If you thought today’s celebrities could be outrageous, you should know about James Gordon Bennett, Sr. At first glance, Bennett might sound like just another high achiever from the Gilded Age of New York. He was founder and editor of the New York Herald, and is often dubbed the ‘Father of Modern Journalism.”
Bennett transformed the newspaper into a huge commercial success, and introduced numerous journalistic practices still used today: deadline reporting, the use of correspondents, and financial reporting.
But Bennett’s place in history isn’t marked solely by solemn achievement. His paper’s journalism was at times, er, colorful to say the least; he was involved in yacht races of epic proportions; even naked carriage rides and public pottying were some of acts also attributed to Bennett. He was a high achiever in many things—including outrageous behavior.
Now at that time, too, it wasn’t like he didn’t have competition for outrageousness. Take Evander Berry Wall, whose nickname “King of the Dudes” paid tribute to not only his own sartorial splendor, but also the bespoke collars and ties worn by his dogs. Then you have C.K.G. Billings, the Gilded Era industrialist who hosted his dinner party in a Fifth Avenue Ballroom solely on horseback.
But the eccentricities of James Gordon Bennett Sr. took everything to a different level.
With his reputation, it would be surprising if Bennett was not a cocktail enthusiast, and he accumulated stories to go along with the drinking. One New Year’s Day he reportedly went on a major bender before dropping in at a formal event being thrown by the family of his (then) fiancée Caroline May. The engagement was called off after Bennett urinated in the fireplace in front of all. Frederick May, brother of the formerly betrothed, challenged Bennett to a duel, but as both were fortunately bad shots, they missed each other completely and that was that.
Bennett was known to drive his coach through the streets at great speed, often late at night and often in his birthday suit. One unfortunate incident landed him in a Parisian hospital when his head collided with a low archway.
THE COLORFUL NEW YORK HERALD
When it came to business, Bennett’s ideals for journalism were simple. Keep it (the paper itself) cheap for readers, keep it current, and as he once told a young staff member: “the object of the modern newspaper is not to instruct, but to startle and amuse.”
That often meant gossip-mongering, plain and simple. Angry crowds regularly gathered outside of the Herald‘s headquarters to protest yet another regular skewering of someone by the paper. Bennett’s subject matter for the first newspaper interview ever simultaneously put Bennett into the history books, but created controversy as well: the subject of the interview was the madam of a brothel. Bennett fought allegations after the interview was published that he flirted with the women employed by the brothel while there and was ‘distracted’ from the main stated task of the interview itself.
THE OWL and THE YACHTSMAN
Bennett was the youngest member ever of the New York Yachting Club at age 16 (vessel supplied by his father). But Bennett wasn’t content to be idly rich; he took his ship to battle during the Civil War. A year was spent at sea in the service of the Union. Bennett began his lifelong obsession with owls at this time when reportedly the hoot of one of the birds of prey woke him up and allowed him to keep his vessel from running aground.
In tribute, Bennett ran editorials on preserving owl species and he became a collector of owls—both live and in statuary form. Well-known architect (and later victim of “Crime of the Century” Stanford White was commissioned by Bennett to design the new Herald building, complete with 26 bronze owls whose eyes would flash with electric light.
The building did not survive demolishment, but two of the owls did. You can see them still today, flanking the clock in Herald Square—and their eyes are still glowing green, as they have for more than a hundred years.
On the rear of the monument is a medallion featuring an owl and a French phrase that, according to the NY Times, loosely translates as “Let’s sleep on it,” and is believed to indicate Bennett’s membership in a secret society.
THE MAD COMMODORE
Owls aside, it was really the yachting passion that defined Bennett:
- He won the first-ever transatlantic yacht race in 1866
- Aboard his steam yacht dubbed the Namouna, he famously entertained society figures and even a young Winston Churchill
- His 300-ft yacht Lysistrata featured such amenities as Turkish bath; a milk cow in a climate-controlled stall; a theater troupe, and a luxury De Dion-Bouton automobile.
That didn’t put Bennett off on the City of Light, however. After finally leaving New York behind, Bennett spent the rest of his life in Paris—and, of course, traveling the seas aboard his many yachts.
One final bit of fame: Bennett wanted to help track down a beloved Scottish missionary who’d gone missing in the jungles of Tanzania, Africa. So he bankrolled the expedition and set them up in style, with armed guards, 150 porters, and 27 pack animals. In front of the expedition was borne the New York Yacht Club flag.
The expedition, run by a gentleman named Henry Morton Stanley, was most famously a success after the missionary—named David Livingstone—was located and Stanley uttered the immortal phrase, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”
Whether this is actually how things happen is up for grabs. But it sold a lot of newspapers, no doubt.
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