The Wayward Commodore

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Such visits were awaited in the summer colony with a combination of delight and terror. Invariably they were accompanied by wild entertainments and outrageous incidents. “He had certain likable traits,” as a Newport historian observed, “and was doing pretty well on the whole; but he was no sycophant. There was a streak of the devil in him, a love of dangerous practical jokes and a perverse desire to outrage even those people he was courting. Particularly when he was drunk, he was capable of feats of rebellious daring or mean little outbursts of spleen that threatened to prove his undoing. He belonged to the Reading Room, but was regarded by the other members as a sort of Peck’s Bad Boy sadly in need of the birch-rod of discipline.”

One summer the commodore appeared in that masculine refuge with an old friend, Captain “Sugar” Candy of the Ninth Lancers, who was a member of the British polo team. With Captain Candy’s assistance Bennett had introduced polo to the United States. In 1876 he had watched a polo game in England, where the sport was imported by officers of the Indian army. One of the players was Captain Candy, whom he persuaded to accompany him back to the States, along with a collection of polo mallets and balls. Candy taught the rudiments of the game to Bennett and several of his friends, August Belmont, Frank Gray, and William P. Douglas, first using a riding academy in Manhattan as their training field, then moving from the tanbark to a field at Jerome Park. Other members of the sporting element were recruited to form other teams, and the game began to catch on among people able to afford a string of polo ponies. Bennett became the undisputed father of American polo. Subsequently the commodore and his fellow sportsmen founded the Westchester Polo Club, built a clubhouse, and engaged a member of the Delmonico family to take charge of providing the cuisine. All this happened several years before Bennett introduced Candy to Newport society in striking fashion.

On this trip Bennett had whetted his appetite for social adventure by storming through the Herald building, with Captain Candy acting as his aide-de-camp, and firing anyone whose looks didn’t appeal to him. Then they steamed up to Newport in a mood to shake up the old place.

On a morning soon after their arrival he was irked by the senescent decay that, it seemed to him, had overtaken the Reading Room. All those old fossils, former dandies, and walrus-faced clubmen retired from Wall Street piracies gossiping away on the piazza. The place needed livening up. A gentlemen’s club needn’t be a men’s nursing home.

So he challenged Captain Candy to ride a horse up on the piazza of the Reading Room. Candy took the dare, charged up the steps of the piazza as though leading the Light Brigade against the Russian batteries at Balaklava, clattered into the hall of the club, then out and away. Bennett was standing outside bellowing with laughter.

An emergency session of the board of governors was convened. Elderly members waved their canes and demanded that Bennett be cashiered. The shock waves went up and down Bellevue Avenue that afternoon.

“This was enough to set Newport agog,” as Ward McAllister, a fossilized member of the club himself but one who evidently approved of Bennett’s horseplay, recorded. “What sacrilege! An Englishman to ride in upon us, not respecting the sanctity of the place! It aroused the old patriots of that institution with the spirit of ’76, and a summary note was sent to the great journalist, withdrawing the invitation the club had previously extended to his guest.”

Although his own membership was not withdrawn, Bennett reacted violently to the club’s rather mild reproof. He considered Newport as part of his fief, like the Heralds of New York and Paris, his yacht, and his French villa. He had been summering there long before those so-called society people from New York had ever heard of the place.

He thereupon consigned the Reading Room to the depths of social oblivion—despite which it survived and still does—and announced plans to build his own playpen, something much grander and more attractive than the stodgy quarters occupied by the old club. It would be the Newport Casino and would include clubrooms, a tennis court, a restaurant, and a theatre.

Stanford White was engaged to design the casino, with orders to spare no expense. Undoubtedly White took on the task with trepidation. Bennett could be a demanding patron of architecture, and there was also his penchant for owls to be taken into consideration. The commodore regarded the owl as his family’s good-luck symbol, totem, and an invariable part of the Bennett escutcheon; he was as superstitious about owls as any witch doctor assembling his magic kit. When White was commanded to design the new Herald building on what became known as Herald Square, he conceived a classic structure modelled after the Palazzo del Consiglio of Verona with an arcade supported by slender white marble columns. Bennett promptly ruined the cool classicism of the façade by demanding that two dozen bronze owls—equipped with electric eyes to blink over the square at night—be placed around the cornices; the exterior was further disrupted, to the artistic eye, by a huge $200,000 clock with two bronze figures trundling out to strike the hours.