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Book Review: All the Glittering Prizes

By (May 16, 2013) No Comment

All the Great Prizes: The Life of John Hay from Lincoln to Rooseveltall the great prizes

By John Taliaferro

Simon & Schuster, 2013


When the legendary American statesman John Hay was a boy of 22, he slept across the hallway from his boss, who scarcely slept at all and would often wake Hay in the middle of the night, sitting at the foot of Hay’s bed to read some bit of poetry that had just struck him as profound, or some bit of prose that had stirred his imagination. Hay would hastily sit up and surreptitiously wipe the sleep out of his eyes, trying to pay attention. Then his employer would finish, pat the mattress, and wander back out of the room, disheveled hair bouncing in the candlelight.

A perhaps not unheard-of arrangement in Victorian America, except that the hallway was located in the White House, and Hay’s boss was Abraham Lincoln. Hay had joined his friend John Nicolay as one of the president’s private secretaries, and the experience afforded him the opportunity to see up close the very history of the times being made:

Two weeks after Antietam, in a response to several Christian leaders who had pressed him to issue a proclamation, Lincoln wondered, “What good would a proclamation of emancipation from me do, especially as we are now situated? I do not want to issue a document that the whole world will see must necessarily be inoperative, like the Pope’s bull against the comet!” Little did the clergymen realize that only one day earlier, John Hay had witnessed the president carefully writing out the proclamation, four pages, straight through.

The quote is from All the Great Prizes, John Taliaferro’s big, utterly fantastic new biography of Hay, which surpasses even its two monumental predecessors (lives of Hay by William Roscoe Thayer and Tyler Dennett) and becomes at once the definitive portrait of a man whose life spanned a crucial era in American history – and whose work helped to define that era. Taliaferro has previously written lives of Charles M. Russell and Edgar Rice Burroughs, but as good as those books were, All the Great Prizes is something entirely more. A genius of animation works on every page. It’s the author’s best book by far.

Hay was present at the Gettysburg Address – and at Lincoln’s bedside when he died. He lost two more presidential friends and leaders – Garfield and McKinley – to assassins’ bullets. In his long diplomatic career, he laughed and jousted and corresponded with virtually all the giants of his day, from kings and Kaisers to emirs and emperors. In his tenure as Secretary of State, he laid the groundwork for the construction of the Panama Canal, negotiated the Treaty of Paris in 1898, and, most famously, created the concept of the “Open Door” with China, altering not only the direction of international relations with that emerging country but also the very footing on which those relations stood. He worked as hard for President Theodore Roosevelt as he had for the slain McKinley – so hard, in fact, that during his vacations he couldn’t help but notice how relatively little he knew first-hand about the world he was helping to shape. As Taliaferro puts it, “No man had been more of the world than John Hay; ironically his labors had kept him from living in it.”

Through most of these labors, Hay had the strong, almost alter ego support of his best friend, Henry Adams, whose jocularly haughty attitude toward the dour Hay couldn’t mask the abiding affection underneath (anyone who’s read Adams’ masterpiece The Education of Henry Adams will recall how almost starkly that affection stands out against the more sardonic estimations of everybody else). When Hay became Roosevelt’s Secretary of State, he and Adams moved into a new stage of conversational dependence on each other,  “clearing their heads and collecting each other’s thoughts,” and Adams could have full sympathy for his old friend while still having a piercingly sour view of his old friend’s boss. As Adams put it to a mutual friend, “Theodore is his own cabinet and especially likes to play with foreign kings. Hay has no choice but to hold the hats and look on.”

Of course Hay did more than hold hats, although Roosevelt himself was sometimes curiously willing to hint otherwise. Being Theodore Roosevelt’s Secretary of pretty much anything could be a thankless job (except that TR would always thank you), since the president was sleepless, tireless, and boundless in his energy (and a good deal more perceptive of subtlety than even some of his friends gave him credit). No president before or since so completely embodied the Executive branch, so during his tenure in office, his high officials could often feel a bit redundant. But nevertheless, they were the men in the rooms, the ones drafting vital documents, and Hay was vital in their number.

Taliaferro distracts himself a bit with an ongoing sub-plot about Hay’s flirtations with a woman named Lizzie Cameron, but this would-be steamy dalliance is constantly upstaged by the actual documented drama of Hay’s life, from his sparrings with Henry Cabot Lodge (when he gets the modern full-dress biography he so richly deserves, only the Dear Lord knows) to his petition on behalf of the Russian Jews in the wake of the Kishinev massacre to his presence in New York in 1905 at the same time that President Roosevelt was in town attending the wedding of his niece Eleanor to his distant cousin Franklin (the ability of Hay’s life to collapse chronology is uncanny). We get Hay’s championing of the novels of Henry James, his friendly badinage with Mark Twain, his luncheons with Augustus Saint-Gaudens; we get his devotion to his wife and children; and most of all we get his constant work, meeting with countless diplomats and heads of state.

Taliaferro isn’t blind to Hay’s faults – his casual racism, for example, or his tendency for a sometimes dangerous diffidence – but he firmly believes Hay played a pivotal role in shaping the 20th century, and he carries his argument magnificently, assessing with a nice candor:

Did he remake the world, or rather, would the world have been that much different if he had not played his hand so deftly? An isthmian canal would have been built, somewhere. The United States and Great Britain would have bolstered their bond, eventually. But China? China might be a different organism today if it had not been for John Hay.

All the Glittering Prizes cannot be too strongly recommended. The author is to be congratulated on a job superbly done.