- Historic Sites
The Wayward Commodore
Outrageous and irreverent, publisher James Gordon Bennett shocked and delighted nearly everyone
June 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 4
His greatest discovery was the Welshman named Henry M. Stanley, raised in a workhouse as “a deserted bastard” (the Victorians could be blunt enough when dealing with the lower orders), who shipped out as a cabin boy and jumped ship in New Orleans. A swarthy, tough, and energetic young man, Stanley journeyed to New York with a scheme for covering a British punitive expedition to Abyssinia. He planned to use funds he had earned as a roving journalist after the Civil War to pay his own way if some newspaper would agree to publish his dispatches at space rates. The Tribune turned him down, but Bennett agreed to commission him as a special correspondent to the Herald . His accounts of the colonial campaign were so graphic Bennett put him on the payroll. [See “The Making of an American Lion,” February, 1974, A MERICAN H ERITAGE .]
Bennett was vacationing in Paris when he was seized by one of those impulses that made the Herald celebrated for its enterprise and often brought it to the verge of ruin. He summoned Stanley from the Greek islands, where Stanley was writing some travel sketches. Both men were then twenty-eight years old. When Stanley appeared in his Paris hotel room, Bennett, without wasting words, announced that Stanley was going to Africa at the head of a Herald Search Expedition to find Dr. David Livingstone, the Albert Schweitzer of his time, who supposedly was lost. Never mind that he wasn’t. Never mind that, after heroic effort, Stanley “found” Livingstone and the latter referred to the Herald as “that despicable newspaper.” The understatement of the first Stanley-Livingstone exchange (“Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” “Yes.”) still echoes. And the Herald ’s circulation broke through the magic ceiling of a hundred thousand. Bennett’s reaction to his employee’s worldwide fame was outrage. “Who was Stanley before I found him?” the commodore demanded. “Who thought of looking for Livingstone? Who paid the bills? ”
Throughout these years, when he wasn’t enlivening Newport or thundering orders around the Herald building in New York, Bennett was travelling as widely as any of his roving correspondents. His highhanded eccentricity was never more in evidence than when he was sailing the Mediterranean on one of his yachts, which he always personally commanded in the style of Captain Bligh. Both crew and guests were subject to his imperious whims. One guest who incurred his displeasure was marooned on an uninhabited islet in the Mediterranean with food and water for a few days and a white shirt to wave at any passing ships. On another cruise he and his guests went ashore on an island off the Greek coast, the attraction of which was a monastery in which a votive flame reputedly had been kept burning for more than a thousand years. The flame fascinated the commodore and presented him with an irresistible challenge. “Are you sure this thing has been burning for a thousand years?” he asked the monk who was escorting them. The monk assured him it had. “Well,” replied the commodore, leaning over and blowing out the flame, “it isn’t now.”
Aboard the last and lordliest of his yachts, the Lysistrata , which included a Turkish bath for the commodore’s sole use and a miniature dairy outfitted for an Alderney cow to provide fresh milk for his table, he sometimes steamed as far as Turkey—where he struck up a friendship with another tyrant, the sultan known in western Europe as Abdul the Damned—and into the Indian Ocean to Ceylon.
He did not hesitate to resort to kidnapping when he fancied company on a cruise, according to Consuelo Vanderbilt, later Countess Balsan, who with her parents often visited Bennett at his villa at Beaulieu. Once three American beauties whom he had met in Newport during his salad days but who were now married—Lady Lily Bagot; Adele, Countess of Essex; and a third whom Countess Balsan identified only as “the malaprop Mrs. Moore of Paris”—had lunch with him at Beaulieu. He invited them aboard the Lysistrata for dinner. Nothing untoward happened except that the commodore seemed to be sluicing down an abnormal amount of champagne and brandy. When the ladies went out on deck after dinner, they found that the yacht had put to sea. Bennett had disappeared, locked himself in his cabin. The Lysistrata was heading into a storm, and the seas were getting rough. Appealing to the first officer on the bridge, the ladies were told, “I have Commodore Bennett’s orders to proceed to Egypt.” Not until the next morning could the commodore be aroused and persuaded to return to Beaulieu.
Even after the commodore expatriated himself to Europe and established the Paris Herald , mainly for the benefit of fellow American expatriates on the Continent, he sometimes returned to the States for a whirlwind descent on the Herald building in New York, during which heads invariably rolled, and then sailed up the coast to Newport.