social crusader and editor of Arena magazine Benjamin O. Flower was also a friend of the Trasks. The couple entertained writers and artists at Yaddo, their 300-acre country estate near Saratoga Springs, New York. To Trask, Yaddo was an enchanted place, mystical and evocative.

Trask is also remembered for her philanthropy. The Trasks, who believed that the wealthy were obligated to improve society, supported many local charities over a number of years and established the St. Christina Hospital in Saratoga Springs for the care and treatment of crippled children. Ultimately, Yaddo itself became Trask's greatest accomplishment. In the summer of 1899, she experienced a mystical episode in which she envisioned the place as a wellspring of creativity for other artists. She saw her fellow artists making pilgrimages to Yaddo to "find the Sacred Fire, and light their torches at its flame." With no children to inherit the estate, the Trasks discussed the idea of making her vision a reality by converting the 55-room country home into an artists' colony after their deaths. In 1909, Spencer Trask perished in a railroad accident, and his wife began dedicating most of her efforts to the future of the estate. Four years later, in 1913, she made public the couple's plans for developing the property as an artists' residence. (The recently opened MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, founded by Marion MacDowell , offered artists a similar opportunity.) Also in 1913, Trask experienced a series of heart attacks that left her a semi-invalid. Confined physically to Yaddo, she focused on the financial development and future use of the estate.

On February 6, 1921, Trask married George Foster Peabody, a former business partner of Spencer Trask, who was a friend of long standing and fellow philanthropist. Less than a year later, on January 8, 1922, Trask died of bronchial pneumonia in her Yaddo home; she was buried on the grounds of the estate after a private Episcopal service. Yaddo was opened as an artists' colony four years later, in June 1926. The colony was designed so that artists could retreat there for periods of time, to work without being disturbed and without financial worry. The mansion, surrounded by woodlands, lakes, statuary, and rose gardens is the summer home of writers, artists, and composers every year as a living legacy of Kate Trask's patronage.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Gillian S. Holmes , freelance writer, Hayward, California