'All the Great Prizes': John Hay, a man for all seasons

A new bio recalls his accomplishments as author, journalist, confidant to Lincoln and history-making diplomat

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Suave, witty and impeccably groomed, John Hay was a true Golden Boy of America's Gilded Age. Rising out of modest beginnings, he became Abraham Lincoln's private secretary at age 22 and went on to a storied career as an author, journalist and diplomat before serving as secretary of state under Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. Beyond these high points, Hay lived a charmed life in the highest social circles, making friends with the likes of Mark Twain and Henry James while dipping into the dirty waters of U.S. politics on his own terms.


By John Taliaferro
Simon & Schuster ($35).

John Taliaferro's engaging new biography of Hay (the first in 80 years) offers a well-rounded portrait of this complex figure. The story he tells is the stuff of an Edith Wharton novel, complete with conflicted romantic passions and family heartaches. He presents Hay as a flawed but essentially noble man who both wrote history and made it.

The son of a small-town Illinois doctor, Hay's local family connections landed him the job of writing pro-Lincoln articles in the 1860 presidential campaign. Together with his friend John George Nicolay, he accompanied the president-elect to Washington to help with correspondence.

Over the next five years, Hay would ghost-write Lincoln's letters, undertake secret missions and keep the president company during the darkest years of the Civil War. Hay loved Lincoln as a second father; he later said that he considered the martyred president "the greatest character since Christ."

Mr. Taliaferro traces Hay's education in the art of statecraft as he flits between government service, newspaper work and making waves in high society. Postings with U.S. consulates in France, Austria and Spain made him a worldly figure by his early 30s. A stint with the New York Tribune sharpened his skills at partisan warfare -- Hay became a trenchant fighter in the Republican Party cause even as he kept his hands clean by refusing to run for office himself. Along the way, he wrote a best-selling poetry collection and a controversial novel while laboring with Nicolay to complete a 10-volume biography of Lincoln.

Hay lacked the raw lust for money and power that possessed so many of his Gilded Age peers -- although his marriage to the daughter of the richest man in Cleveland in 1873 made him more than financially secure. He didn't fit the typical profile of a political climber. There was a melancholy softness to his nature that marked him as a poet rather than a politico.

Running parallel to his public career was his quarter-century infatuation with Lizzie Cameron (the wife of a U.S. senator from Pennsylvania), chronicled in passionately florid letters quoted throughout the book. "My heart ached with the vision of the beautiful small feet that caressed the pavement on an errand of mercy so long ago," Hay writes Cameron as he recalls one of their (apparently chaste) encounters.

If Hay risked violating his marriage vows, he remained true to his friends. First among them was historian Henry Adams, whose sardonic worldview challenged Hay's more orthodox beliefs about war, politics and capitalism. Also part of this circle was the brilliant geologist Clarence King, whose tragic downward spiral contrasted with Hay's steady rise to wealth and influence.

Hay took the post of secretary of state as the United States was consolidating its territorial gains after the Spanish-American War. Although only mildly enthusiastic about the war, Hay became a firm defender of America's right to its overseas possessions and never conceded that its brutal suppression of the Philippine independence movement was anything less than honorable. Together with Theodore Roosevelt, he helped to foster (without publicly supporting) the secession of Panama from Colombia, clearing the way for the construction of the Panama Canal.

Hay's 1899 Open Door Policy in the Far East may be his most recognized legacy. Avoiding formal treaties, he convinced the major European powers to refrain from dividing China into "spheres of influence." The Open Door was a triumph of Hay's diplomatic skills that simultaneous preserved the peace and promoted U.S. commercial interests. (Nobody consulted the Chinese about all this, of course.)

The author doesn't neglect the personalities amid the events. He notes Hay's warm relations with the amiable McKinley and his more ambivalent partnership with the egotistic Roosevelt. Hay played good cop to TR's bad cop when dealing with foreign powers, acting the role of the wise and reasonable elder as his bellicose boss waved his Big Stick.

Mr. Taliaferro is clearly fond of Hay and makes readers like him, too. He stands out among the drabber political figures of his time as a sensitive cosmopolitan who combined personal charm with a statesman's vision. "Everything he undertook was done with a kind of divine ease," wrote The Nation after his death in 1905. "All the Great Prizes" does a superb job in explaining how Hay made his great deeds look easy.


Barry Alfonso, a writer and independent scholar, lives in Swissvale (alfonso.barry@gmail.com).


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