A Cow on a Yacht- The Fascinating Life of Gordon Bennett Jr.

james_gordon_bennettAs the old adage goes, money doesn’t buy happiness, but it sure takes the sting out of being poor. Gordon Bennett Jr. was a man for whom money meant nothing- he spent money with such impunity that across the pond in England his name has since become synonymous with astonishment and surprise.

The son of famed newspaper magnate James Gordon Bennett Sr., James Gordon Bennett Jr. (or Gordon as he preferred to be known to differentiate himself from his father) was born with a shiny new silver spoon in his mouth in 1841. Educated mostly in France, Bennett arrived in New York at the age of 16 in the only manner befitting a young man of his station- aboard a giant 77 ton yacht his father bought him called Rebecca.

As an aside, we should probably talk about Bennett Sr. for a moment because, while he didn’t live a life as outlandishly lavish as his son, he did go a long ways towards “inventing” modern journalism. A Scottish immigrant, Bennett Sr. was inspired by Ben Franklin’s autobiography to come to the United States and start a publishing empire.  Unfortunately for him, once in America, most of his early efforts on this front failed miserably, though he found work as a proof-reader and eventually assistant editor at the New York Courier. His fortunes changed at the age of 40 when he founded the New York Herald in 1835, a paper which was, for a time, the most widely read in the States. This was in part thanks to Daddy Bennett’s steadfast efforts to ensure his publication was the first to print any breaking news, and that when possible coverage should also be extremely in-depth.

Bennett Sr.’s thinking was that people would naturally want to buy the paper that printed news first, rather than the one that took the time to be the most accurate, and towards this end he hired scores of reporters and tasked them with getting the first-hand scoop on any story before his competitors. The Herald was apparently the favourite paper of none other than Abraham Lincoln, who read it religiously thanks to its near unparalleled coverage of the Civil War, which was accomplished via Bennett Sr. literally sending his reporters to the front line to dig up stories. Bennett Sr. also pioneered the art of the news interview, starting right in his paper’s first ever front page report covering the murder of a prostitute, in which Bennett Sr. himself interviewed a madam at a brothel said prostitute had worked at.

That said, the Herald’s reputation wasn’t one associated with impeccable journalism.  One of the other reasons the paper was so successful was Bennett Sr.’s implementation of various timeless journalism tactics like not just reporting news, but any sensationalist gossip (think “Angelina and Brad- Why She Left!”) they heard too, as well as making sure wherever possible that the headlines resembled the 19th century equivalent of click-bait.

Not content to wait on stories to come to him or relying on his journalists to find them, Bennett Sr. also did things like publicly offer money to any woman who was willing to “set a trap for a Presbyterian parson, and catch one of them flagrante delicto…”

Not just interested in reporting other people’s liaisons, he also wasn’t hesitant to talk about his own, as well as describing in detail his wife’s body for the masses to drool over, along with intimate details of their wedding.

Beyond this, the paper was happy to completely contradict itself on any story or opinion piece, and inconsistencies in facts in individual reports would often go completely ignored by the editors if the potential falsities made the story more compelling. As Bennett Sr. once reportedly quipped about the sometimes lax accuracy standards of his paper’s reporting, “I print my paper every day.” (He would later also implement an evening edition of the Herald, printing twice a day to help ensure the paper never got scooped.)

As you might expect from printing every bit of salacious gossip around town, as well as instigating some of it, this resulted in rival papers labeling the Herald as nothing more than “gutter press”, as well as made Bennett Sr. his fair share of enemies. It’s for this reason that Bennett Sr. sent his son, wife and daughter to Paris, so they didn’t have to endure the threats and jeers that he did when out and about around town. In fact, there was a persistent rumour, whether true or not isn’t clear, that Bennett Sr.’s office featured a store of hidden weapons for when people offended by one of his paper’s stories tried to storm his office and he had to defend himself.

