Sunday, May 12, 2013

All the Great Prizes by John Taliaferro - Book Review

It was a rare pleasure to spend a week in the company of a man of such grace, charm, intelligence, and accomplishment as John Hay in this fine biography by John Taliaferro, All the Great Prizes: The Life of John Hay from Lincoln to Roosevelt (Simon & Schuster, 2013, 622 pages, $35.00). In a life of service stretching from his youthful assignment as Lincoln's private secretary to Theodore Roosevelt's Secretary of State, no man in U.S. history who has not held elective office has had such an impact on creating and maintaining our country. The present biography, the first of Hay since 1934, is a full, balanced, and admiring portrait of this great American. While not hesitating to show Hay's warts and weaknesses (few), it nevertheless presents the sort of man who can serve as a model for American's seeking to understand us at our best.

John Hay as a Young Man

Hay was born in Salem, Indiana in 1838 but soon moved to Warsaw, Illinois with his parents. His father was a physician, and Hay grew up in an environment of comfort, but not wealth, that emphasized reading and intellectual achievement. Early formative experiences of his youth included the Mormon riots in nearby Nauvoo, IL leading to the assassination of Joseph Smith, and his brief encounter with a runaway slave in the basement of his own home. Hay left home at the age of sixteen to attend Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island with his uncle Milton Hay defraying the tuition of $100 per year. After taking the entrance exams, he was admitted as a junior, but requested being placed in the sophomore class in order to have greater time to study and grow while there. He was chosen by his peers to give the class poem on graduation. He returned to Springfield, IL to read law in his Uncle Milton's office, which was next door to Lincoln's. On Lincoln's nomination for president, he began writing pro-Lincoln material under a pen name and joined John George Nicolay in Lincoln's office writing letters for him. As time passed Lincoln gave him assignments requiring increasing discretion and delicacy, signaling his growing trust for the young man. When Lincoln was elected President, Hay and Nicolay moved to Washington to serve as his secretaries, a title of greater import than that we now ascribe to it.

John Singer Sargent Portrait of Hay

By looking at history through the lens of a man of great talent who seldom held official office, who read widely, wrote elegant and thoughtful letters almost without end, published fiction, poetry, and newspaper articles and editorials, and who knew almost everyone of consequence from the mid-nineteenth century into the early twentieth, Taliaferro makes clear a period often seemingly less important than others, but incorporating the expansion of America and the formation of many American traits persisting to this day, the are only overlooked to our peril. Hay was also co-author, with John George Nicolay, of a ten volume biography of Lincoln still considered to be one of the three most important Lincoln biographies. Because Hay's life functions as part of a larger picture, many important elements of the Civil War, Reconstruction, the accession of Cuba, the Phillipines, and other U.S. Territories, the Spanish-American War, the Russo-Japanese War, the formation of the Open Door Policy in China, the building of the Panama Canal and much more are discussed in a clear, concise manner that highlights their importance without drowning the reader in detail. Hay was often at the center of these dramas, and always at least peripherally involved providing American presidents from Grant to Roosevelt with his best advice and dedicated service when asked. He was, apparently, like and admired by all who knew him in public and private life, and he knew almost every American of consequence during this period.

Clara Stone Hay

Early in his career Hay pursued and married Clara Stone, the daughter of railroad magnate Amasa Stone, thus assuring his comfort and position in society for life. Clara was, apparently, an ideal mate for a man of such broad and varied interests as Hay, providing a loving home life, three active children, and enduring support throughout the rest of his life. Meanwhile, he became besotted with Elizabeth (Lizzie) Cameron, the beautiful and flirtatious wife of Pennsylvania Republican Senator Don Cameron, to whom Hay would write passionate, longing, newsy letters for the rest of his life. There is no knowing whether their “romance” was ever consummated. Lizzie was also amorously pursued by Henry Adams (grandson and great grandson of presidents, and a mordant observer of the Washington political scene) during most of the same time. Adams' and Hay's homes on Lafayette Square were next door to each other, and the two were often seen taking a daily walk together around town, deep in conversation. There is also an enormous archive of correspondence between the two. The extensive quotations between Hay and Lizzie Cameron over a period of decades with their Victorian combination of discretion and passion became tedious over time, but strongly suggest the tone of the period. 

Lizzie Cameron

During periods when Jay did not hold official office in Republican administrations, he and Clara traveled extensively in Europe, often staying abroad for months at a time. He served in diplomatic legations in Paris, Madrid, and Vienna, and as Ambassador to the United Kingdom during the McKinley administration. He was a friend of politicians, aristocrats, and royalty wherever he went, while formally and informally advising presidents and the State Department. While abroad he was an inveterate collector of fine art. It speaks to the high art of Talafierro's writing that this jam packed life of a man of huge accomplishment maintains the readers attention and earns more than respect for his subject. 

John Taliaferro
John Taliaferro is the author of four books, most recently In a Far Country: The True Story of a Mission, A Marriage, A Murder, and the Remarkable Reindeer Rescue of 1898. He is a former senior editor at Newsweek and a graduate of Harvard University. He lives in Austin, Texas, and Pray, Montana.  

From his service in the Lincoln administration through to the Roosevelt presidency, John Hay was a dedicated and thoughtful Republican. His balanced approach to American expansion, his gentle yet persistent negotiations, and his consistent respect for humanity provide a model for Republicans today as people in public life of all political persuasions. John Taliaferro's lengthy biography of John Hay, All the Great Prizes: The Life of John Hay from Lincoln to Roosevelt (Simon & Schuster, 2013, 622 pages, $35.00), combines high quality scholarship with the kind of readability that will lead it to rank among the finest of biographies in an age when biography has reached a new level of accuracy and readability. I read the book as an electronic galley on my Kindle. It was provided to me by the publisher through Edelweiss.

John Hay Bust by August Saint-Gaudens