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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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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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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.
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. Even in that effort, Hay is more consistent in his longing than euphoric in success or pained in its absence.
Unlike John Quincy Adams who served his country uninterrupted for five decades in a series of positions, Hays spends almost a quarter century after his time with Lincoln away from the siren call of public service. He returns to serve McKinley as Ambassador to the Court of St James and, later, as Secretary of State before acting in the latter capacity for Teddy Roosevelt. He was father of the Open Door policy in China and deserves credit according to Taliaferro for "saving China from spoilation at the hands of other powers." Hay also helped President Roosevelt in acquiring Panama from Columbia to allow development of the water passage through the Americas.
This story of John Hay is also a portrait of the political life of America in the last half of the nineteenth century as the US grew from a country at war with itself to world power. This is a time in which a cosmopolitan from the American Midwest succeeds spectacularly in both the political and literary worlds while being both hypochondriac and philanderer. It is with a sense of wonder that the reader sees Hay play a pivotal role in world events as he almost publicly pursues his colleague's wife and takes two month vacations in Europe to recover this strength. This is a fascinating if simpler world.
Hays' life as recounted by Taliaferro is extraordinary and admirable. There are few missteps and the road traveled is longer than many men walk in many lifetimes. Just as importantly, as Taliaferro suggests, is the manner in which Hay goes about his business; "with perfect taste, perfect good sense and perfect good humor." All the Great Prizes is pleasurable and instructive as both biography and history, even if it forces the reader to be a bit more critical in self-examination of his own achievements after seeing all that John Hays was able to fit into his own life.