James Gordon Bennett — Beneficent Rascal


Still, half a million people (like modern publications, the Herald estimated about four readers for every copy) could not be wholly wrong. Bennett’s production reflected the new metropolitan America—its lusty materialism, buoyancy, love of sensation, curiosity, irreverence, crudity, and egalitarianism—more knowingly than any other.

Visitors at Fort Washington, or at Bennett’s Fifth Avenue town house, were usually surprised to find the infamous Scot a well-mannered, thoughtful host, in late years almost stately. His speech was larded with classical allusion and wry wit; when some new sensation in the Herald was brought up, he liked to tell of Alcibiades’ dog having his tail cut off, that Athens might talk of his master.

Normally as civil in his office as at home, he would all but crack the plaster on occasion with denunciations of the “nigger-worshippers,” his brogue corning so thick and fast as to be quite incomprehensible. Hc expected the Civil War to end in disaster, and invested heavily in gold until dose to the end-one of his rare misjudgments where money was concerned. After the war, he seems to have come to a sort of truce with the world, and the Herald attained a certain dignity and the prestige of long popularity. By the time he turned it over to his son and namesake, whom he had had educated in France to escape the odium of his own reputation, the Herald was as much an institution of American life as Pulitzer’s World at the turn of the century, or the New York Times today.

When Bennett died in 1872, every obituary published in the metropolis of journalism acknowledged him as the master. It was inevitable, the New York World said, that sooner or later the newspaper would have responded to the age of steam and the electric telegraph and mass education, Bennett or no Bennett. “But ... all that the best of our race have done is to be a little in advance of their time . . . Mr. Bennett was the Columbus, the Luther, the Napoleon, the what you will, of modern journalism.”

That such a scabrous old buccaneer should have been the man who in many respects remains the greatest of the American newspaper’s pioneers—that is just the kind of paradox that would have brought a mischievous gleam in one strabismic eye, with the other ever fixed on the main chance.