Back to Bennett Jr.- when he returned to New York as a teen to begin learning the tools of his father’s trade, he made an immediate splash amongst the high society sorts by becoming the youngest member of the prestigious New York Yachting Club at just 16 years and 3 months old. Not just let in because of his daddy’s bank account, commanding a crew of nearly two dozen in various races, it is noted by the club’s history that the Rebecca frequently finished near the top of the results for several years until Bennett bought an even more garish yacht to replace it. In fact, in 1866 with his new ship, the Henrietta, Bennett Jr. actually won the first ever transatlantic yacht race completing the journey from New Jersey to the Isle of Wight (a distance of about 3,000 miles or 4800 km) in just under 14 days.

Speaking of the Henrietta, during the American Civil War Bennett graciously volunteered it for service. During his time in the military aboard his luxury yacht, Bennett and the Henrietta, among other escapades, took part in an operation to recapture Fernandina in Florida.

After leaving the military, Bennett returned to doing what he did best- partying and consorting with New York’s elite. In time, Bennett’s drunken exploits became the stuff of legend amongst the world’s high society. Much like his father before him, when Bennett Jr. took over the Herald at the age of 25 upon his father’s retirement, he was all too happy to disseminate unflattering stories of his own misdeeds to the masses, making Bennett a tidy profit off of his debauchery. Unfortunately for us, this also makes it difficult to determine how much of the stories of his various escapades reported were exaggerated for effect.

Examples of this include his bizarre practice of riding his personal carriage about the streets of the city at break-neck speeds in the middle of the night completely nude. Far from being a rare occurrence, this was seemingly one of Bennett’s favourite drunken hobbies, just behind sailing, the frequency of the reports making us reasonably certain this particular eccentricity was accurately reported, as well as helping to earn Bennett Jr. the nickname, “The Mad Commodore”.

Jennie (Jerome) Churchill

Jennie (Jerome) Churchill

Not exactly the safest thing in the world, this did occasionally result in injury. Most notable to subsequent history was a time when (a reportedly fully clothed) Bennett took the young Jennie Jerome, daughter of the “King of Wall Street” Leonard Jerome, on just such a high speed carriage ride. Unfortunately for the pair, Bennett lost control of the vehicle causing the carriage to overturn, an accident that could have potentially been lethal to one or both, but in which they emerged bruised, but alive.

Why is Jennie not being crushed or otherwise maimed by the carriage significant to history? The noted American beauty would grow up to be the equally interesting individual, Lady Jeanette Churchill, mother of Sir Winston Churchill.

Back to Bennett’s love of the sea- as alluded to, Bennett invested a considerable amount of money in a number of luxury yachts which ranged from world record setting racing schooners to massive, cruise liner looking behemoths, bloated with a host of interesting features. The most indulgent of these was probably a room Bennett had constructed on his 100 yard (92 metre) yacht, the $635,000 ($17.8 million today) Lysistrata. What was so special about this room? Beyond that it featured the somewhat novel (for the age) large electric fan for cooling purposes, the room was designed to comfortably house a cow. Why? So Bennett always had fresh milk, cream, and butter while at sea.

The ship also included, among numerous rooms for the large crew and guests, three personal suites on different decks so Bennett wouldn’t have to be troubled with walking too far to his quarters at any given time.  It also contained an automobile that would be transported to shore whenever Bennett arrived someplace, including famously on one journey to Bermuda in 1906 in which Bennett’s car was the first ever driven those shores. This was much to the consternation of one of the Herald‘s more famous occasional authors, Mark Twain, who noted of the idea of a car in Bermuda, “It would be a fatal error to attract to Bermuda the extravagant and sporting set who have made so many other places entirely intolerable to persons of taste and cultivation.”

Another example of Bennett’s reported antics occurred one evening while he was dining at the New York Union Club when a fire started, prompting the very drunk paper mogul to leap into action and begin directing the firefighters on how to properly tackle the blaze. The firefighters got so annoyed with Bennett’s “help” that they launched him across the street by spraying him with the high pressure hose. It was reported that the next day Bennett had little memory of any of this, but upon being informed by one of his friends how he’d gotten so wet and of his drunken antics the night previous, Bennett bought every firefighter in the department a brand new overcoat by way of apology.

