Books

by John Taliaferro

Events:
Thursday, January, 01, 1970

All the Great Prizes

The Life of John Hay, from Lincoln to Roosevelt

If Henry James or Edith Wharton had written a novel describing the accomplished and glamorous life and times of John Hay, it would have been thought implausible – a novelist’s fancy. Nevertheless, John Taliaferro’s brilliant biography captures the extraordinary life of Hay, one of the most amazing figures in American history, and restores him to his rightful place.

John Hay was both witness and author of many of the most significant chapters in American history – from the birth of the Republican Party, the Civil War, and the Spanish-American War, to the prelude to the First World War. Much of what we know about Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt comes to us through the observations Hay made while private secretary to one and secretary of state to the other. With All the Great Prizes, the first authoritative biography of Hay in eighty years, Taliaferro has turned the lens around, rendering a rich and fascinating portrait of this brilliant American and his many worlds.

Hay’s friends are a who’s who of the era: Mark Twain, Horace Greeley, Henry Adams, Henry James, and virtually every president, sovereign, author, artist, power broker, and robber baron of the Gilded Age. As an ambassador and statesman, he guided many of the country’s major diplomatic initiatives at the turn of the twentieth century: the Open Door with China, the creation of the Panama Canal, the establishment of America as a world leader.

Hay’s peers esteemed him as “a perfectly cut stone” and “the greatest prime minister this republic has ever known.” But for all his poise and polish, he had his secrets. His marriage to one of the wealthiest women in the country did not prevent him from pursuing the Madame X of Washington society, whose other secret suitor was Hay’s best friend, Henry Adams.

With this superb work, Taliaferro brings us an epic tale.

   

"A valuable reassessment of an underestimated politician and diplomat"
The Economist
“Taliaferro’s skillful, admiring biography … brings Hay vividly to life.”
Publishers Weekly
“John Hay … the world’s most interesting man…. The mini-series almost writes itself.”
Austin American-Statesman
“It was a rare pleasure to spend a week in the company of a man of such grace, charm, intelligence, and accomplishment as John Hay in this fine biography by John Taliaferro…. [All the Great Prizes] is a full, balanced, and admiring portrait of this great American. While not hesitating to show Hays warts and weaknesses (few), it nevertheless presents the sort of man who can serve as a model for Americans seeking to understand us at our best…. It speaks to the high art of Taliaferro’s writing that this jam packed life … maintains the reader’s attention and earns more than respect for his subject.”
Ted Lehmann
blogspot.com
"John Taliaferro’s big, utterly fantastic new biography of Hay … becomes at once the definitive portrait of a man whose life spanned a crucial era in American history – and whose work helped define that era…. A genius of animation works on every page…. Taliaferro carries his argument magnificently, assessing with a nice candor.”
Steve Donghue
Open Letters Monthly
“Given that John Hay’s public career was bookended by his service to Lincoln and Roosevelt, it seems surprising that this is the first biography written about him in 80 years. Thanks to Taliaferro’s skillful work, it seems unlikely that another will be needed for a while.”
Dallas Morning News
"This is a great biography of a great American…. John Taliaferro tells the full story of Hay’s life, not only his complex professional life but also his fascinating personal life…. He has given us a detailed, readable, strong account of one of the greatest Americans of his generation.”
Walter Stahr
Washington Independent Review of Books
"In this lively and landmark biography, the distinguished writer John Taliaferro analyzes the long public career of John Hay – who held the distinction of being Abraham Lincoln’s personal secretary and Theodore Roosevelt’s Secretary of State – is one of the seminal statesmen in American history. All the Great Prizes is the grand book he so richly deserves."
Douglas G. Brinkley
author of "Cronkite"
“At long last, John Hay has gotten the biography he deserves. From his youthful service at Lincoln’s side to his late years as Theodore Roosevelt’s Secretary of State, this gifted writer, diplomat, and friend was a central figure in America’s exciting journey from near-death to world power. John Taliaferro tells this remarkable life in rich and flowing detail.”
David Von Drehle
author of "Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year"
“John Hay led more than a charmed life – yet endured more than his share of tragedy. John Taliaferro brings Lincoln’s gifted secretary and biographer – and Theodore Roosevelt’s accomplished secretary of state – back to vivid life in this page-turning account of an extraordinary eyewitness to, and maker of, American history. After generations of bewildering neglect, Hay needs a great biography no longer.”
Harold Holzer
author of "Lincoln at Cooper Union"
"One of the most intriguing figures of the Gilded Age, Hay emerges in this beautifully narrated book as an astute, if somewhat unwilling, eyewitness to history. Making deft use of Hay’s own letters, some recently discovered, Taliaferro brings the man to life."
Martha A. Sandweiss
author of "Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line"
"John Hay has long been one of those remarkable American figures who hide in plain historical sight – until now. With insight and eloquence, John Taliaferro has brought Hay into the foreground, telling a remarkable story remarkably well."
Jon Meacham
author of "Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power"
"John Hay began his career as private secretary to Abraham Lincoln, writing many of Lincoln’s letters, and ended it as secretary of state in the administrations of William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, responsible for many of their foreign-policy achievements. He was at the bedside of Lincoln and of McKinley as each president lay dying of an assassin’s bullet. John Taliaferro’s absorbing biography of this notable author, diplomat, and bon vivant who knew most of the important people of his time fully measures up to the significance of its subject."
James McPherson
author of "Batttle Cry of Freedom"
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Charles M. Russell

