Man for All Seasons an Excellent Biography of John Hay Recalls His Accomplishments as Author, Journalist, Confidant to Lincoln, and History-Making Diplomat under Mckinley and Roosevelt

Article excerpt


By John Taliaferro.

Simon & Schuster ($35).

Suave, witty and impeccably groomed, John Hay was a true Golden Boy of America's Gilded Age. Rising out of modest beginnings, he became Abraham Lincoln's private secretary at age 22 and went on to a storied career as an author, journalist and diplomat before serving as secretary of state under Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. Beyond these high points, Hay lived a charmed life in the highest social circles, making friends with the likes of Mark Twain and Henry James while dipping into the dirty waters of U.S. politics on his own terms.

John Taliaferro's engaging new biography of Hay (the first in 80 years) offers a well-rounded portrait of this complex figure. The story he tells is the stuff of an Edith Wharton novel, complete with conflicted romantic passions and family heartaches. He presents Hay as a flawed but essentially noble man who both wrote history and made it.

The son of a small-town Illinois doctor, Hay's local family connections landed him the job of writing pro-Lincoln articles in the 1860 presidential campaign. Together with his friend John George Nicolay, he accompanied the president-elect to Washington to help with correspondence.

Over the next five years, Hay would ghost-write Lincoln's letters, undertake secret missions and keep the president company during the darkest years of the Civil War. Hay loved Lincoln as a second father; he later said that he considered the martyred president "the greatest character since Christ."

Mr. Taliaferro traces Hay's education in the art of statecraft as he flits between government service, newspaper work and making waves in high society. Postings with U.S. consulates in France, Austria and Spain made him a worldly figure by his early 30s. A stint with the New York Tribune sharpened his skills at partisan warfare -- Hay became a trenchant fighter in the Republican Party cause even as he kept his hands clean by refusing to run for office himself. Along the way, he wrote a best-selling poetry collection and a controversial novel while laboring with Nicolay to complete a 10- volume biography of Lincoln.

Hay lacked the raw lust for money and power that possessed so many of his Gilded Age peers -- although his marriage to the daughter of the richest man in Cleveland in 1873 made him more than financially secure. He didn't fit the typical profile of a political climber. There was a melancholy softness to his nature that marked him as a poet rather than a politico. …


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