James Gordon Bennett — Beneficent Rascal


On May 6, 1835, Bennett first threw out upon the sidewalks of New York the bundle of firecrackers he styled The Morning Herald . The office at 20 Wall Street, on the testimony of an early subscriber, consisted of two empty flour barrels four feet apart, with Bennett ensconced behind a plank he had propped upon them. Here, eighteen hours a day, he scribbled editorial paragraphs, sold papers, took down news items, read proof, made up the dummy to take to his printers several blocks away, wrote advertising copy, fired the stove, took in subscriptions—literally, as he put it later, “one poor man in a cellar against the world.”

It was an unequal battle, for the world was illprepared. There were 270,089 people in New York, and fifteen other newspapers to serve them. Of these, the only ones of consequence save the Sun , Benjamin Day’s new penny sensation (begun twenty months earlier), were sixpenny “blanket” sheets, all of them the creatures of faction. It was against this system of “kept” journalism, as newsmen would call it today, that Bennett now rebelled with calculated fury. “Our only guide,” his announcement read, “shall be good, sound, practical common sense, applicable to the busiiess and bosoms of men engaged in everyday life. We shall support no party—be the organ of no faction or coterie, and care nothing for any election or any candilate from president down to a constable.”

More than one hundred attempts to start daily newspapers in the city of New York, many of them better heeled and some worthier than this one, were to come to grief in Bennett’s lifetime. How explain his success? It was not independence alone, nor, in the beginning, news.

Captain Joseph Patterson is said to have remarked that he built the immense circulation of the New York Daily News upon legs; and then draped them. Bennett, lacking the advantages of photography, to say nothing Df visible legs, rather outdid the bold Captain a century before him, by combining sex with sacrilege. Bennett knew well the truth behind Oscar Wilde’s witticism, that there is one thing worse than being talked about—not being talked about; and he knew also, to perfection, what made people talk. Ergo, Bennett proceeded to pepper the Herald with items of this sort:

“Five hundred dollars reward will be given to any handsome woman, either lovely widow or single sempstress, who will set a trap for a Presbyterian parson, and catch one of them flagrante delicto .”

One can imagine the Mrs. Grundys sputtering their morning coffee over that one. Or this provocative (and libel-proof) tidbit:

“An Episcopal clergyman of hitherto unimpeachable character, with a fine family of his own—clever sons, pretty daughters, and prettier horses—is charged with making love too suddenly—without due preparation—to a lovely and accomplished widow, who lets out schoolrooms, takes in sewing, and owns a fine pair of eyes, and a bust unmatchable on Broadway on its sunniest day.”

Saucy, risqu», piquant, full of odd surprises and solid chunks of information, the Herald had half the town tittering or tut-tutting within its first year. Even business news was given a characteristic fillip: “The New York and Erie Railroad is to break ground in a few days. We hope they will break nothing else.” There were precarious moments. Twice the paper’s printing plant was burned out. Once Bennett was facing bankruptcy when Dr. Benjamin Brandreth, maker of Universal Vegetable Pills, saved him with a lucrative advertising contract.

Bennett cultivated a personality in print which contrasted oddly with the cynical, almost dour, curmudgeon he sometimes appeared to be in fact. He strutted before the world with an air of jaunty optimism, dispensing humorous braggadocio about his little paper, taunting his “big-bellied” rivals into noticing him, figuratively sticking his thumbs in his vest and saying, “A very dickens of a fellow am I,” so that one hardly knew whether to laugh at him or believe it. This was the Bennett who could face the world after what must have seemed utter disaster four months after his start—fire and a nineteen-day suspension—and write:

“We are again in the field, larger, livelier, better, prettier, saucier, and more independent than ever. The Ann Street conflagration consumed types, presses, manuscripts, paper, some bad poetry, subscription books—all the outward material appearance of the Herald , but its soul was saved—its spirit as exuberant as ever.”

In putting on this air of gay deviltry, Bennett was willing to go pretty far—he once ridiculed the doctrine af transubstantiation as “the delicious luxury of creating and eating our divinity,”—so that it was not surprising that his respectable but ponderous rivals organized what he called “the Holy Alliance” against him. The boycotts of this “Moral War,” launched in 1840 and continued for several years, did check the Herald ’s growth for a time; but Bennett’s resourcefulness in hustling news (his own accounts of the great fire of 1835 and of the Ellen Jewett murder mystery are accounted classics) and his freedom from commitments of any kind as to what was fit to print, had already enabled him to far outstrip his rivals, and he was soon able to crow again that circulation was increasing “like smoke.”