The Quiet Little Warrior

Brown University Portrait Collection, Providence, Rhode Island
John Singer Sargent: John Hay, 1903

During the winter of 1903, John Singer Sargent was invited to the White House to paint Theodore Roosevelt’s official portrait. Feeling like “a rabbit in the presence of a boa constrictor,” Sargent had the impatient president grasp the large round knob of a staircase, as though to keep him in place. Since Roosevelt limited sessions to a half hour, Sargent improved the time by crossing Lafayette Square to the sumptuous house of John Hay, Roosevelt’s secretary of state, where he painted a portrait of Hay—a private commission—in his darkened library. While the youthful Roosevelt is depicted as a commanding presence, as though holding the diminished world in his firm grip, Hay at sixty-four, a slight man prone to obscure ailments, looks pensive, his right hand held tentatively aloft and a rebellious strand of hair straying across his creased forehead. One could almost imagine the two men posing for contrasting allegorical figures representing the Man Who Carries a Big Stick and the Man Who Talks Softly.

Perhaps there is something in the very nature of diplomacy that tends to blur the outlines of individual achievement, but no biography of Hay, or of others in his illustrious circle, has managed to capture the elusive figure in Sargent’s portrait, who once remarked, with characteristic modesty, that his life was an “oughtnottobiography.” Even Henry Adams, in his The Education of Henry Adams, with its incisive accounts of so many politicians and mountebanks, is oddly reticent about his closest friend and longtime Washington neighbor. John Taliaferro’s sympathetic but by no means hagiographic portrait, All the Great Prizes (2013), brought us closer to the subject than previous attempts, while exploring the motivations behind his self-effacement.

Three subsequent books on Hay, all of which build on Taliaferro’s findings, follow a revealing pattern. Each one pairs Hay with illustrious contemporaries: with John Nicolay, his fellow presidential secretary, in Joshua Zeitz’s Lincoln’s Boys; with Mark Twain in Mark Zwonitzer’s The Statesman and the Storyteller; and with Lincoln, Twain, Henry James, and Roosevelt, in Philip McFarland’s wide-ranging John Hay, Friend of Giants. The impression left by such partial portraits—of which Zwonitzer’s, principally concerned with Twain’s and Hay’s diverging views of the benefits of empire, is the most substantial—is that Hay, no giant himself, gained in stature by his association with others.

The subtitles of these books convey something about the sheer extent of Hay’s life, beginning with his youthful service in Abraham Lincoln’s White House. With his fellow private secretary, the German-born John Nicolay, Hay later wrote the official biography, as long as Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, of Lincoln’s life and times. Hay was regarded as the literary stylist on Lincoln’s team, ghostwriting much of the president’s correspondence, including, apparently, one of his most famous letters. Later, he wrote popular dialect poems, drawn from the…

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