John Taliaferro’s biography of John Hay was published in 2013, eight decades after the most recent substantial biography of Hay (Tyler Dennett’s 1934 Pulitzer Prize winner “John Hay: From Poetry to Politics.”) Taliaferro is a former editor at Newsweek magazine and the author of six books including biographies of environmental pioneer George Bird Grinnell, “cowboy artist” Charles M. Russell and adventure writer Edgar Rice Burroughs.
Few figures in American history are more consequential, compelling and nearly forgotten than John Milton Hay (1838-1905). One of Abraham Lincoln’s two personal secretaries (and co-author of Lincoln’s most notable early biography), Hay was an American statesman, author and poet whose lengthy public career culminated with his service as Secretary of State under William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt.
With a 552-page narrative drawing heavily from Hay’s own letters and diaries, Taliaferro’s hefty biography is comprehensive, frequently interesting, occasionally titillating and sometimes exhausting. The author’s writing style often embeds colorful language (sometimes from Hay himself) but his narrative never quite settles into a natural rhythm.
Hay’s life included service to presidents Lincoln, Hayes, Garfield, McKinley and Roosevelt so he was often near the center of the American political scene. Taliaferro takes advantage of this proximity and rarely allows important historical context to go unnoticed. There are times, however, when the narrative dives so deeply into a policy topic (such as the Panama Canal) that this book feels more like a history text than biography.
The most fascinating aspect of this book involves Hay’s extramarital dalliances (literary liaisons) with two distinguished women of his time: Anna Cabot Mills Lodge and, with greater persistence, Lizzie Sherman Cameron. These relationships seem to have been limited to suggestive letters and poetry. But for fans of romantic complexity it is fortuitous that Hay’s most ardent interest – Cameron – was herself involved in a decades-long infatuation with his closest friend Henry Adams.
Other highlights of Taliaferro’s book are his observations relating to Teddy Roosevelt’s friendship with Henry Cabot Lodge, a nuanced exploration of TR’s relationship with Hay and a brief but masterful introduction to William McKinley. The final chapter dedicated to Hay’s death and legacy is quite good as well.
But as intriguing as the narrative can be, there is a persistent feeling that important components of Hay’s life are missing – pieces which could add texture and insight to his portrait. Given this author’s embrace of Hay’s letters and diaries, it seems safe to assume that any gaps are due to a scarcity of primary source material and not a lack of interest on Taliaferro’s part.
Still, as fascinating an individual as Hay proves to be, the reader never comes to really understand him or see the world through his eyes. This book provides a valuable glimpse into Hay’s persona, but the image conveyed to readers is frustratingly hazy. It is possible, of course, that time and distance have rendered Hay irretrievably opaque. But the job of a biographer is, in part, to immerse the reader in the subject’s world…and here the author comes up short.
Overall, John Taliaferro’s “All the Great Prizes: The Life of John Hay” performs an admirable service by underscoring Hay’s role in American foreign policy and by highlighting his complexity as a man of public accomplishment and of private failures. But, regrettably, most readers will find this book more history-from-afar than a colorful and penetrating biography.
Overall rating: 3½ stars
Note: At least three books have been published since Taliaferro’s biography which round out our image of Hay. I own one of them, have read none of them, but find each potentially compelling:
– “Lincoln’s Boys: John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln’s Image” (2014) by Joshua Zeitz
– “The Statesman and the Storyteller: John Hay, Mark Twain, and the Rise of American Imperialism” (2016) by Mark Zwonitzer
– “John Hay, Friend of Giants: The Man and Life Connecting Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Henry James, and Theodore Roosevelt” (2017) by Philip McFarland
And at least one intriguing book (predating Taliaferro’s) focuses, in part, on Hay’s relationship with Adams as well as each of their relationships with Lodge and Cameron:
– Patricia O’Toole’s “The Five of Hearts: An Intimate Portrait of Henry Adams and his Friends” (1990)