All the Great Prizes: The Life of John Hay, From Lincoln to Roosevelt

  • John Taliaferro
  • Simon & Schuster
  • 688 pp.

Some new revelations add spice to this full-bodied account of one of the greatest Americans of his time.

This is a great biography of a great American.

John Hay was born in rural Indiana in 1838 and attended Brown University, where he was the class poet. He was half-heartedly studying law in Springfield, Ill., in 1860  when he started helping Abraham Lincoln with his campaign correspondence. After Lincoln was elected, Hay became part of his White House staff, really part of the Lincoln family, seeing and working with the president all hours of the day and night. Hay was with Lincoln when he died; indeed, he is our source for the famous comment by Edwin Stanton: “Now he belongs to the ages.”

After Lincoln’s death, Hay had a succession of foreign diplomatic posts: in Paris, Madrid and Vienna. He worked for eight years as an editor of the New York Tribune; wrote well received poetry and a controversial novel; served as assistant secretary of state (the No. 2 position in the department) under President Hayes; and then finally became secretary of state under Presidents McKinley and Roosevelt.  Among Hay’s many diplomatic achievements were the Open Door Policy in China and the treaty with Panama that paved the way for the canal.

John Taliaferro tells the full story of John Hay’s life, not only his complex professional life but also his fascinating personal life. Hay counted among his friends dozens of major figures, including Henry Adams, Henry James, Mark Twain, Bret Harte, Mark Hanna, William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. Perhaps more interesting, Hay also had two serious romantic attachments with women other than his wife: first with Nannie Lodge, wife of Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, and then for many years with Lizzie Cameron, wife of Senator Donald Cameron.

Hay’s relationship with Nannie Lodge has been discussed before, by Patricia O’Toole in The Five of Hearts, but as best I know Taliaferro is the first to discuss the far more long-lived relationship with Lizzie Cameron. Taliaferro quotes from dozens of letters between Hay and  Cameron, starting in about 1880 and continuing to his death. Taliaferro also ties Cameron to some of Hay’s most ardent poetry, such as “Obedience,” in which he laments that “the lady of my love bids me not to love her.”

One of the best aspects of Taliaferro’s book is the generous number of excerpts from Hay’s work — from his poems, diaries, letters, articles and books.  When Cameron’s brother dies in 1904, Hay writes to her that “one of the insoluble mysteries of life is that we should mind about death. As it must come to all why should we fear it and why should the loss of one of our household darken the earth for us forever? Three years ago the death of our boy made my wife and me old, at once and for the rest of our lives. There is no mitigation of grief — it grows worse with the slow exasperation of years.”

Taliaferro’s book is marred by a few small mistakes. He writes that William Evarts served first as Andrew Johnson’s attorney general and then as his private defense lawyer in the impeachment; in fact, the order was the other way around. At another point, Taliaferro writes that Mark Hanna, senator and campaign manager for William McKinley, died on January 16, 1904. The actual date was February 15, 1904.

The occasional error, however, should not obscure Taliaferro’s achievement. He has given us a detailed, readable, strong account of one of the greatest Americans of his generation. As John Hay wrote in a diary entry not long before his death, he lived a long and eventful life, one in which he enjoyed “many blessings” and “gained nearly all the great prizes.”

Walter Stahr is a Washington lawyer and the author of John Jay: Founding Father (2005) and Seward: Lincoln’s Indispensable Man(2012).

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