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All the Great Prizes: The Life of John Hay, from Lincoln to Roosevelt Hardcover – May 14, 2013

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

If not ringing a bell for general-interest history fans, the name John Hay should resonate with Civil War buffs because he was Lincoln’s secretary. From this life-­altering relationship that the 22-year-old Hay formed with Lincoln, author Taliaferro departs for the subsequent course taken by his subject, which ended with Hay’s 1905 death in harness as secretary of state. At heart more a literary than political personality, Hay left a capacious and varied body of writing for Taliaferro to shape into a narrative arc: it consists of Hay’s Civil War diary; poems, short stories, and novels; editorials and political tracts; a monumental Lincoln biography; private letters; and diplomatic documents. Setting Hay into the frame of late-nineteenth-century America, Taliaferro sympathetically shows Hay making his way. Marrying money helped, and as Hay advanced in politics and publishing, he could detach himself from affairs and cultivate friendships he formed with the leading intellectuals of his time, such as Henry Adams and Henry James. Spiced by Hay’s extramarital pursuit of a socialite, Taliaferro’s textured portrait exemplifies the better productions of the biographical craft. --Gilbert Taylor


“Utterly fantastic…the definitive portrait of a man whose life spanned a crucial era in American history – and whose work helped to define that era. A genius of animation works on every page. It’s the author’s best book.” (Open Letters Monthly)

“Given that John Hay’s public career was bookended by his service to Lincoln and Roosevelt, it seems surprising that this is the first biography written about him in 80 years. Thanks to Taliaferro’s skillful work, it seems unlikely that another will be needed for a while.” (The Dallas Morning News)

"John Hay has long been one of those remarkable American figures who hide in plain historical sight—until now. With insight and eloquence, John Taliaferro has brought Hay into the foreground, telling a remarkable story remarkably well." (Jon Meacham, author of Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power)

“John Hay began his career as private secretary to Abraham Lincoln, writing many of Lincoln's letters, and ended it as secretary of state in the administrations of William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, responsible for many of their foreign-policy achievements. He was at the bedside of Lincoln and of McKinley as each president lay dying of an assassin's bullet. John Taliaferro's absorbing biography of this notable author, diplomat, and bon vivant who knew most of the important people of his time fully measures up to the significance of its subject.” (James M. McPherson, author of Battle Cry of Freedom)

"John Hay is one of the seminal statesmen in American history. All the Great Prizes is the grand book he so richly deserves.” (Douglas G. Brinkley, author of Cronkite)

“One of the most intriguing political figures of the Gilded Age, Hay emerges in this beautifully narrated book as an astute, if sometimes unwilling, eyewitness to history. Making deft use of Hay’s own letters, some only recently discovered, Taliaferro brings the man to life.” (Martha A. Sandweiss, author of Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color)

“This is a great biography of a great American.” (The Washington Independent Review of Books)

“John Hay led more than one charmed life—yet endured more than his share of tragedy. John Taliaferro brings Lincoln's gifted secretary and biographer—and Theodore Roosevelt's accomplished secretary of state—back to vivid life in this page-turning account of an extraordinary eyewitness to, and maker of, American history. After generations of bewildering neglect, Hay needs a great biography no longer.” (Harold Holzer, author of Lincoln at Cooper Union)

“At long last, John Hay has gotten the biography he deserves. From his youthful service at Lincoln's side to his late years as Theodore Roosevelt's Secretary of State, this gifted writer, diplomat, and friend was a central figure in America's exciting journey from near-death to world power. John Taliaferro tells this remarkable life in rich and flowing detail.” (David Von Drehle, author of Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America's Most Perilous Year)

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 688 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster; 1st Edition, 1st Printing edition (May 14, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1416597301
  • ISBN-13: 978-1416597308
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.4 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (93 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #56,953 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

37 of 39 people found the following review helpful By Steven J. Berke on May 23, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I have always been interested in John Hay as a historical figure, spanning as he did much of the late 19th century, and awaited this biography with great anticipation. It did not disappoint. This book gave an exacting and readable account of Hay's activities, his personal life and his personality, as well as the times he lived in.

