Old Years’ New Years

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In cities other than Washington, regional practices used to spice New Year’s Day calls with variety. New Orleans’s “high society” laid on the Southern hospitality in the 1840s. Gentleman callers, after presenting their cards, not only found the ladies “prinked up, pomatumed up [and] powdered up” to greet them but were ushered into a parlor where a huge bowl of eggnog, a sideboard with decanters for those (usually older men) who took their whiskey or brandy straight, a gigantic cake, and little paper cornets full of bonbons awaited the onslaught of appetites sharpened by hours of house-to-house walking.

In families with New England roots, putting out wine was considered somewhat disrespectable; fast was the term then in use. Eastern ideas of decorum were sometimes hard hit in the lusty heartland; in Chicago, one visitor from Albany complained of going to parties where pork packers, butchers, doctors, bankers, and clerks were intermingled; where a guest wore his swallowtail coat over a checked vest and a green necktie; and where another pirouetted on the dance floor with a cheek swollen by a quid of tobacco.

Progress and equal rights eventually began to bulldoze the traditions even of New York society’s New Year’s Day. On January 3, 1837, the millionaire and civic ornament Philip Hone recorded with dismay in his diary that the city’s mayor (an office Hone had once held himself) had tried to host the traditional open house at which, in years past, one gentleman in twenty had taken a glass of wine or “cherry bounce” and a morsel of pound cake. But now, in the full tide of Jacksonian democracy, a “rabble” of voters pounded at the door at 10:00 A.M. , and soon, in a “tremendous” rush, “tables were taken by storm, the bottles emptied in a moment. Confusion, noise and quarreling ensued,” until the mayor called in the police to restore order. This came, in Hone’s view, from the incumbent’s being “the mayor of a party and not of the city. Every scamp who … bawled out ‘Huzza for Lawrence’ and ‘Down With the Whigs’ considered himself authorized to use him and his house and furniture at his pleasure; to wear his hat in his presence, to smoke and spit upon his carpet … and wipe his greasy fingers upon the curtains, [and] to get drunk with his liquor.” But what could be expected from a class unburdened by “aristocratical notions of decency, order, and sobriety”? Hone was more cheerful on New Year’s Day of 1844, when he himself was out calling for five hours and his daughters received 169 visits at home. It was a lovely custom after all; it had so much “life and spirit and heartiness … that it is to be hoped no freak of fashion will ever interpose to prevent its observance.”

Hone was lucky not to have survived to see the eventual disappearance of the tradition—or even to have made it until 1877, when the New Year’s Day scandal to end all scandals broke (and was quickly hushed). It did not involve any plebeian ruffian, either, but James Gordon Bennett, Jr., the extremely rich owner-editor of the New York Herald . Bennett had inherited from his father, the founder of the paper, the old man’s journalistic genius and flamboyant individualism. On the January afternoon in question Bennett, then thirty-five years old, arrived at the residence of his fiancée, Caroline May, the daughter of a fashionable New York physician. Bennett had already made a number of stops and refreshed himself at various brimming bowls. At the Mays’, as a somewhat decorous biographer put it in the 1920s, he “forgot where he was … and became guilty of conduct unbecoming a gentleman.” He certainly did, as a more recent narrator of his life reveals. Feeling a pressing need to relieve himself, Bennett, woozily oblivious of his surroundings, proceeded to unbutton and do so—into the grand piano, according to one rumor, or more probably into the fireplace amid a chorus of screams and gasps. He was promptly hustled out. The next day Caroline broke off the engagement. The day after, her brother Frederick caught Bennett on the steps of the Union Club and flogged him with a cowhide whip. In the duel that followed in another state, both men fortunately missed their shots.

Though honor was technically satisfied, New York’s doors were closed to Bennett, who thereby took up virtually permanent residence in Paris until his death in 1918, devoting himself to yachting, polo, the encouragement of airplane, automobile, and balloon races, and other recreations to the tune of some thirty million dollars spent. As an absentee press lord he lost his flair, and the Herald fell from its leadership in penny journalism to its rivals skippered by Hearst and Pulitzer. Such was the historical chain of events begun by a few New Year’s cups o’ kindness too many. With such an edifying and moral conclusion—and because after such a story anything else is anticlimactical—I bid you all farewell for 1996. Happy New Year.