The Life and Legend of America's Cowboy Artist

This first comprehensive biography of Charles M. Russell examines the colorful life and times of Montana’s famed Cowboy Artist. Born to an affluent St. Louis family in 1864, young Russell read thrilling tales of the West and filled sketchbooks with imagined frontier scenes. At sixteen he left home and headed west to become a cowboy. In Montana Territory he consorted with cowpunchers, Indians, preachers, saloon keepers, and prostitutes, while celebrating the waning American frontier’s glory days in some 4,000 paintings, watercolors, drawings, and sculptures. Before his death in 1926, Russell saw the world change dramatically, and the West he loved passed into legend. By then he was revered as one of the country’s ranking Western artist with works displayed in the finest galleries, his romantic vision of the Old West forever shaping our own.

Taliaferro reveals the man behind the myth in his multifaceted complexity: extraordinarily gifted, self-effacing, charming, mischievous, and playful, a friend to rough frontier denizens and Hollywood stars alike. The author also explores Russell’s controversial partnership with his fiery young wife, Nancy, whose ambition and business savvy helped establish Russell as one of America’s most popular artists.

“The author shines as he captures the context of Russell’s life…. Taliaferro separates the facts from the fiction of past writers and gives us Charlie with all his foibles. This may well be the definitive biography of Charles M. Russell.”
Cowboys and Indians
“John Taliaferro … is a passionate and thorough researcher who lets old Charlie’s personality shine through. His biography is one of the most enlightening and engaging I’ve read in a good while.”
Judyth Rigler
San Antonio Express-News
“This meticulously researched biography … covers Russell’s entire life, refutes the myths and lies, and contributes new insights…. The good, the bad and the ugly are all here, without prejudice.”
Austin American-Statesman
Charles M. Russell is John Taliaferro’s wonderfully engaging biography of a self-effacing icon who merely considered himself lucky to be in the right place at the right time.”
Chicago Tribune
“Whatever Russell’s status in art history – detractors debunk his work for sentimentalism; enthusiasts value its evocative panoramas – his companionable character is seamlessly restored by Taliaferro.”
Booklist
“Charlie Russell fans will savor this work, how it places a tangible heart and soul behind his paintings. The legend of Charlie Russell was not wanting in grandeur, just accuracy, and the new biography completes the job in full color.”
Big Sky Journal
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Great White Fathers

The Story of the Obsessive Quest to Create Mount Rushmore

Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor of Mount Rushmore National Memorial, hoped that ten thousand years from now, when archaeologists came upon the four sixty-foot presidential heads carved in the Black Hills of South Dakota, they would have a clear and graphic understanding of American civilization.