The only flaw (the reason for four stars) is the misreporting of several historical facts--Kaiser Wilhelm II succeeded his father Friedrich III not his grandfather Wilhelm I; Charles Fairbanks, not Albert Beveridge, was TR's running mate in 1904. While these and a couple of other inaccuracies have nothing directly to do with the life of John Hay, they do cast a shadow of doubt on the overall accuracy of the book.
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Format: Hardcover
While I love reading history and read many biographies, can I just say at the outset that one of the hard parts of reading biographies of interesting and compelling people is that at the end they die. And while I know they are long past when I begin the biography, I grieve at their loss because I have gotten to know and appreciate them during the course of this book. And this terrific work gets us into this man's mind and heart (to the extent it can) as well as his public acts and the context of the time in which he lived. I knew of John Hay before I picked up this large work, but I did not know much about him. Now I have a deeper sense of him, who he was, what he accomplished, and the impact he had on America and the world in his time and how that still resonates in our time, more than a century after his passing.

Hay began life on what was then the frontier - Warsaw, Illinois. He was the son of a doctor who seemed both curiously misplaced and right where he should be. However, John wanted more. He went to Brown University and did well, but struggled to find his way. He read law and lucked into an office next door to Lincoln's and soon became attached to Republican politics and Lincoln's political career. He was one of Lincoln's White House secretaries, which prepared him for everything he was to become and launched him into his diplomatic career. He had the talent, gained invaluable experience in the White House during the Civil War, and his connection to Lincoln lifted his status to the heavens.

After Lincoln's assassination, Hay found a mentor in William Seward and accepted various overseas assignments and career guidance from him. Hay also had considerable writing ability and gained fame and money from his writing.
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32 of 35 people found the following review helpful By The Ginger Man VINE VOICE on May 22, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
It is virtually impossible to read history set in late nineteenth-century America without repeatedly coming across the almost Zelig-like person of John Hay. All the Great Prizes captures both the life of this fascinating American and the changing times in which he lived.

Hay began his public career as private secretary to Abraham Lincoln and ended as Theodore Roosevelt's Secretary of State. He was at Lincoln's bedside as the president lay dying from an assassin's bullet and with William McKinley in the same sad circumstance. Hay grew up on the American frontier in the Midwest, but later lived in New York City, Washington and Cleveland and served American embassies in London, Paris and Vienna. He married into one of the richest families in the country and was a successful businessman. Not content with accomplishments in the public and private sector, Hay was also "editorialist, poet, lecturer, reporter and belletrist." Writer of a successful novel and co-author of a 10 volume history of Lincoln, Hay knew Henry James, Mark Twain, William Dean Howells and Bram Stoker among others.

Even with this absurdly comprehensive list of accomplishments ("all the great prizes"), Hays comes across in Taliaferro's biography as a man more measured than passionate; almost drifting between extraordinary lives rather than ambitiously pursuing any one of them. Typical of one of the transitions in Hay's career is the end of Lincoln's term of office. Neither Hay nor John George Nicolay had a compelling desire to stay on for a second term, yet Hay "had no idea in which direction he might point himself." In fact, Hays most enduring obsession seems to be a 20 year pursuit of the wife of a Pennsylvania Senator.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By jem on June 30, 2013
Format: Hardcover
This biography of one of the 19th century's lesser known but greatly influential public servants is fascinating both in detail and analysis. I knew of John Hay as Lincoln's secretary and biographer, but I had no idea that he was later Ambassador to Great Britain and Secretary of State for Presidents McKinley and Roosevelt.

Although he came from a Midwestern middle class family Hay became an urbane citizen of the world, marrying into a wealthy family which allowed him to travel Europe and use his facility in several languages, visit art museums and the theater, meet famous literary and political figures, and indulge his own literary desires writing both novels and poetry. How many men could maintain friendships with Henry Adams, Mark Twain, Henry James, Whitelaw Reid, and Andrew Carnegie among others?

Tallaferro obviously admires his subject, but others might be more critical of Hay's Republican "manifest destiny" foreign policy regarding the spoils of the Spanish American War from Cuba to the Philippines, or "open port" policy toward China in which world powers forced trade on their terms. He was a gentleman of the Victorian era who wielded what he considered to be America's benign influence on world affairs -- as missionaries and politicians have done throughout our history.

Tallaferro has done exhaustive research not only in Hay's official papers and personal letters but those of his friends and political colleagues. The rewarding results reveal intriguing details about historic actions such as the U.S. acquisition of the Panama Canal. One might wish for a little more analysis of public policy and a little less admiration of Lizzie Cameron, but John Hay is definitely worth knowing.
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