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The Wayward Commodore
Outrageous and irreverent, publisher James Gordon Bennett shocked and delighted nearly everyone
June 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 4
What happened next is a matter of controversy, but it was sufficiently scandalous to be gossiped about in New York society for many years and ultimately to force Bennett to exile himself in Paris. Accounts of such occurrences, as any traffic investigator will testify, are likely to differ widely. There were almost as many different versions as there were witnesses. One story was that Bennett calmly unbuttoned his trousers and urinated on the grand piano. By another account he mistook the fireplace for a pissoir . He may merely have thrown up all over Dr. May’s brocaded waistcoat. Indubitably Bennett did something rather awful to get himself ejected from the May ménage; the Mays had been prepared to put up with almost anything from such a desirable son-in-law. Elizabeth Drexel Lehr, a member of the Newport set who was a friend of Bennett’s, may have been retailing his version of the incident when she wrote:
Possibly Bennett believed he had insulted his way out of the entanglement with the May family. Certainly if he had experienced any twinge of contrition—an entirely unfamiliar feeling—he could have done one of several things. He could have appeared on the May doorstep the next morning as a penitent and begged the family’s pardon, or he could have boarded his yacht and steamed off to some remote island in the South Pacific, or he could have had himself committed to an asylum.
Instead he stayed undercover for two days, then ventured over to the Union Club to test the climate. His fellow clubmen, after all, were notorious for their tolerance; they had not only helped Fred May when he killed a cop but had refused to expel Judah P. Benjamin at the beginning of the Civil War, when he had joined the Confederate cabinet. Bennett was greatly relieved when he was allowed to enter the club and found that nobody turned his back on him when he appeared in the dining room.
Bennett lunched heartily and assured himself he would be able to ride out whatever storms of disapproval might be brewing. Just as he was leaving the club the ominous figure of Fred May, horsewhip in hand, loomed before him. May began beating him with the whip—an instrument commonly used in those days for chastising errant editors—but Bennett would neither suffer the punishment as something due him nor flee from his assailant. The two men grappled, punched, gouged, and clawed like a pair of dockwallopers outside a Tenth Avenue saloon; they rolled down Fifth Avenue and might have wound up in Washington Square if a couple of fellow members hadn’t run out and separated them for the sake of civic dignity.
Bennett’s Herald did not consider the encounter newsworthy, but the rival Sun was not reluctant to report that Bennett’s blood had run in the gutter and inaccurately reported that Bennett “was to have sailed for England yesterday with his bride.…” In fact, no wedding date had been set. Two days after the brawl with May the Sun was reporting the unfounded rumor that Bennett had “fled to Canada.” Actually Bennett just then was dispatching Charles Longfellow, the poet’s son, with a challenge to Fred May. The latter agreed to meet Bennett over pistols the morning of January 7 at Slaughter’s Gap, an old dueling ground on the Virginia-Maryland border.
The shoot-out was something of a fizzle by standards then established in Dodge City and other centers of gunplay. The duelists each took twelve paces and then turned and fired. Both shots went wild. Bennett and May, accompanied by their retinues, repaired to a hotel at Dover, Maryland, where they “betook themselves to their rooms,” as the Sun joyfully reported, and “the proprietor mistook his guests for pickpockets and consequently sat up all night watching their movements.” It was said to have been the last duel fought in the United States.
That may have settled accounts with the May family, but the leading hostesses of New York society were not satisfied that Bennett had purged himself of misconduct. They firmly crossed him off their guest lists. It was a different story in Newport, where the New York dowagers were not yet entrenched. The Newport News had risen to Bennett’s defense without knowing just what he was accused of and reported, “It is a well known fact that Miss May’s brothers, cousins and other members of the family spent the last season here, and that they were not backward in accepting Mr. Bennett’s hospitality.”