Borglum had an almost Ahab-like obsession with colossalism – a scale that matched his ego and the era. He learned how to be a celebrity from Auguste Rodin; how to be a political bully from Teddy Roosevelt. He ran with the Ku Klux Klan and mingled with the rich and famous from Wall Street to Washington. Mount Rushmore was to be his crowning achievement, the newest wonder of the world, the greatest piece of public art since Phidias carved the Parthenon.

Perhaps it is this very bombast that makes Mount Rushmore such an evocative and provocative masterpiece – inspiring and unsettling all at once. In Great White Fathers, author John Taliaferro chronicles the heroic struggle to shape the four faces of Rushmore, and then he shows us the warts, too. He reveals the astonishing backstory of America’s “Shrine of Democracy” – how the Black Hills were snatched from the Lakota Sioux; the grueling and perilous task of carving mammoth faces with dynamite and jackhammers while swinging from a five-hundred-foot cliff; the impact of auto tourism and crass commercialism on the land and lifestyles of the Great Plains.

Like so many episodes in the saga of the American West, what began as a personal dream had to be bailed out by the federal government, a compromise that nearly drove Gutzon Borglum over the brink. Nor in the end could Borglum control how his masterpiece would be received by future generations.

Great White Fathers is at once the biography of a man and the biography of a place, told through travelogue, interviews, and investigation of the vast records left behind by one of America’s most eccentric, and emblematic, visionaries. It proves that the best American stories are not simple; they are complex and contradictory, at times humorous, at other times tragic.

"John Taliaferro has done a brilliant job of making the carving of Mount Rushmore vivid for us today. The story is absorbing and the book is a wonderful read.”
Larry McMurtry
author of “Lonesome Dove” and “Crazy Horse”
“Taliaferro’s narrative sparkles…. The most fascinating aspect of [his] book is a recurring theme that’s just as relevant now as it was in Borglum’s day: Monuments are controversial.”
Forbes FYI
“In Great White Fathers, John Taliaferro … does justice to the remarkable story behind the creation of this ‘Shrine of Democracy,’ which many today probably consider a natural part of the American landscape. It is anything but that, as Taliaferro details in superlative prose, with fascinating depth and splendid sensitivity.”
Plain-Dealer
Cleveland
“If ever there was a book that could make one long to visit an American landmark – this is it. John Taliaferro’s insightful account of the sculpting of Mount Rushmore is both a telling piece of art history and an enthralling analysis of the cultural, technological, and political forces that helped shape this singular monument in the Black Hills of South Dakota.”
Barnes & Noble
in selecting Great White Fathers for “Discover Great New Writers,” 2003
Great White Fathers is John Taliaferro’s [own] gift to posterity, since turning the story of one stone carver’s obsession into a lively history book is no small feat.”
Boston Globe
“Taliaferro’s crisp prose captures not only a driven man but also an early 20th-century America enchanted with its own myth…. [T]his book is a strange mix of the glorious and the disturbing … a major book about an American character – and the early 20th century monument that was an expression of that brash, confident collective personality.”
Kansas City Star
“It takes a skilled writer and reporter to make an old, familiar story fresh, and in his book, Great White Fathers, Taliaferro excels, capturing the age and the personalities that led to the creation of a modern-day Colossus…. Taliaferro’s lens in the book is broad and his eye is inquisitive, roaming widely to give the complete story…. At the last page, the reader is left with a sense of having learned much about an obscure and complicated chapter of American history. There is also the wistful hope that there might have been just a little more. And in the writing game, this truly is the sign of a tale well told.”
San Antonio Express-News
Great White Fathers is an engaging tale well told. Taliaferro positions the bigness of Borglum alongside the subtler cracks and shadings of his super-size legacy. This book is an insightful period piece, appreciably enriching – and no minivan required.”
Austin American-Statesman
“What a fabulous, infuriating bastard, Gutzon Borglum. He dies three quarters of the way through the book, but through the vivid picture Taliaferro paints, he lingers over every subsequent page, like a peevish and arrogant ghost….”
Missoula Independent
“John Taliaferro’s engrossing Great White Fathers gives us fascinating facts aplenty…. [N]ever tedious, [it] meshes art, history, politics and abnormal psychology into an absorbing account of how a familiar symbol of national hubris was made.”
Savannah News
“Taliaferro makes nonfiction read like a historical saga…. His words read fast and easy. (Too bad history textbooks aren’t written this well.)
Argus News
Sioux Falls
“John Taliaferro has done a brilliant job of making the carving of Mount Rushmore vivid for us today. The story is absorbing and the book is a wonderful read.”
Larry McMurtry
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In a Far Country

