A New Year’s Day to remember
The life of a newspaper mogul changed radically after one fateful party
During the personal journalism era, strong, innovative, and colorful men established the nation’s great newspapers, many of which endure today. James Gordon Bennett Jr. stood foremost among these remarkable owner/publishers, but indulgent and eccentric ways changed the course of his life and eventually destroyed his New York Herald, the most successful paper of the 19th century.
James Jr. was the son of dour and combative James Gordon Bennett Sr., the Scotch founder (in 1835) of the Herald. The publisher engaged in almost daily fistfights on the streets with critics and those he attacked in print. The day after one such fight, the paper carried a note saying he could not be intimidated and “nothing can prevent my newspaper’s success but God Almighty, and he happens to be entirely on my side.” Such was the animosity directed against the publisher by his many enemies that his wife and son suffered threats and other verbal abuse when in public. The publisher relocated them to France, the safer and better for his 5-year-old son to grow up steeped in European culture and educated by private tutors. The boy grew into a tall, handsome, and powerfully built young man.
Following the Civil War, the publisher brought home and groomed his spoiled but willing son to take over the Herald, which he did in 1867 at age 26, six years before his father’s death.
Journalistically, the son inherited managerial capability and a keen sense of news but not the same driving, compulsive obsession with the paper. Young Bennett was an easy spender with free access to an assured income in the 1870s second only to that of Cornelius Vanderbilt or John Jacob Astor. Thus while he proved himself able on the job, he emerged off the job as the very rich young bachelor around town with a reputation for a quick temper and sometimes erratic, impulsive behavior.
New York society tolerated his arrogant and boisterous manners because he was a bon vivant who threw memorable parties. Yet he was a strong and competitive athlete who, for example, bested John Whipple, a champion pedestrian, in a 13-mile walk. He also became a skilled and daring yachtsman.
In 1877, Bennett fell in love with and became engaged to Caroline May, the beautiful young daughter of a wealthy and prominent family. In keeping with the custom of the times, she invited him to stop by her father’s home on New Year’s Day when everyone spent the afternoon visiting close friends. Bennett, who had a low tolerance for alcohol, already had tossed down enough liquor on previous stops to make him drunk by the time he arrived at the May home.
After slapping men on the back and telling crude jokes in front of the ladies, Bennett suddenly felt an overpowered urge to relieve himself and made his unsteady way to the fireplace where—amid gasps from those present—he urinated nonchalantly into the flames. The host showed Bennett the door, and the gentile Caroline called off the engagement. Soon Bennett discovered that all drawing room doors in the city had closed to him.
The next day at high noon, Caroline’s brother Fred arrived with a cowhide whip in hand at the Union Club where Bennett was eating lunch and called him out. Bennett endured the first several lashes stoically but then turned and leaped on May and would have strangled him had onlookers not pulled him off.
The enraged Bennett, a stranger to humiliation, challenged May to a duel, and the two men met at Slaughter’s Gap in Delaware near the Maryland border. Young May, by this time ready to see some humor in the situation, fired into the air. Not Bennett. He would have killed May, but a night spent in angry brooding left him so nervous his shot narrowly missed.
Because Bennett was not one to forgive, the tragicomic events of the previous two days affected him deeply. He changed into a bitter, disillusioned man who resolved to never again live in New York. He kept the newspaper but sold the family home, his villa in Newport, and a mid-Manhattan townhouse before retreating to France for the remaining 40 years of his life. He returned to New York only a few times to do essential Herald-related business.
Bennett the self-exile continued his lavish lifestyle, mostly in Paris, and edited his paper via cables, letters, and conferences with editors and writers whom he summoned across the Atlantic. He developed an owl obsession and had 18 bronze owls mounted on the roof of his imposing newspaper building in Herald Square. Convinced the birds meant good luck, the publisher ordered some sort of owl story printed each day.
The innovative Bennett introduced sports as a front-page feature as well as the first real estate department and weather forecasts. Convinced that the leading newspaper should make as well as report the news, he sent reporter Henry Stanley to find Dr. David Livingston, a British missionary/explorer missing in darkest Africa, and the words “Dr. Livingston, I presume?” became famous after they appeared in the Herald.
The paper also sponsored expeditions to find the North Pole and to explore the Congo and Alaska. Bennett also founded the successful Paris Herald, owned today by The New York Times.
These stunts and a clear superiority in foreign news coverage boosted circulation to a high of 510,000 during the late 1890s. In an effort to promote workforce stability among star employees, he promised to leave the Herald to those veteran employees remaining at the time of his death.
Over the years, however, these efforts could not cope with Bennett’s profligate spending on women, horses, mansions, parties, yachts, etc., as well as competition from the sensational “yellow journalism” of on-site competitors Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal. Also, Adolph Ochs’ New York Times, particularly, and Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune consistently led with too much important local, regional, and national news. By 1914, Herald circulation had dropped to 80,000.
A fortune teller predicted to the superstitious Bennett that he would die of a heart attack at age 77, like his father, which he did in May 1918. A tombstone with owls chiseled in the stone marked his grave in suburban Paris. Teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, the Herald merged with the Tribune in 1920 to form the Herald-Tribune, which endured until 1966.
The veteran Herald employees got nothing.