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All the Great Prizes: The Life of John Hay, from Lincoln to Roosevelt [Hardcover]

John Taliaferro
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Product details

  • Hardcover: 673 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (14 May 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1416597301
  • ISBN-13: 978-1416597308
  • Product Dimensions: 23.6 x 16.8 x 4.1 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 931,506 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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All the Great Prizes From secretary to Abraham Lincoln to Secretary of State for Theodore Roosevelt, John Hay remained a major figure in American history. His private life was glamorous and romantic. This first full-scale biography since 1934 is a reflection of American history from the Civil War to the emergence of the nation as a world power. Full description

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4.0 out of 5 stars A remarkable live, well lived 29 Jun 2014
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Well written, worthwhile account of a remarkable life in many ways. Hay was the American equivalent of those British aristocrats who were content to flit in and out of various roles in various administrations without ever bothering to get their shoes soiled in the muddy pool of electoral politics. Despite his achievements and talents, Hay does not come across particularly likeable or admirable as an individual, content from a relatively young age to enjoy the benefits of a cocooned existence. One of the ironies of Hay's life is that while he may have been a surrogate son for Lincoln, Lincoln's remark about his own son, Robert, that he was one of those 'little, rare ripe sorts that are smarter about five than ever after' is equally applicable to Hay who demonstrated little development from the deft elitist of the Lincoln years to the elder statesman of the Roosevelt administration.
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Amazon.com: 4.5 out of 5 stars  76 reviews
35 of 37 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Very comprehensive and informative biography 23 May 2013
By Steven J. Berke - Published on Amazon.com
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.
31 of 34 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "The greatest prime minister that this republic has ever had." 22 May 2013
By The Ginger Man - Published on Amazon.com
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. 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.
21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars With China talking about building a new canal in Nicaragua, a book for our time as well as the past. 18 Jun 2013
By Craig Matteson - Published on Amazon.com
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. While all of his published works are still available electronically, some are still in print. And, of course, the ten volume biography of Lincoln he did with his fellow secretary, George Nicolay, is still in print and available here on Amazon. Their work had the advantage of being done with access to Lincoln's papers and the approval of Lincoln's son, Robert.

Hay married Clara Stone, the daughter of a wealthy Cleveland industrialist when Cleveland was one of the wealthiest cities in America. And while Hay became wealthy in his own right, his wife's fathe, Amasa Stone, was far wealthier. Stone and Hay got along very well and Hay helped the man through several important crises. The marriage to Clara was solid and produced four children who also did quite well in the world, but the oldest son, Del, died as a young man in a bizarre accident during an alumni homecoming at his alma mater, Yale. The book makes a big deal of Hay's infatuation with Elizabeth Cameron. The affairs of the heart can be difficult to document from more than a century ago. There are some surviving letters, and while there are professions of love from Hay to her, there is no evidence of an affair. Especially so since she was married to a U.S. Senator, however loveless the marriage, and she had a stronger relationship with Hay's best and closest friend, Henry Adams. I have no idea what transpired between Hay and any other woman besides his wife. But, from the book, I think the author makes more of it than there is actual evidence for. But maybe you will read it differently.

Henry Adams and Hay were so close that they built famous mansions next door to each other in the heart of Washington D.C. on Lafayette Square. Adams was the grandson of John Quincy Adams and therefore the great grandson of John Adams, as well. He was a brilliant man, if a bit of a misanthrope and a snob. Hay enjoyed his company, but was not misanthropic and somewhat less a snob. They both appreciated their wealth, social status, power, and life was found life more enjoyable at such an elevated altitude.

The Republican Party was ascendant in America from Lincoln until Wilson and Hay was one of the grand old men of the party. He spoke, donated big money, and helped and supported the GOP candidates for President. He was valued by them and given positions because of his diplomatic skill and experience even more than for his political connections. But they certainly didn't hurt him, at least most of the time they didn't.

But the book would not have been written and we would not care about Hay very much if he had not become a very influential and successful Secretary of State during a critical time in American History, even if that time is little remembered and less understood by the public today. The chapters beginning on page 353 and following are where the book really takes off like a rocket and remains riveting through to the end. Don't get me wrong. I enjoyed the entire book. But when Hay is working his diplomatic magic in China, Central America, and Europe, the magic really happens.

