The Wayward Commodore


(There was a farcical sequel to the Bennett-May duel. According to Mlle. Camille Clermont, intimate friend of Bennett’s Paris exile, May appeared in Paris some years after the duel, and the rumor sped around the American colony that he was planning to “shoot Bennett on sight.…J.G.B. valued his life far too highly to be thus lightly disposed of, so he ordered a magnificent coat of mail to wear under his clothing, and with his long, lanky figure he looked supremely ridiculous. He wore that coat of mail for a month or so, until he tired of carrying the abnormal weight, so he sent two of his friends to Mr. May to ask what his intentions were, preferring the risk of a duel to the constant fatigue imposed by the medieval armour. Mr. May declared that he had no homicidal intentions, so, to his great relief, J.G.B. discarded the cuirass.” Mile. Clermont’s memoir was one more proof that a rich man should choose someone illiterate for his intimate friend.)

In Newport he would always be regarded as a legendary figure, a lordly dispenser of hospitality. “His entertainments were as fiery as himself,” as Maud Howe Elliott, a Newport contemporary, recalled. “At one ball, as night stretched into morning, some of the guests who could not be served fast enough cracked open the champagne bottles by knocking them together and striking off their heads.…”

The money that spawned such exuberances came from the efforts of James Gordon Bennett, Sr., to develop a new and more compelling form of American journalism. In the mid-1830’s the New York Herald was merely one of fifteen newspapers struggling for survival in the competition of Park Row. Bennett senior migrated from Scotland in his youth to thwart his family’s determination that he enter the priesthood; he taught school in Maine, read proof in a Boston printshop, and wound up in New York as a reporter and Washington correspondent for one journal and associate editor of another. In 1835 he established the Herald in a Wall Street basement, having decided that American newspapers were overstaffed with opinion and lacking in human interest, the blood-and-thunder drama of daily events. Sensationalism put the Herald over; its pages dripped gore, clamored over various scandals, exposed the corruption on Wall Street and in City Hall, and avidly reported sexual misconduct.

A rather unhappy marriage with an Irish girl, which produced James Gordon Bennett, Jr., and his sister Jeanette, only increased the senior Bennett’s devotion to his journalistic creation. Mrs. Bennett simply couldn’t bear the ostracism, the violent assaults that were the portion of any vigorously independent, outspoken publisher of his day. She declared her intention of taking herself and their children “out of the sphere of calumny, misrepresentation and reckless wit” into which her hard-bitten husband daily flung himself with the joy of a Highland chieftain.

James junior spent his boyhood in Paris, spoiled by his mother, despaired of by a succession of tutors who tried to acquaint him with some measure of discipline. He grew up firmly convinced that he was the center of the universe, and his life rarely offered any correctives to that view. At the age of fifteen he was returned to New York to rejoin his father, who was simply too busy with the Herald to keep an eye on a youth who had already acquired a taste for alcohol and a seigneurial attitude toward the female sex. Long before he reached voting age, he bore himself with the contemptuous manner of a Regency buck.

His father scorned society as something fit only for females and effeminate men, but Bennett junior found the sporting element of the fashionable world to his liking. Generous with everything but paternal guidance. Bennett senior indulged his son to the utmost; the power of the Herald enabled James junior to join the exclusive New York Yacht Club at the age of seventeen and sail, with professional help, the sloop Rebecca and subsequently the 160-ton yacht Henrietta . His father’s influence also persuaded the Revenue Cutter Service, a shore-patrolling adjunct of the Navy during the Civil War, to commission him as a third lieutenant and accept the Henrietta as an auxiliary in the task of blockading the southern ports.

Meanwhile James junior was becoming the youthful satellite of a group of sportive financiers, the Belmont-Jerome clique of bon vivants , who spared as much time from moneymaking on Wall Street as possible to pursue in gentlemanly fashion the avocations of wining, wenching, yachting, and coaching. The three Jerome brothers included Leonard, whose daughter married Lord Randolph Churchill and produced the great Winston. With August Belmont the Jeromes founded the Coaching Club and popularized, for those who could afford it, the sport of driving a four-in-hand.

Young Bennett not only became a dashing “whip” but displayed some of the temperamental traits that made his subsequent antics the talk of two continents. At coaching races he would sometimes race across the finish line and then continue to career down the road for miles. Speed intoxicated him to an alarming degree, particularly when combined with reckless amounts of alcohol. He often took midnight rides into the countryside, cracking his whip and driving his horses at a lunatic pace. Often he tore off all his clothes and rode the box stark naked because, as he explained, “I want to be able to breathe.”