The Paris Tribune At One Hundred

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I was, I believe, the last person to leave the newsroom of the New York Herald Tribune on April 23, 1966, the day it folded. I walked through the lobby down to West Forty-first Street and then went back upstairs and took home with me the stereotype mats of the last two front pages. No one would see their like again.

But of course I did, and so did everyone else. In Paris. For me, it was seeing a ghost. The breath went out of me the first time I came upon the Paris edition of the Herald Tribune—the survivor, one hundred years old this month.

Who could have guessed? The thing started only because James Gordon Bennett, Jr., was such a wild man. Not everyone believes the story that he suddenly decided to leave New York for Paris in 1877 because of the uproar after he drunkenly broke up a New Year’s party by relieving himself into the grand piano in his fiancee’s Manhattan home. No, some say he did it in the fireplace.

Wherever it happened, he did it. The engagement to Caroline May was ended and her brother horsewhipped Bennett outside the Union Club the next day. Bennett, thirty-five years old and one of the richest and most powerful men in the country, had gone too far.

So he went back to Paris. He had grown up there because his mother, who was from Ireland, couldn’t stand the abuse that James Gordon Bennett, Sr., attracted as founder of the most controversial and successful newspaper in the United States. Except for short trips, the younger Bennett never returned. He ran the Herald for forty-two years by cable from his homes and yachts around Europe and the Mediterranean.

Bennett succeeded—and failed—in great and arrogant style, a genius of sorts. Probably a mad one. In 1869 he sent a reporter named Henry M. Stanley to Africa presuming he could find the lost Scottish missionary Dr. David Livingstone. Once he sent a cable to his editor back in New York asking for a list of “indispensable” men on the staff, then fired everyone on the list. “I want no indispensable men working for me” was his full explanation.

Sending such cables, Bennett learned, was extraordinarily expensive. Western Union, controlled by Jay Gould, had a monopoly on transatlantic service and charged whatever it pleased. So Bennett, who was supposed to be the third richest man in America, went into partnership with the man some said was the richest, John W. Mackay, owner of the Comstock Lode silver mine, and they laid a competing cable. By 1887 the two companies were in a price war, and cable costs plummeted. That was the year Bennett started the Paris Herald. The new cable rates had made it possible to transmit copy between New York and Paris at a reasonable cost.

 

This most romantic of American newspapers, a century old and now called the International Herald Tribune, was a result of available technology. It still is, selling more than 170,000 copies each day in 164 countries. But that is getting ahead of the story of how one of the worst papers in the history of the English language, a wild man’s bauble, became the unofficial but very authoritative voice of America almost everywhere in the world—and ended up being loved in the bargain.

The first European edition—called just The New York Herald—appeared without ceremony in Paris on Tuesday morning, October 4, 1887. The lead headline for the four-page paper was THE NEW YORK LETTER, which covered everything from the doings of the Knights of Labor to preparations for the America’s Cup. The sailing story was a natural for Bennett, one of the world’s great yachtsmen and holder of a transatlantic sailing record.

The first edition was also filled with another Bennett obsession: names. One and a half columns were filled with the names of Americans who happened to be in Paris. For the thirty-one years of Bennett’s reign, Herald staffers checked hotel registries for the names of foreign visitors and published them along with a list of the people who visited an office of the paper on Avenue de l’Opéra.

Bennett’s own name, however, did not appear in his newspaper until just after he died, on May 14,1918. But everything else in it was his. Before the first edition was put together, he called the staff together and told them:

 

“I want you gentlemen to remember that I am the only reader of this paper. I am the only one to be pleased....I consider a dead dog in the rue du Louvre more interesting for the Herald than a devastating flood in China. I want one feature article a day. If I say the feature is to be black beetles, black beetles it’s going to be.”

Or if he said Theodore Roosevelt’s name would not appear in the Paris Herald, it would not appear. And it didn’t after the former President bolted the Republican party in 1912. Then, three years later, when the Lusitania was sunk by a German submarine, TR’s name reappeared in the most dramatic, if unprofessional, way. The paper’s report of the sinking ended with this italicized paragraph: “What is President Wilson going to do? What a pity Mr. Roosevelt is not President!