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James Gordon Bennett, I Presume

During a late evening at the Union Club in 1866, he fell to boasting with his friends about the relative merits of their new yachts. Pierre Lorillard had a new centerboard schooner, Vesta, Osgood had his deep and narrow Fleetwing, and Bennett was eager to pit his skills against others.

The Herald had recently exhorted "our smooth water gentry" to "trip anchors and start out on a cruise on blue water. Get off your soundings, trust your sea legs for a while, reciprocate the visits of your English cousins, visit your own coast, go to South America, try Europe, call on the Sultan; or if you have got the pluck, circumnavigate the world, then come home and write a book. It will perpetuate your memory, reflect luster on your deeds, and redound to the honor of your country."

(These may not have been the words of fledgling publisher James Gordon Bennett, because he was notably poor with the written word himself, but some reporter on the Herald who knew his boss's sentiments well.)

Large stakes were mentioned: $30,000 to enter the race, much more than the cost of the yachts, winner take all. These were the largest stakes in any sporting event even well into the next century, and they were shocking.

When Bennett returned from this adventure, he seemed ready to assume the reins of power. He had had a royal audience with the Queen, had done much to repair the strained relations with England after the Civil War, his reporters had employed the new transatlantic cable to transmit instant race results back home and he returned as something of an American hero. The elder Bennett moved into the background. Father and son lived together on lower Fifth Avenue and their estate at 181st Street, while the paper earned a new fortune for them every year. When Bennett Sr., died in 1872, his fellow journalists gave him the highest possible praise in the other New York papers.

Bennett's income of roughly a million dollars a year was considered to be "an inexhaustible supply of money." Once in his Paris apartment he was annoyed by a large roll of bills that interfered with the use of his pocket, and in a fit he tossed the bundle into the fireplace. Occasionally he moved through restaurants pulling off the tablecloths on both sides of the aisle and crunching the crockery under foot. The next day a handsome bill would appear at his office, which was promptly paid.

He laid a check for $100,000 at the foot of his nephew's cradle. He made donations of $100,000 frequently to charities of all sorts: to Irish famine relief, to a "Free Ice Fund" for the tenements in Lower Manhattan for hot weather relief, and so on.

So far as Bennett could make it, the Herald was a one-man shop. In the Paris office, this was especially the case. "I want you fellows to remember," he once said to his executive staff, "that I am the only reader of this paper. I am the only one to be pleased. If I want it to be turned upside down, it must be turned upside down. I want one feature article a day. If I say the feature is to be Black Beetles, Black Beetles it's going to be."

He was a holy terror to his staff, and their fortunes rising and falling according to his whim. Once while steaming through Nice on Namouna (called "Pneumonia" by his editors), Bennett persisted in a course to ram a U.S.man-of-war that was in the wrong place in his view. When his able secretary of long standing tried to dissuade him, he was demoted and had to take a job with Hearst.

He summoned two important men overseas by cable. They departed New York, and on reaching his office in Paris, stood in the doorway and respectfully awaited attention. Bennett looked up from his writing and said: "What in hell are you doing here?" "You sent for us," said one. "Go back to New York," Bennett replied. They did.

There could be only one name identified with the Herald. All orders to correspondents were signed J.G. Bennett, as were all letters in the course of business. He summoned a reporter to Paris, but the editor-in- charge demurred, cabling that the man was "indispensable." Bennett sent for a list of men who were presumed to be in this class. A dozen names were forwarded. He discharged them all.

He showed a thinly veiled contempt for most everybody, especially those who thought too well of themselves. However, his imperious contempt did not extend to his mechanical departments: the foreman of his composing room and the press bosses were well-paid and treated as persons of distinction. They were given the best tools available and had great power over the editors. In all other newspaper offices, going to press was a scramble; in the Herald it was governed with military precision, under carefully drawn and printed schedules. "All the brains I want can be picked up any day at $25 per week."

Naturally, his staff studied his habits, and it was observed that he sometimes judged men in his office by how his favorite dogs reacted to them; he was always surrounded by pedigreed dogs, Pomeranians, Pekinese and Cocker Spaniels. One Irish reporter was summoned to London in disfavor, but before he entered Bennett's offices he pinned a slice of raw liver to the inside of his toppe and held the hat firmly against his chest. His boss received him coldly, but the pups swarmed around him, and the interview proceeded with every evidence of warm esteem and cordiality.

With its publisher's interest in maritime affairs, the Herald always carried a detailed shipping news section, and an extensive weather report, well before there was any weather service. It also carried full yacht race coverage, America's Cup coverage and even New York Yacht Club Board Meeting minutes on the front page. A misuse of a nautical term in any article in the paper could get the author into deep trouble. A crow's nest mentioned on a vessel that didn't have a crow's nest would excommunicate its author. "Why was that damned fool allowed to write that shipwreck story? Doesn't he know the wind and tide in that neighborhood never perform as he states it? Never let him touch a sea story again."

Bennett believed in the sports pages and promoted many gentlemanly sports into the U.S. Not only schooner racing, but steam yacht racing, ballooning, pugilism, auto racing, and so on. Each of these sports had a Bennett Cup, some of them still in competition.

He practiced the now lost sport of coaching, and would astonish his neighbors by riding through their formal gardens with a coach and four, at midnight, naked. When asked later to pay for damages, he always complied promptly. Once he drove his coach and four under a low stone arch in Paris and knocked himself out, remaining in the hospital for several weeks. Another time he and a friend disappeared for a week in a hired carriage and pair.

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