If you saw Steven Spielberg’s movie “Lincoln,” you saw John Hay.
Played by the young actor Joseph Cross, Hay was one of Lincoln’s two private secretaries (the other was John George Nicolay, played by Jeremy Strong.) Hay had the almost-handlebar moustache, Nicolay had the beard.
Nicolay went on to do a variety of things. He co-wrote a 10-volume biography of Lincoln with Hay. He was United States Consul in France. He was a newspaper editor and a marshal of the United States Supreme Court. Not too shabby.
Hay (1838 – 1905) went on to assemble one of the most mind-blowing resumes in the history of American public service. He served as secretary of state under Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. He was present at McKinley’s death. He married the wealthy railroad heiress Clara Stone. Hay was a lawyer and diplomat, serving in France, Spain and Austria. He was an editor at the New York Tribune. Everyone seemed to like him.
While secretary of state, he helped negotiate the end of the Spanish-American War, established the Open Door policy with China and worked to establish the Panama Canal. The luxurious Hay-Adams Hotel, located across the street from the White House, is named for him and his best friend, Henry Adams, who resided at the site.
And, oh, yeah, Hay’s first love was poetry. He was class poet at Brown and — had this whole influencing-the-transition-from-the-19th-century-to-the-20th thing not come up — he probably would have been content to write verse his whole life.
No wonder Austin-based journalist and former Newsweek editor John Taliaferro (pronounced “Tolliver”) found Hay facinating enough to write “All the Great Prizes,” a definitive, 600-plus page biography of the man.
”Once I knew a little bit about him and I saw what a vast life he’d lived,” Taliaferro says, “I just was salivating at a chance to do it.”
Taliaferro had a contract to write a completely different book when he first encountered Hay. “I was supposed to write a book called ‘Death of a Century,’ about how the assassination of McKinley in September of 1901 was essentially the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th, that this killing was a before-and-after moment,” he says.
During his research, Taliaferro noticed that Hay was present for McKinley’s death. Then he read “Manhunt,” about Lincoln’s assassination, and noticed that Hay was present for Lincoln’s passing as well. After a few Google searches and some time at the UT library, that book about the death of a century was turning into a book about Hay.
Taliaferro says “Prizes” took five years to write: “every minute of it, mostly because Hay’s footprints are on every moment of American history between Lincoln and (Teddy) Roosevelt.”
It didn’t hurt Hay’s career that he was a terrific writer from a young age. “He was a poet, and I think Lincoln wanted one around,” Taliaferro says. “Lincoln recognized this guy’s talent.”
What Hay had, ultimately, was access and power, but he also developed a feel for how to use them. “Hay had a great vantage point,” Taliaferro says. “With each moment in his career, he saw more of the world and was able to make it to the next step. His achievement was incremental. There is no great arc, but there is an extraordinary life.”
There are moments of levity in all the solemn statecraft. Taliaferro makes the case that Hay witnessed the Gettysburg Address hung over.
“Hay got drunk the night he got to Gettysburg,” Taliaferro writes. Hay apparently didn’t think much of the now-immortal speech, or maybe he just had a brutal headache: “The President in a firm free way with more grace than is wont,” Hay wrote in his dairy, “said his half dozen lines of consecration and the music wailed and we went home.” Oops.
“I wished I’d known where he was standing,” Taliaferro said, laughing. “I couldn’t nail that little detail.”
The biggest revelation in “Prizes” concerns Hay’s private life. The married Hay was, apparently, completely in love with another woman: the deeply charismatic Elizabeth “Lizzie” Cameron.
And it turns out she had another suitor: Henry Adams. The mini-series almost writes itself. Noting both Hay’s dazzling array of political hats and his steamy letters regarding Cameron, a friend joked to Taliaferro that the writer should have called his book “50 Shades of Hay.”
Taliaferro became a big Hay fan, and “Prizes” reflects that, but he certainly admits the man had flaws. “I think his biggest shortcoming was his impatience with the U.S. Senate,” Taliaferro says. To pass a treaty made by the executive branch, you have to have the backing of two-thirds of the Senate.
“Hay would work through these treaties with his great skills,” Taliaferro says. “But once it got to the Senate, it could be ripped apart. He hated that, it made him not want to be secretary of state. He got better at selling them to the Senate over time, but it drove him nuts.”
Taliaferro says came away from the research for “Prizes” wanting to do Hay justice. “He really did seem to know everybody,” Taliaferro says. “I would be going through his letters and think, jokingly, ‘isn’t it about time for a letter from Edith Wharton,’ and suddenly there’s a letter from Edith Wharton. I should have done a six-degrees-of-John-Hay chart.”
John Taliaferro appears at 7 p.m. Friday at BookPeople, 603 North Lamar Blvd., to sign and discuss “All The Great Prizes.”
All the Great Prizes
Simon & Schuster, $35