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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
While only nominally the managing editor of the Herald , Bennett also imprinted his name permanently on the history of American yachting. The opportunity arose one evening over copious amounts of brandy in the Union Club. An argument over the merits of the centerboard versus the keel in yacht construction led to a challenge: Bennett’s keel-equipped Henrietta to race two centerboard-equipped yachts—Frank Osgood’s Fleetwing and Pierre Lorillard’s Vesta —all the way across the Atlantic, though no yacht of either sort had as yet attempted such a distance. The purse was to be $90,000, the race was to take place in December, and all three boats were to be skippered by their owners. On sober consideration of the perils of that winter crossing, Lorillard and Osgood decided not to accompany their yachts but to turn them over to professionals. Bennett undeniably had the courage of his convictions and was man enough to point out that he couldn’t ask other men to take unshared risks for his sake. He would command the Henrietta , with Captain Bully Samuels as his sailing master. Three other amateurs were part of Bennett’s crew: Charles Longfellow, Stephen Fiske, the playwright, and Lawrence Jerome.
The three contending yachts sailed off into the winter storms of the Atlantic. On December 19, 1866, they ran into heavy seas, and the Fleetwing , trying to drive through the storm, had six crew members washed overboard; but the Henrietta hove to under bare masts and survived without losing a man. Vesta , however, had sailed into the teeth of the gale-force winds and gained two hundred and twenty-two miles on its competitors and was well in the lead when the three contenders sighted the lights of the Scilly Isles on Christmas Eve. Superior seamanship in negotiating the English Channel—thanks more to Bully Samuels than to Bennett—resulted in the Henrietta ’s sailing first into Cowes Roads several hours ahead of its rivals.
That feat greatly increased Bennett’s standing with his father for a perfectly understandable reason. Bennett senior made full use of the recently completed Atlantic cable to plaster the front page of the Herald with accounts of the victory in a proprietary manner. Nothing warmed the old man’s heart faster than a boost in circulation.
Bennett senior sensed in his son a growing maturity and urged him to accept partial control of the Herald . Bennett junior agreed, and at the age of twenty-six he began appearing regularly at the Herald offices. His father was seventy-two and preferred to seclude himself in his mansion in Washington Heights. One day, six months after bestowing partial responsibility on his son, he studied the first edition of the Herald in his study and was astonished to note that Bennett junior had changed the masthead to read “James Gordon Bennett Jr., Editor-in-Chief and Publisher.” Flaming mad, he hurried down to Park Row and ordered the page replated and his own name reinstated in command of the newspaper.
It became even more evident after Bennett senior’s death that the son had inherited several of his father’s more valuable journalistic traits. Bennett junior soon demonstrated a talent for picking extremely capable men, a flamboyant spirit of enterprise that was to electrify the world on occasion, and a sense of what people—especially those whose literary interests were confined to the daily press—wanted to read about. From the age of twenty-seven on he was one of the moguls of the newspaper industry.
By now having been made commodore of the New York Yacht Club—a title that delighted him—he also prided himself on running a tight ship on Park Row. All employees were required to write fitness reports on one another, which comprised a system of internal espionage. He was “too suspicious to trust his friends,” wrote Stephen Fiske, who served as dramatic critic on the Herald for a time and perhaps hoped that as a member of the crew in the transatlantic yacht race he would at least be favored with Bennett’s confidence, “and he makes enemies unconsciously of those who would be, and have been, most truly devoted to him, by regarding all mankind as a band of conspirators organized to influence the Herald for their own purposes.” That syndrome, too, he had inherited from his self-sufficient and solitary father.
During the ten years between the time Bennett took charge and his exile to France following the imbroglio with the May family in 1877, he spent much of the paper’s $750,000 annual net income on projects that not only enhanced its prestige but also increased its circulation. In fact, the Herald acquired an international reputation, as a rival New York editor grudgingly admitted, “unsurpassed by any journal in the world.” Other newspapers had to copy it or pass up news they could ill afford to ignore. His roving correspondents were not merely journalists but adventurers on the grand scale, ambassadors without portfolio, intrepid commanders of “Herald Search Expeditions.”