James Gordon Bennett, I Presume

history8 James Gordon Bennett in white suit entertains friends on Namouna, including actress Lillie Langtry, to right.

James Gordon Bennett, Jr. was the son of James Gordon Bennett, the founder and publisher of the New York Herald. The son was groomed to be publisher all his life, and as sole owner and publisher, he busied himself throughout his long life in finding ways to spend the largest assured income in America (with the possible exception of William B. Astor and commodore Vanderbilt) for the benefit of the paper and himself. Perhaps not in that order.

Considered a dandy, a tyrant, and the first example of the horrors of the Gilded Age, he was also a devoted newspaperman, whose every foible and deed of bravado were designed to make if not headlines, at least good copy for his daily newspaper. And most important to us here, Bennett was a consummate amateur sportsman in the old sense of the word, a lover of the game. He was a great yachtsman and prominent member and commodore of this club, as the artifacts assembled around this room will show.

There is a great deal of material about both father and son because their newspaper figures large in the history of journalism, and in the history of the nineteenth century, and they both took pains to associate the paper and its opinions with their own names. Both men thrived on controversy and on personal anecdote, favorable or not, and were not troubled by reversals of opinions or inconsistencies large or small. As Bennett Sr. replied when accused of flip-flopping in his editorials, "I print my paper every day."

Bennett Jr. was born with a silver spoon, and lived to turn it into a golden spoon. He was sent to France at an early age with his mother and sister, Jeanette, to be educated by tutors because New York treated Bennett, Sr. roughly. Even with Mrs. Bennett along, there would be jeers and occasionally horsewhipping on the streets of lower Manhattan whenever the family went outside. Bennett Sr. kept a large arsenal of weapons hidden behind the panels of his office on Ann Street and Broadway and was often besieged there by crowds outside.

For his sixteenth birthday, Jamie received a 77-ton centerboard sloop named Rebecca. He raced that year, 1857, in the Annual Cruise of the New York Yacht Club, and must have handled himself and his crew of 22 well, because he was duly elected to membership when the captains met on board the flagship on the layday in New Bedford. He remains the youngest member ever admitted, at age 16 and 3 months. Rebecca is recorded at or near the top of the racing results on many occasions up until 1861, though not without controversy and protests. Bennett Jr., makes his first appearance on the newspaper scene in 1861, at an important dinner. Bennett Sr. invited Henry Villard to the Bennett mansion in Washington Heights. During dinner where the only other diner was his son, age 20, Bennett Sr. gave welcome assurances to be passed to the new Lincoln administration that the Herald would henceforth stand solidly behind Lincoln and the North in the coming fury. This was a reversal of recent editorials, but it would hold throughout the Civil War. The paper vaulted to the top of its game in its war coverage: Lincoln reportedly read only the Herald if he read any newspaper at all: his hand-written letters to Bennett are much studied as evidence of Lincoln's sure hand on the ship of state and his skill as a statesman, even in the early days of his presidency. Also during that dinner the father offered his son's new 225-ton schooner Henrietta to the Revenue Cutter Service, and Lincoln made Bennett Jr. a third Lieutenant.

Bennett did indeed roam the coast in his country's service for a full year at sea. He was reported off the Carolina coast in April, but he was back in New York for the social season and to join the NYYC Annual Cruise in August which confined itself to the waters of New York Harbor and the Sound. During this year at sea in Henrietta, in a vessel whose model... shows her hull to be very like the schooner America..., Bennett became quite a good sailor and amateur navigator, skills that he was to exercise for the rest of his life. He developed a great respect for the professional sailor, and a deep commitment to a life at sea, though not the life of an ordinary sailor, as we shall see.

When he returned from his wartime service, he returned to his high society circles and lunch at Delmonicos, evenings at the Union Club. Once while drinking at Delmonico's, he and his friends heard a fire alarm; he dashed outside in his evening clothes, where he began to direct the firefighting operations. He made such a nuisance of himself that one company turned the firehose on to him, and sent him sprawling. The next day he called his drinking companion into his office and asked him, "What did I do last night?" "Made a fool of yourself," was the frank reply. "You interfered with the firemen by trying to tell them how to do their work, about which they know a good deal more than you do." "Order a rubber overcoat for every man in the department," said Bennett. "Send me the bill. I was never so wet in my life."