On yet another occasion, after losing a bet, Bennett drunkenly rode a pony through the dining room of a Newport social club, prompting them to ban him for life. Bennett purportedly reacted to the ban by buying the building next door, turning it into a social club of his own and inviting all of their members to join.

This was by no means the pettiest purchase Bennett reportedly ever made though; that honour belongs to the time he tried to get a seat in his favourite restaurant and was rebuffed. Offended, Bennett did a Bruce Wayne and simply purchased the restaurant to avoid such an issue in the future.

While it may seem that Bennett was a stereotypical trust-fund baby spending daddy’s money without working a day in his life, he was also known for being an exceptionally astute businessman and very generous with his personal fortune, frequently donating exceptionally large sums at random to various charities around town, often seemingly on a whim. Other times he was more thoughtful about such donations, such as during the Panic of 1873 when he opened a soup kitchen to ensure no one in the city need go hungry. Not one to do things half way, the soup and sandwiches handed out were made at the then prodigious Delmonico’s restaurant.

As for his work, when he took over the Herald in 1866, Bennett followed his father’s lead and took a number of steps to ensure the paper continued to be known for breaking, sensationalist news. Among his more famous ventures as a newsman was that time he sponsored the journey of one Henry Morton Stanley to track down the famed, supposedly missing, Scottish missionary and explorer Dr David Livingston.

Russell E. Train Africana Collection, Smithsonian Institution Libraries.Bennett funded Stanley’s harrowing, approximately 700 mile (1100 km) adventure through Africa on the condition that the Herald got to cover it exclusively. He also made sure Stanley travelled in the lap of luxury by providing not just excessive funds for the journey but, according to a contemporary report, “a compact force of three whites, thirty-one armed freemen of Zanzibar as escort, 150 porters and 27 pack animals”. However, it should be noted that according to Stanley’s own journal, his expedition actually “only” numbered 111 at its peak. (You can read more about this little adventure in Stanley’s book, How I Found Livingston.)

Of course, Dr Livingston hadn’t actually mysteriously disappeared as the Herald purported; he just disappeared from the wider public eye for several years partially owing to doing little of note in that time, not helped by the fact that the majority of the letters he wrote home were lost in transit. This all lead Bennett to decide to fund an expedition to find out whatever happened to the once famous missionary.

The sensationalized version of the story kept the masses enthralled as they read about Stanley’s adventure through African jungles searching for the good Doctor.  When Stanley finally found Livingston near Lake Tanganyika in Ujiji on November 10, 1871, it was reported in the Herald that he uttered the now famous line: “Dr Livingston, I presume?” To which Livingston supposedly replied the lesser remembered, “Yes. I feel thankful that I am here to welcome you.”

Bennett additionally funded an ill-fated polar trip in 1879 by the explorer George Washington De Long, who sadly died on the journey.

Beyond this, another harebrained product of his media savvy included that time he had the Herald print a story of a mass breakout of wild animals at the Central Park Zoo in 1874, with the animals rampaging about town causing death, mutilations, and mayhem in the streets, all described in gory detail. The front page headline that day read: “A Shocking Sabbath Carnival of Death.  Savage Brutes at Large.  Awful Combats Between the Beasts and Citizens”.

Of course, none of this actually happened, but the public ate the story up, and many a confused competing newspaper wondered how they’d missed such a huge story happening right under their noses. It was explained near the back of the paper that the front-page zoo breakout story hadn’t actually happened but was simply there to illustrate what could happen given the lax caging standards at the zoo at the time.

