Gordon Bennett (1841-1918)

(James) Gordon Bennett, Jr., Yachtsman & Bad Boy Owner of the 'New York Herald'

He was born at 114 Chambers Street in New York, but was brought up in Paris by his mother with his sister and a retinue of tutors and housemaids. He inherited the New York Herald; sponsored Stanley's trip to Africa to find Livingstone and George W. DeLong's disastrous voyage to the North Pole; won the first transatlantic yachting race; fought the last duel in the United States; introduced polo to the United States; was the youngest ever Commodore of the New York Yacht Club; co-founded the American Jockey Club; sponsored the Bennett Trophy in motor racing and the Bennett Cup for yachting; established the Coupe Bennett hot-air balloon race that is still held today; and, built the Newport Casino. Eventually ostracized from New York society in 1877 for his scandalous behaviour, he gave rise to the English expletive "Gordon Bennett!".

Having graduated from the École Polytechnique in Paris and already a member of the New York Yacht Club, in 1861 he enlisted in the Union Navy as a Lieutenant on his own 160-ton yacht, Henrietta - named for his mother. After the war, he worked closely with his father and in 1867 was handed control of the New York Herald in addition to establishing the Evening Telegram. The Herald already enjoyed the highest circulation in the U.S. and he furthered its readership by establishing international editions in London and Paris as well as co-founding the Commercial Cable Company. He continued in his father's mould: the purpose of the news was not to educate, but to startle. His greatest publicity stunt was to sponsor Henry Morton Stanley to travel to Africa and report on his mission to find Henry Livingstone. In 1872, he commissioned 'The Bennett Building' (that still stands today at 93-99 Nassau Street, New York) as the paper's headquarters until 1895 when he hired  McKim, Mead & White to build an elegant new building modelled on the Palazzo del Consiglio (Palazzo Chigi) in Verona on what has ever since been called Herald Square.

Living Scandalously

Bennett was introduced to women and alcohol in Paris as soon as he reached puberty and his wildness continued from there. When he first arrived in New York, Leonard Jerome took him under his wing and introduced him to a gang of society bravadoes. His closest friends were Jerome, Carroll Livingston, S. Howland Robbins, Dr. Charles Phelps, and Louis Lorillard. He enjoyed racing through the streets in his four-in-hand, often in the middle of night wearing nothing but a white silk top hat, and on one occasion he nearly altered the course of world history when he lost control on a sharp corner and his riding companion - Jennie Jerome, mother of Winston Churchill - was thrown from the carriage. With echoes of Woolworth, he was obsessed with the symbolism of owls that featured on every building and memorial he built, and such was the value he placed on his Pekingese dogs that for years he would only hire people at the Herald to whom they showed affection - although one wily customer got around that hinderance by hiding veal on his person.

The First Transoceanic Yacht Race & Namouna

In 1866, in the Henrietta, Bennett won the first trans-oceanic yacht race ever held, sailing from Sandy Hook, New Jersey, to The Needles on the Isle of Wight in 13-day 21-hours, eight hours ahead of he runner-up. The other competitors were Pierre Lorillard IV and the brothers Franklin and George Osgood, each of whom had put up $30,000 towards the prize money. Bennett's father was so impressed by the victory that it spurred him to put the Herald into his hands and a year later Bennett became the youngest ever Commodore of the New York Yacht Club. In 1883, he commissioned the most magnificent yacht of its day, Namouna, on which he kept a cow so that he could always have fresh cream on tap. Weighing in at 616-tons and 226-feet long, she was far larger and 41-feet longer than the next largest yacht, the first Corsair. He sailed in her up the Nile, to India and Ceylon, and crossed the Atlantic regularly - always doing the navigation himself. On a cruise down the east coast of Africa, he visited the Emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia who presented him with a monkey that he thereafter kept at his villa in the South of France, Villa Namouna.

Introducing Polo to the United States

In 1876, Bennett watched a game of polo in England and so taken by it, he immediately hired Captain "Sugar" Candy of the 9th Queen's Royal Lancers to come to New York to teach his friends how to play - thus single-handedly introducing the sport of polo to the United States and co-founding the Westchester Polo Club in the same year.

