The Wayward Commodore

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Neither the Mrs. Astor nor any other of the formidable string of dowagers queening it over the Newport scene in the last decades of the nineteenth century could equal the imperiousness of James Gordon Bennett, an early devotee of the Rhode Island resort. His highhanded manner and the intensity of his tantrums when his will was not obeyed were unique. Professionally he was the publisher of the New York Herald , then the foremost American newspaper, and later of the Paris Herald ; and he was the man who casually sent H. M. Stanley to find Dr. Livingstone in darkest Africa. He was also as prominent in Newport society, in his own hectic fashion, as Mrs. Astor; he was the winner of the first transoceanic yacht race; and he was the most spectacular profligate of the Gilded Age—spending an estimated thirty to forty million dollars on various lordly whims. One of those whims was the Newport Casino, which he conceived in a fit of pique over being kicked out of the established male sanctuary—the Reading Room.

As a man whose bachelorhood lasted until his seventy-third year but who could never be persuaded of the virtues of celibacy, Bennett naturally attracted trouble, scandal, and controversy of all kinds.

He had begun sailing his yacht into Newport’s harbor in the seventies, had acquired a fine old stone-walled villa, called Sebastapol, on Bellevue Avenue, and was a pioneer member of the New York phalanx that began invading Newport. Until 1875, when he was thirty-four, he had been involved in a cozy and undemanding relationship with Miss Pauline Markham, a dark-eyed and statuesque English girl who was a star attraction with the Lydia Thompson Burlesque Company. Then he met Caroline May, the beautiful young daughter of a prominent Baltimore family that had produced a number of sprigs almost as high-tempered and erratic as Bennett himself. Caroline’s father was Dr. William May, a sedate New York physician, but her uncle, Colonel Charles May, had commanded a regiment of dragoons in the Mexican War and once rode his charger up three flights of stairs in a Baltimore hotel to indicate his displeasure with the management. Caroline’s uncle Julian had killed a man in a duel in Virginia. Her brother, Frederick deCourcy May, had become involved in a brawl with a New York policeman, who died of his injuries. Fellow members of the Union Club hid young May on the premises, then spirited him to South America and supplied him with remittances for a year until it was safe to return to their comradely embrace. Not, it seemed, a clan to trifle with, especially since its finances did not match the splendor of its social aspirations.

 

Bennett, however, could not be dissuaded from a courtship of Caroline. In the summer of 1875 he invited her and her parents to spend the summer at his Newport villa and soon found his bachelor establishment taxed to the utmost by an influx of Caroline’s brothers, uncles, aunts, and cousins. The resort’s gossips noted that Caroline was given the seat of honor beside Bennett on the box of his coach when they went out driving. Their suspicions were confirmed during the next year, when the engagement of James Gordon Bennett, Jr., to Miss Caroline May was announced.

Shortly after the announcement, however, Bennett began having doubts about the charms of domesticity. In the first place, there was that importunate swarm of Mays he would evidently be marrying as well as the lissome bride-designate; he envisioned bibulous uncles and quarrelsome second cousins littering every corner of his homes and was downright depressed by rumors that the May family was gloating over having snared the richest and therefore the most eligible bachelor in the country. Perhaps something of the caution of a long line of luckless Scottish ancestors—he was a first-generation aristocrat, his father having been a penniless printer until he founded the New York Herald —stirred deep inside him.

For some months he brooded over his situation and undoubtedly pondered various schemes for breaking his engagement without being invited to a duel. Marksmanship, as well as fecklessness, ran in the May family. Calculation was not Bennett’s long suit, however, and he usually solved his dilemmas by outrageous action.

The flash point in his relations with the May clan occurred on New Year’s Day, 1877, when it was the custom of fashionable New Yorkers to drive out in their sleighs on a round of calls, during which large amounts of punch and eggnog were swilled. By nightfall the streets of New York would be a tangle of erratically driven sleighs. Drunkenness would be endemic but excusable on the grounds that even George Washington had spoken favorably of the old Knickerbocker custom of getting outrageously drunk on New Year’s Day.

None had followed tradition that day more diligently than young Mr. Bennett, and the brandy evidently only bolstered his conviction that marriage would be calamitous. Naturally he was expected to call at the May residence. He appeared at their door in an uproarious mood, lurched into the drawing room, surveyed the Mays and their friends through bloodshot eyes, and proceeded to pour down more steaming punch. It was evident to several of the Mays’ guests that he was in a dangerous mood, and they quietly called for their hats and coats. “He never stifled an impulse,” as one of his friends remarked.