The True Story of a Mission, a Marriage, a Murder, and the Remarkable Remarkable Reindeer Rescue of 1898

At the heart of the rescue expedition lies another, in some ways more compelling, journey. In a Far Country is the personal odyssey of Tom and Ellen Lopp - their commitment to the natives and the rugged but happy life they built for themselves amid a treeless tundra at the top of the world. The Lopps pulled through on grit and wits, on humility and humor, on trust and love, and by the grace of God. Their accomplishment would surely have received broader acclaim had it not been eclipsed by two simultaneous events: the Spanish-American War and the Alaska gold rush. The United States and its territories were transformed abruptly and irrevocably by these fits of expansionist fever, and despite the thoughtful, determined guidance of the Lopps, the natives of the North were soon overwhelmed by a force mightier than the fiercest Arctic winter: the twentieth century.
“It is hard to believe that the epic adventures of Tom and Ellen Lopp have remained largely undiscovered until now. In a Far Country is a gripping and inspiring true story that combines all the best elements of a touching love poem, a deep and resounding history lesson, and a pulse-quickening action-adventure tale. John Taliaferro’s research is impressive and thorough, and his writing is crisp and vivid. He does not impose himself on the story, but rather lets his remarkable characters and their actions breathe and live on the page. Riveting.”
Jennifer Niven
author of "The Ice Master" and "Ada Blackjack"
“Here is the perfect Arctic adventure – smart, exciting, and all true. A hard one to put down. If you want more ice cold courage and endurance on land and sea than John Taliaferro has woven out of history, you’re not getting enough frostbite lately.”
Seth Kantner
author of "Ordinary Wolves"
“[Taliaferro’s] well-written account focuses on the trials and triumphs of the Lopps, their family life, and their American Missionary Association work in frontier Alaska prior to and immediately after the rescue expedition…. [A] vivid, thoughtful, and often heartbreaking portrait of a brutal yet fragile wilderness, threatened by the destabilizing encroachment of modernity into native communities.”
Library Journal
“In 1898, [Tom] Lopp was called upon to lead a winter-relief expedition 700 miles north to Barrow to bring reindeer to feed 200 whalers whose ships had become trapped in the ice. Although Taliaferro uses this exciting tale to frame his book, it’s only part of the story…. We catch glimpse of the Alaskan frontier at a time of enormous change.”
Seattle Times
“Rich in detail … a thorough account of a long-forgotten adventure.”
Booklist
“A rip-snorting yarn of man pitted against the elements….”
New York Times
“[A]n adventure tale in the grand tradition….”
Boston Globe
“A superb against-the-odds tale…”
Washington Post
“[F]or all the excitement Jack London brought to a story, it hardly compares to the real deal as brought to life by John Taliaferro.”
San Antonio Express-News
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In a Far Country Cover

