Writer and historian Catherine Grace Katz holds degrees in history from Harvard and Cambridge and is pursuing her JD at Harvard Law School. But it’s fair to say that she has always been both inspired and delighted by the lure of a good book. “I love the feel, the smell of books,” she recalls. “My first grade teacher at Greeley School in Winnetka, Miss White, let me go to the library every day. It was a special privilege. And every day, I was able to check out not one but two books. I was in heaven.”
Reading and learning were a clear focus of the high-achieving Katz household. “My earliest memories are of my mother (Andy Katz) reading to us. She read everything, from classics to Harry Potter,” says Katz, the eldest of three, with Oliver, 24, a University of Chicago graduate, now pursuing a master’s degree at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service and Anna, 18, a rising first year student, at the University of Chicago.
“Growing up in a place like Winnetka, with resources and schools that nurture the love of learning, is just amazing. At Greeley, there was a Young Authors program where our stories were made into actual books. And, the Star Lab brought the solar system to our library. But the best was the Pioneer Room for third-graders. We got to live like pioneers in Little House on the Prairie for an entire school day,” says Katz.
“And, throughout my life, our family’s favorite stops in town—Starbucks and then on to Winnetka’s Book Stall. It’s one of the greatest places in the world,” she says.
Books and baseball were two of Katz’s early, and enduring, interests. She played catch with her brother and dad, Marc Katz, in the backyard of their historic home. As a natural next step, her parents signed her up to play baseball while she was in grade school. The team consisted only of boys at the time, given that girls typically played softball.
“I liked to pitch,” she says, with a smile. Katz made the KWBA All-Star team. She continued playing baseball as the first girl to try out for the New Trier Boys’ team.
“Mom was one of eight girls, and my grandmother was always ahead of her time. It didn’t occur to me that girls didn’t do certain things. In our family, we were always encouraged just to do our best. So there I was, with braids and bows, playing baseball with the boys. I loved it,” she says.
Learning always took center stage in their family. Her interest in history grew out of a love for The Sound of Music and White Christmas as well as the music, style, and sweeping history of World War II.
“It was a time when regular people were asked to do more. In a period of darkness, people were challenged to rise to the occasion,” she continues.
Her eighth grade term paper at Washburne Middle School, which focused on World War II’s famous Great Escape, the subject of the classic 1963 film, would be a prelude to her later endeavors.
After graduating from New Trier, Katz earned a coveted spot at Harvard, where she dove headfirst into rigorous coursework, majoring in history with a minor in economics. Outside of the classroom, she was a member of Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority and Co-Chair of the Quincy House Committee, for which she received the Aloian-Beal Leadership Award. The award that meant most to her, however, was a bit more unique: the Prize for Undergraduate Book Collecting for her entry inspired by her grandmother’s original Nancy Drew mysteries from the 1930s. She graduated magna cum laude in the Harvard Class of 2013.
While at Harvard, Katz worked as an intern for Goldman Sachs but turned down a return offer to move to England to pursue her master’s in history at the University of Cambridge, a dream since childhood. “That singular year at Cambridge is one that I will always treasure,” says Katz.
Following graduation, Katz traded pastoral Cambridge for Manhattan, joining a highly competitive analyst program at a leading asset management firm. But in a serendipitous turn of events, in the lobby of her office was a bookstore, Chartwell Booksellers, named for Churchill’s country home.
“I did not intend to focus my academic research on Winston Churchill, but he had somewhat accidentally become a focus of both my senior thesis and dissertation,” Katz reflects. During coffee breaks on long days filled with excel modeling, Katz would visit the bookstore where she met the owner, who became a kindred spirit and later introduced her to the International Churchill Society.
It was there she met members of the Churchill family, who wanted a young historian to mine the newly released collection of the papers of Sarah Churchill, Winston’s daughter, and write an article about father and daughter. These papers were back at Cambridge and Katz quickly said “yes.”
“As my interest in the archive intensified, particularly in Sarah Churchill’s wartime experience, it was clear that this was leading to more than an article. I was fascinated to learn that not only had Churchill brought his daughter to serve as his aide at the Yalta Conference, so had Franklin Roosevelt, and Ambassador Averell Harriman, an absolute anomaly in 1945. These young women and their relationships with their fathers were something truly special.”
And there began the intensive work on the book about these “daughter diplomats.” With Harvard Law School in the back of her mind, Katz quit her job to become a writer. “The three families—the Churchills, Roosevelts, and Harrimans—were so gracious, they gave me access to a huge amount of private papers, places, and interviews,” Katz says.
Following a year and a half of research in England, New York, and Washington, D.C., Katz went to work on a draft. With turns at an antique desk in her parents’ home in Winnetka, fireside at Chicago’s University Club, and toward the end, back in Cambridge as she pursued her JD from Harvard Law, Katz wrote the book.
Advance praise has come from such wide-ranging luminaries as Julian Fellowes, creator of Downton Abbey, to famed writers Jeffrey Toobin, Erik Larson, and John Burnham Schwartz; and to Amy Pascal, film producer and Academy Award nominee, who has optioned the film rights.
What’s next on the horizon for Katz? With the book’s debut, full-scale national publicity, and then, who knows? As Katz says, her New Trier adviser once gave her a quote from Thomas Jefferson that read, “The harder I work, the more luck I seem to have.” One thing is certain: with equal parts hard work and good luck, Catherine Katz is one to watch.
The Daughters of Yalta is available locally at The Book Stall in Winnetka.
The Daughters of Yalta: The Churchills, Roosevelts and Harrimans: A Story of Love and War
February 1945 was a time fraught with tension, threatening to tear apart the wartime alliance between Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin. This riveting story of family loyalty and destiny shares an up-close perspective of three young women who were chosen by their famous fathers to accompany them to Yalta. The three “daughter diplomats” were Kathleen Harriman, a champion skier, war correspondent, and daughter of Averell Harriman, U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union; Sarah Churchill, an actress who became an RAF officer, devoted to her brilliant father who relied on her astute political instincts; and Roosevelt’s only daughter Anna arrived there as a keeper of her father’s most damaging secrets.
According to Kirkus Reviews, which granted the book a starred review, it stands as a “substantive debut work of first-rate scholarship … engaging, multi-layered history of the best kind, grounded in telling detail, and marvelous personalities.”