ALL THE GREAT PRIZES: The Life of John Hay, from Lincoln to Roosevelt. By John Taliaferro. Simon and Schuster. 554 pages. $35.
It was John Hay himself who claimed, as a dying man, that he had won “nearly all the great prizes” in life: domestic happiness, career success, the respect of his peers and, for most of his 67 years, amazing good fortune.
He was born in 1838 to prosperous and loving parents; he was gifted with brains, looks, a sunny personality and the kind of quiet drive that enables a person to identify, and take full advantage of, every opportunity that presents itself.
Perhaps Hay’s greatest stroke of luck, however, was stumbling into the world just as the United States was beginning to make its full-court entrance onto the world stage.
Hay was fond of the small Illinois town where he grew up but early on knew that what he wanted was located on the East Coast and in Europe.
After attending Brown University and becoming a minor part of the literary scene in Providence, he returned home to study law in Springfield. He found himself working next door to the up-and-coming Abraham Lincoln.
When Lincoln was elected in 1860, he traveled to Washington with the new president as his assistant personal secretary. He became devoted to the older man and the feeling was reciprocated.
Lincoln, according to author John Taliaferro, hired a bright young fellow with undefined goals and “gave him the sheer confidence to take aim and fire, and to make his life count for something.”
Hay’s political horizons broadened steadily over the years. A lifelong Republican, he worked as a diplomat in Paris, Vienna, Madrid and London, and had relationships with Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield, William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, the last two of whom he served as Secretary of State.
His hand was evident in many of the major issues of the late 19th century, including the annexation of the Philippines, the Open Door policy in China and the long and tortuous negotiations that secured land rights for the building of the Panama Canal.
In addition to his work in politics, Hay spent years as a journalist, produced well-received novels and co-wrote a 10-volume life of Lincoln.
He collected art, appreciated good food and wine, traveled in high style through a large portion of the world and had impressive homes in Washington and Cleveland, and a summer place in New Hampshire. His marriage to heiress Clara Stone, which Taliaferro implies was something of a practical decision on Hay’s part, ensured that he could have most of the finer things in life.
Taliaferro, former senior editor at Newsweek Magazine, manages to make what might be very dry material interesting and at times riveting, which is no easy task. But it is his approach to John Hay the man, not the public servant, that deeply enriches this very successful biography.
Hay, though very respected for much of his life, was no stuffy paragon. He was seriously hung over while sitting in the audience listening to the Gettysburg address.
Characterized by the author as a young “bon vivant,” Hay also was famously hypochondriacal, developing odd, poorly understood illnesses at pivotal times in his life, especially after his marriage. He often took to his bed, or embarked on “rest cures” in the western United States or Europe when overextended. Probably most intriguing, though, was Hay’s weakness for the ladies.
Taliaferro dedicates a chapter to Hay’s “affair” with the alluring, much younger, and apparently rather cold-blooded Elizabeth Cameron, wife of Pennsylvania senator Donald Cameron and niece of William Tecumseh Sherman.
Lizzie Cameron was a tease and kept various men (most prominently Hay and his best friend, historian Henry Adams) buzzing around her for decades.
She called them her “tame cats.” It’s unlikely that either man ever received, or indeed wanted, any sexual satisfaction from her, and doubtless, the unrequitedness of Hay’s feelings kept the fires burning, and helped him produce many, many letters. Hay was devoted to his warm-hearted and somewhat dowdy wife, but there was little aesthetic or intellectual stimulation from that quarter.
“All the Great Prizes” is that rare and wonderful thing, a piece of nonfiction the reader can barely put down and hates to part with after the last chapter.
It is an old-fashioned biography written in chronological order in full-bodied, brisk prose. The character of John Hay, the creation of which may only have been possible in America’s Gilded Age, during which a white male of a certain means and position could live richly at every level, is brilliantly delineated.
The first lengthy work on Hay since 1934, it stands, for the moment, as the definitive study of this accomplished and deeply human American statesman.
Reviewer Rosemary Michaud is a writer in Charleston.