John Hay was a great statesman and even more, a great representative of the great American era between the Civil War and The Great War. Friend to royalty, of the kinds both crowned (during his term as ambassador to England he was a favorite of Queen Victoria) and American (Henry Adams of the Presidential Adams family was his closest friend and neighbor for many years), Hay was known and renowned as a poet, conversationalist, and dinner guest. His public career spanned the incredible gulf from Lincoln, whom he served as private secretary during the war, to Teddy Roosevelt, whose big stick Hay tempered with gentlemanly but firm reserve in negotiating his way through hot spots involving the Panama Canal, Alaskan border disputes, the Open Door policy in China, Russo-Japanese War, the Spanish-American War, and American empire-building in the Philippines.
But the private man was by far the more interesting and complex. Essentially middle-class and mid western (born in Illinois and married to the daughter of a wealthy Cleveland, Ohio tycoon) Hay worked closely and was so close to the rough hewn Lincoln he regarded the President like a father, yet also cherished the friendship of the patrician Adams and his upper crust English friends from his numerous trips abroad. A private man who preferred the anonymity of unsigned newspaper editorializing and published poems and a novel anonymously as well, he also sought diligently if not openly appointment to the very public roles of Ambassador to England and Secretary of State. And perhaps most awkwardly he was apparently a devoted husband and father of four children, while also pursuing the beautiful Lizzie Cameron, young wife of a disliked older Senator included in their circle of friends only because of his wife, writing glowing love letters and suggesting (but only so, in the gentlemanly language that a courtier of his time and class would use) apparent trysts while the couples shared dinners, teas, friends, and long vacations abroad. Clara Hay, ever the long suffering wife and mother, also apparently loved her husband all the while and in editing his letters after his ddath , categorized the aforementioned impassioned letters to Lizzie as "merely express[ing] his habit of gallantry, and his love of writing pretty phrases."
Yet for all the contradictions, John Hay seems in Taliaferro's hands a whole man, comfortable in his skin, both robust and human and well-read and humane--a man I would want to know, befriend, and spend time with, never the life of the party, but rather the contented core of it. But perhaps this man who lived such the charmed life was not so calm after all, as he bares his soul in this beautifully powerful quote as he neared his death:
"I cling instinctively to life and the things of life, as eagerly as if I had not had my chance at happiness & gained nearly all the great prizes."Taliaferro chose the title well, and for the most part writes a great biography of the man. In fact the only flaw that keeps it from the classic category for me is that as Hay's public offices become larger and more prominent, Hay the private man tends to disappear in Taliaferro's retelling of the historical events that Hay played such a large and successful role in crafting. And while Hay was a great success as Secretary of State, and one of the best to ever hold the office, I find the private man the more interesting, and the more enduring, and wish to have learned more about that man behind the public persona as he matured and declined.
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