Woolson and John Hay

One of Woolson’s close friends was John Hay, a famous man in his day who has been largely forgotten in ours. A new biography of him has just been published by Simon & Shuster. The author, John Taliaferro, contacted me a while looking for a good portrait of Woolson, and he was kind enough to have an advance copy of the book sent to me. I haven’t had time yet to read it all but have very much enjoyed the portions where he discusses Woolson. It is clear that the book is a weighty (in a good way) biography that is long overdue.

Hay book cover

John Hay began his political career as one of Lincoln’s secretaries. (He is hovering around the president in the background throughout the movie Lincoln.) He was present when Lincoln died and later co-wrote a 10-volume biography of him. At the end of his life he was Secretary of State under Theodore Roosevelt and established the Open Door policy with China. In between, he held a variety of posts but was also a rather prolific author.

Woolson loved his novel The Breadwinners and his poetry, using some of his poems in her stories. He once wrote a poem for Woolson to preface her story “Sister St. Luke”:
She lived shut in by flowers and trees,
And shade of gentle bigotries;
On this side lay the trackless sea,
On that the great world’s mystery;
But, all unseen and all unguessed,
They could not break upon her rest.
The world’s far glories flamed and flashed,
Afar the wild seas roared and dashed;
But in her small dull paradise,
Safe housed from rapture or surprise,
Nor day nor night had power to fright
The peace of God within her eyes.

Woolson met Hay in Cleveland after he married Clara Stone, whose sister Flora would soon marry Woolson’s nephew, Sam Mather. Woolson didn’t like feeling as she could be Hay’s aunt (he was two years older than her). But she did like being related to him, in a way. He was very encouraging of her career from the beginning and helped buoy her up when she was doubting her place in the literary world. As a friend of William Dean Howells and Henry James, his approval really meant something to her. In fact, he could have been the one to encourage her to take the rather unusual step (for the shy Woolson) of approaching Henry James when she sailed for Europe. Hay was very fond of James (they knew each other from New York, where Hay had worked on the Tribune and hired James to writes a column for the paper) and probably thought he would welcome Woolson’s friendship, which he did.

Although there is not evidence that Hay imagined James and Woolson together, he did think she would be the perfect woman for another notoriously confirmed bachelor—his friend Clarence King. He tried to set them up in Paris and wrote to Henry Adams of Woolson, “‘that very clever person, to whom men are a vain show—loved him at sight and talks of nothing else.’” She was quite fascinated with King but hardly in love with him. (I love the part of the quote “to whom men are a vain show”! How well Hay knew her.)

When Woolson died in Venice in 1894, Hay and his wife were nearby in in Rome. Hay was shocked to read of her death in an Italian newspaper and immediately offered his assistance in preparing for her funeral, paying for all expenses. He and Clara wrote moving letters home to Sam and Flora about the funeral at the Protestant Cemetery in Rome. Hay believed she would be “worthy company for the best and brightest that sleep around here,” which meant Shelley and Keats. “Her grave will be a shrine for the intelligence of the world for many years to come.” He elsewhere wrote that he thought her one of the greatest women writers of the nineteenth century.

I am glad to see that Hay is finally getting his due. A review in the New York Times Book Review is a great tribute. (Now it’s time for Woolson to get her due as well.)


Leave a Comment

  1. Anne, I can’t imagine anyone better equipped than you to manage the myriad relationships and intrigues of CFW’s life. You continue to amaze me with your grasp of it all. Thank you for the insightful piece on Woolson’s relationship with John Hay. I so look forward to reading the full bio that you’re writing.

  2. Thanks, Anne! John Hay wrote to Walt Whitman in 1887 requesting an autographed copy of “O Captain, my Captain!” Whitman wrote out the poem, signed it, and mailed it to him. (It’s at Brown, but you can see an image at the Walt Whitman Archive.) Whitman was always proud to think of Hay as a friend. I have long felt like I should know more about Hay than I do: looks like this biography is just the ticket. It can help pass the time until your Woolson biography is published!

  3. I fully agree with your assessment of Hay! Even before the movie, it looked to me like he was was an invaluable aide to Lincoln. And now we find a connection between Hay and Woolson — her range of contacts is amazing!

  4. I often wondered if Hay would get the biography he deserves. Sometimes he seems like just too nice a guy to be interesting–not enough scandal! Thanks for bringing this to my attention.

    1. I know what you mean, but I think there is some stuff in there about him falling for Lizzie Cameron, the woman Henry Adams was in love with. There might be some scandal there.

  5. I am reading your blog entries backward as I try to get to all the unread emails that have accumulated in my inbox. So the one you wrote after this one is the one I thought was wonderful. And now this one! It’s wonderful, too. Both pieces have the loveliest shapeliness and are in the best tradition of good short essays. Lovely. And here I find that a number of people have responded to this one and I love reading the interchanges. Long ago I wrote a letter to my dear friends about how I would like literary discussion to proceed — exchanges like these instead of articles in journals written in high acadamese and low communication and little content. It’s here: “Letters” in The Intimate Critique: Autobiographical Literary Criticism co-edited by Diane P. Freedman, Olivia Frey, and Frances Murphy Zauhar, Duke University Press, Durham, 1992.

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