While Hay worshipped Lincoln, he deeply admired McKinley, as well. It is shocking to realize that he was serving each when they were killed. While Teddy Roosevelt was a difficult personality for Hay, he managed to serve him well. TR and Hay accomplished much together and it was only later that TR said poor things about Hay. To my mind, TR made himself appear smaller by these self-serving statements. But maybe I am reading them incorrectly.

Hay had battled delicate healthy most of his life. Towards the end, he wanted to retire, but the demands of the country kept him in the harness. When he died in 1905, all who knew him felt it was the strain of his position that killed him too soon. Hay was so widely and deeply admired that memorial services were not only held throughout America, but in London at St. Paul's Cathedral. His death was headline news in every major capital in the world.

I think you will find many benefits from reading this book. Not only will you learn about the life of an important American you probably do not know (at least I did not know), but you will also learn about some key events in American History such as how America came to be in the Philippines and why it mattered to us and was of strategic importance in checking Germany and setting up an American role in China. You will also learn how Hay balanced the avarice of each of the Great Powers to keep China trade open to all despite Russia's attempts to get extra shares for itself until Japan checked Russian Power at great sacrifice in Manchuria. There is also the whole issue of how the Panama Canal came to be in the manner it did. This is not all ancient history. We read in the papers in recent weeks about China preparing to build a bigger and more modern canal through Nicaragua, which was part of the diplomacy more than a century ago!

So, you see, this isn't just a history book, it is also a valuable lesson on current world diplomacy.

Reviewed by Craig Matteson, Saline, Michigan
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Little Known but Hugely Influential 19th Century American 1 July 2013
By jem - Published on Amazon.com
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.
13 of 16 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not Exactly a Great Prize 24 Aug 2013
By Paul - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is an average biography of John Hay. I found the writing style good, a bit winded, somewhat interesting and a little overdone.

John Hay is an interesting personality of the 19th century, when America, after a bloody civil war began to attain a world status, and Hay was there as it developed and participated in most of the critical events of the McKinley administration and more importantly, the Roosevelt first term.

Hay was a secretary to Lincoln during the first term, along with John George Nicolay, and at a young age, was one of a few to really know the man. In later years, he and Nicolay wrote a ten volume biography of Lincoln that was widely acclaimed.

In later years, Hay established friendships with influential people, starting with William Seward, powerful newpaper editors, authors such as Mark Twain and Bret Harte and Henry James, and a long lasting close friendship with Henry Adams. He traveled in Europe, had his suits made by the finest tailors in London, and gives the impression of a dandy. He was very much an intellectual, and superb in his writings both when serving newspapers and and as secretary of state. THere can be no doubt in my mind that Hay wrote the famous Lincoln letter to a Mrs. Bixby expressing his sympathy in her loss of five sons (which turned out to be inaccurate).

In his personal life, he married for money and it is obvious. The author tip toes around it, but you can tell by the picture in the book what the motive was and i will leave it at that.

As for the rest of his personal life, you keep reading and reading about all these silly love letters he sends to Lizzie Cameron, the wife of a senator, year after year with prose that is more like a flower garden and desperate pleas for her to visit with him. Add to that Henry Adams who gets into the act and writes Lizzie as well passing along information about John. Between the two of them they act like school boys and I think the woman was bored with both of them. That part of the book just wears thin. I am convinced he never slept with the woman, but you can tell the author worked at a magazine for a time. The writer makes too much of this whole thing and Hay appears foolish as a result.

As for the major events of the time, Hay did not create them, but he was effective in formulating policy in the area of China and the Open Door policy, and the Panama Canal. He did bring a clear and cool head to these events and was a good secretary of state. He had a problem with his ego in that once he worked out a treaty, he thought it outrageous that members of the senate could amend it or kill it, but that is part of the checks and balances of the system, no matter how intelligent or brilliant your thoughts and negotiations are, you still go through the process and he could not handle that. Maybe it was fortunate that he died long before Woodrow Wilson had his dreams of a League of Nations dashed by the same body. But, you can say that he was noble in what he did. Imagine today, if the world had the chance to carve up China what a grab for power that would be. At least Hay prevented the pot of greed from boiling over.

The author refers to Albert Beveridge as the vice president during Roosevelt's term. That didn't happen, and while it may not seem signigicant, it is to me when a Harvard graduate and a major publisher can't get something as basic as this correct, it casts a long shadow on the veracity of the entire work. There are plenty of graduate students out there eager for employment in proof reading and I suggest they be used.

The book is Ok, but I am generous in three stars and I accept that this review will likely not be appreciated by most.
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