While Americans back home struggled to hammer out what a new nation, reconstructed without slavery, would look like, Hay held government posts in England, Spain and Vienna. He returned to the United States in 1870, rocketing to fame as a poet of rollicking ballads about regular Americans, then took a job writing for the New York Tribune.
Hay turned from writing to business in 1874, when he married Clara Stone, daughter of the fabulously wealthy railroad entrepreneur Amasa Stone. Bored after a few years of working with Clara’s father, he thought of going back to England as ambassador but had been too long out of politics to get an appointment. He began to use his literary skills to spew invective for the Republican Party and won a brief stint as assistant secretary of state.
Hay’s formal employment ended in 1881. For the next 17 years, he churned out books: first “The Bread-Winners,” a pot-boiling 1883 novel; then “Abraham Lincoln: A History,” a 10-volume, 1.5-million-word biography co-written with Nicolay. He traveled, dined, chatted, flirted. In the 1896 election, Hay poured money into the campaign of Republican William McKinley. Flush with victory, McKinley named Hay ambassador to England. There, his drawing-room skills made him popular with British leaders. When McKinley needed a new secretary of state to promote American business interests overseas, he turned to the well-connected Hay. After McKinley died, Hay stayed on and adopted Theodore Roosevelt’s aggressive foreign policies, overseeing the nation’s debut on the world stage.
Hay lived through the changes that turned a crippled country into the most powerful nation on Earth, but historians have struggled to bring order to his many-faceted life. In 1915, 10 years after Hay’s death, William Roscoe Thayer published “The Life and Letters of John Hay,” which portrayed its subject as a politician first and foremost, perched on a pedestal as he guided America to world power. In 1934, Tyler Dennett won the Pulitzer Prize for a brilliant biography that painted Hay as a poet whose amiability enabled him to succeed among the politicians, industrialists, writers and diplomats of the 19th century.
Now John Taliaferro has entered the list of Hay biographers, trying to humanize the marble Hay and place him in a context that includes women. To do so, he emphasizes Hay’s apparent dalliances with two political wives of the day: Nannie Lodge and Lizzie Cameron. Allegations of these affairs are not new, although the evidence for them is inconclusive (and there is also evidence for a romantic relationship between Hay and his best friend, Henry Adams). More troublesome is that, in his focus on romance, the author ignores the power politics surrounding Nannie, the notably intelligent wife of a leading senator, and Lizzie, the wife of the chairman of the Republican National Committee.