Beyond explorers and sensationalized made up stories, the paper funded a number of sporting events, something of a novel concept at the time. For instance, Bennett paid to ensure that his newspaper had exclusive coverage rights of many such events, often helping to organize them himself- including some of the first balloon races, soccer matches (in the U.S.), and auto racing events. He even organised the first known professional tennis and polo matches ever held on U.S. soil, including paying to bring over the entire British Polo team in 1878 to show the Americans how it was done. These latter two were sports he became a fan of while in Europe, spending much of his adult life living in Paris, attempting to grow the European branch of his paper, The Paris Herald, while running the main U.S. branch from afar, for reasons we’ll get to shortly.

To help in managing his affairs from across the pond, in 1883 he helped found a company that laid the first non-Western Union telegraph cable linking the United States to Europe, drastically cutting the cost of this high speed communication between the two continents thanks to breaking Western Union’s monopoly. However, even with this technology, it is noted that the New York Herald suffered from having its manager living abroad, rather than living locally and having his finger on the pulse of the city. As a result, not long after his move, the paper’s circulation began a slow but steady decline from its peak in 1885.

Interestingly enough, Bennett Jr. actually predicted communication mediums like the telegraph would ultimately put newspapers out of business, as he thought people would eventually just get their news instantly that way, rather than needing to wait for papers to be printed. Thus, he felt the only news agencies that would survive the paradigm shift would be those who put value not just on reporting the facts of the news, as was common at the time among many respected publications, but taking the time to analyze and provide commentary on it, giving people something unique they couldn’t just get anywhere. He noted of this, “‘Mere newspapers — the circulators of intelligence merely — must submit to destiny and go out of existence”, and that a result of technology displacing the classic newspaper format would be that “The intellectual, philosophic and original journalist will have a greater, a more excited and a more thoughtful audience than ever.”

As for his home life, Bennett lived the life of a bachelor until he was married at age 73, though he was briefly engaged in 1877 to a prominent socialite on the New York scene called Caroline May. In fact, The Edwardsville Intelligencer reported that,

The trousseau of Miss May, who is to marry James Gordon Bennett, has arrived from Europe, where it was collected at an expense of $20,000 [about half a million dollars today], according to gossips. It is said to be the most elaborate and beautiful ever prepared for an American lady.

What happened to end the high profile engagement is subject to some debate, but the general rumour at the time was that Bennett drunkenly stumbled into a party held by Caroline’s family, during which he used either the family’s fireplace, piano, or a house plant as a toilet while the other prestigious guests looked on in shock.  (This event would later get Bennett listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for the “Greatest Engagement Faux Pas”.) Whatever the exact details, the result was the wedding being almost immediately called off.

Shortly thereafter it was reported in The Perry Chief, “James Gordon Bennett was publicly horse-whipped this morning, by Frederick May, brother of the girl to whom Bennett was engaged to be married.”

After the drubbing, Frederick challenged Bennett to a duel. Neither man was injured in the ensuing shootout (each individual’s shot missed, despite only being 12 paces away). Directly thereafter, whether from embarrassment or rumoured fear of Caroline’s brother, Bennett high-tailed it to Paris where he remained for most of the rest of his life.

Bennett would remain single for another four decades, eventually marrying the widow of the son of the founder of Reuters news agency, Maud Potter, then 48 years old, in 1914. Bennett died four years later in 1918.

Today Bennett’s legendary reputation for debauchery and excess lives on in the UK as a popular exclamation of incredulity, “Gordon Bennett!”, with the first known documented instances of the exclamation popping up about two decades after his death. Yes, this man lived so hard and so fast with so many incredulous stories surrounding his life that today his very name is synonymous with something unbelievable.

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Bonus Fact:

  • Gordon Bennett Jr. also has the distinction of helping to popularise the name Gordon. Before the late 19th century, Gordon as a first name was almost unheard of, being a somewhat obscure Scottish surname, which is how it ended up as Gordon Bennett Sr.’s middle name. It is theorised that the rise in popularity of “Gordon” as a first name coinciding with the point in which James “Gordon” Bennett Jr.s’ life started becoming highly publicised on both sides of the pond is no coincidence.
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