The Last Duel Fought on American Soil

In 1876, Bennett was frequently seen out with Edith May and after they attended Lord Dufferin's Ball in Toronto it was considered only a matter of time before their engagement was formally announced, particularly when a bridal trousseau had been seen to arrive for Edith from Paris. But, instead of wedding bells, rumors began to abound about various "wild escapades" involving Bennett and the rumors were quickly followed by the news that the engagement had been broken off. It transpired that Bennett had turned up both late and drunk to a party hosted by his would-be in-laws and ended up urinating in a fireplace (or a grand piano) in full view of all the other guests! Outraged, a few days later Edith's brother, Frederick, set off to the Union Club on Fifth Avenue with a cowhide whip in hand. When Bennett finally appeared, May set upon him and Bennett, "was assaulted, beaten, and thrown down". Humiliated, in retaliation - though contrary to the accepted 'code of honor' - Bennett issued May with a challenge to a duel that was duly accepted.

The following day (January 10th, 1877) the parties met at Marydel on the Maryland-Delaware boundary line. It was reported that both men fired three shots at twenty paces at which point their seconds stepped in and drew the affair to a close without a drop of blood being spilled. The two men then reconvened to the local Dover Hotel, ordered beer together, and eventually shook hands; and, so ended the last duel fought on American soil. Nonetheless, Bennett remained terrified of May for the rest of his life and years later when undressing in front of a showgirl he somewhat sheepishly revealed a chain mail under shirt, admitting that he'd heard Fred May had arrived in France.

The Newport Casino

To avoid awkward questions from the Grand Jury and having been made unwelcome by society hostesses, Bennett lived for the next few years in Paris. Very much still at the helm of the Herald, he made occasional surprise visits to ensure that everything was still being run to his order. On one such visit in 1879, he extended his stay by heading down to his summer home in Newport, Stone Villa, in the company of his old polo crony, Captain "Sugar" Candy. He bet Candy that he wouldn't ride his pony into the courtly confines of the Newport Reading Room - which he did. The old Americans were so outraged by the English officer's impudence they stripped Bennett of his membership. In response, Bennett hired McKim, Mead & White to build his own club opposite his own home, the Newport Casino, which almost overnight became the most fashionable club in Newport hosting horse shows, flower shows, tennis tournaments, balls, theatricals and more.

The 5 Gordon Bennett Cups

(1) On the Côte d'Azur in 1893, Bennett and Ogden Goelet founded the Union des Yachtsmen de Cannes, and together in the following year they sponsored the Cannes Yachting Regatta, offering the Gordon Bennett Cup that was competed for by the Prince of Wales among others. (2) In 1899, Bennett offered the Automobile Club de France (ACF) a trophy to be competed for annually between any automobile club from any country. The Gordon Bennett Cup was awarded until 1905, after which the ACF held the first Grand Prix motor racing event near Le Mans. (3) In 1906, he sponsored the Coupe Aéronautique Gordon Bennett that is still competed for today and is not only the world's oldest hot air balloon race, but also, "the premier event of world balloon racing". (4) In 1909, Bennett offered a trophy for the fastest speed on a closed circuit for airplanes. Held in Reims, France, it was won by Glenn Curtiss for two circuits of a 10-km rectangular course, averaging 46.5 miles per hour. (5) From 1896 to 1914, Bennett offered a trophy for the soccer champions of Paris organized by the forerunner of the French Football Federation. 

Last Years

If Bennett had been wild in his youth, he matured in older age. While primarily living in France from 1877, he continued to battle William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer for readership in New York, and co-founded the Commercial Cable Company to break Jay Gould's monopoly over the transatlantic cable. In 1914, he sold the Namouna to the Russian Navy and - at the age of 73 - finally got married. His wife, Maud, Baroness de Reuter, the widow of George de Reuter, a son of the founder of Reuter's News Agency. She was born in Philadelphia but had been resident in Paris for the previous twenty years and was an active member of the American Colony with Alva Vanderbilt Belmont, Herman and Frederica Harjes, James Hazen Hyde, Elizabeth Wharton Drexel and Harry Lehr.

He had long been obsessed with the idea that he would die at the same age as his father, 77. On the morning of his 77th birthday, he died at his house on the Côte d'Azur, Villa Namouna. He had no children and was buried at Paris where he had lived at 104 Avenue des Champs-Élysées. His plain tomb is marked by four owls on each corner - his favorite symbol, the same that adorned his gates at Stone Villa; ran along the roofline of the New York Herald Building; and look down from his memorial that is still seen today at Herald Square in Manhattan. 
Contributed by Mark Meredith on 18/08/2023 and last updated on 17/12/2023.
James Gordon Bennett painted by Julian Story in 1904
Image (cropped) courtesy of DACC23, CC BY-SA 4.0