Tarzan Forever

The Life of Edgar Rice Burroughs Creator of Tarzan

When Tarzan of the Apes was published in The All-Story in 1912, Edgar Rice Burroughs was just another would-be writer struggling to support himself and his family by penning adventure stories for readers of "the pulps," the cheap mass-market magazines popular at the time. When he died in 1950, he was the bestselling author of the twentieth century, overseeing interests that spanned publishing, movies, radio, newspaper syndication, toys, even real estate. He had millions of enthusiastic readers around the world and had earned the respect of magazines that never published his stories: The Saturday Evening Post admitted of Burroughs's writing, "There are pages of his books which have the authentic flash of storytelling genius." He was, in short, a publishing wonder who had unexpectedly created the century's first superhero, Tarzan — a pop-culture icon that has known few rivals.

In Tarzan Forever: The Life of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Creator of Tarzan, John Taliaferro vividly recounts the remarkable life and career of the originator of Tarzan. Drawn extensively from Burroughs's own correspondence, memos, and manuscripts, Taliaferro's richly detailed narrative reveals how Burroughs, a down-on-his-luck Chicago pencil-sharpener salesman, first wrote about his most famous character, how he grasped the appeal of this "feral god," and how be spent the rest of his life nurturing and protecting it. Burroughs, Taliaferro explains, was a pioneer of synergy: His cross-promotional and marketing efforts helped sustain Tarzan's popularity for decades and increased Burroughs's readership far beyond North America. In the course of his career, Burroughs wrote scores of other books and stories, including westerns and adventures set on Mars, Venus, and at the Earth's core. In an attempt to graduate from the pulps, he made several stabs at the modern genre of social realism, though inevitably his editors and fans drove him back to his tried-and-true -- more Tarzan tales. Even today, a half-century after Burroughs's death, the character of Tarzan thrives; the arrival of Disney's animated Tarzan is only the latest manifestation.

Important as Tarzan was to Burroughs, Taliaferro makes clear that Burroughs's life was at least as colorful as the life of his jungle creation. Burroughs was a cavalryman in the Arizona Territory, a cowboy in Idaho, a speculator in Southern California real estate, a Hollywood producer, a witness to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and even a war correspondent in the South Pacific. Unlike Tarzan, though, Burroughs was far from the ideal balance of nature and nurture. He failed at two marriages, and despite the enormous popularity of his books and MGM's Tarzan movies of the thirties and forties, his lavish appetites forever pushed him to the brink of bankruptcy. Shaky finances ultimately drove him to develop his beloved California ranch, Tarzana, into the town of Tarzana, a Los Angeles suburb that today stands as the antithesis of Tarzan's African paradise. Quick to speak out on the controversial issues of his day, Burroughs wrote essays and stories advocating eugenics, the extermination of "moral imbeciles," and the deportation of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

In Tarzan Forever, Taliaferro captures all of Burroughs's gifts and flaws, his contradictions and complexities. The result is a deeply satisfying look at one of the architects of today's popular culture.    

“Taliaferro doesn’t gloss over Burroughs’ flaws and florid prose, but in the end, he provides an incisive read about a rogue who became one of the godfathers of pop culture and one of the first explorers of the American celebrity jungle.”
Boston Globe
“Fearlessly, John Taliaferro … plunges into this huge pot of material and comes up with an evenhanded portrait.”
Houston Chronicle
“Taliaferro … has put together a fast-paced, highly readable account that walks a perfect line between appreciation and critical awareness.”
Kirkus Review
“For half of the 20th century Edgar Rice Burroughs was the lord of the jungle, and Tarzan Forever provides a first-rate guide to his colorful life and achievement.”
Washington Post
In Tarzan Forever, John Taliaferro … skillfully recounts the story of Burroughs and his creations and is particularly good at showing how Burroughs fits into the growing importance of popular culture in the 20th century.”
New York Times Book Review
“a stylish and satisfying biography…”
Parade Magazine
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