- Historic Sites
The Wayward Commodore
Outrageous and irreverent, publisher James Gordon Bennett shocked and delighted nearly everyone
June 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 4
On the Newport Casino project, however, White was allowed to follow the dictates of his own ornate fancy, and the building survives both its designer and his patron, “a curious combination of Victorian grandeur and Chinese detail,” as one critic of more austere tastes described it. Several generations have enjoyed its facilities, which became the center of Newport’s social, athletic, and theatrical activities. “It was the first thing of its kind in the country,” wrote Maud Elliott, who was one of those who appreciated the commodore’s gesture,
At the casino balls even year-round Newporters, the “townies,” were permitted to attend at a dollar a head and watch from the balcony as their betters swanned around the dance floor below.
The opening of the casino in 1880, whether or not it was so intended by the commodore, inaugurated the era of conspicuous and often outlandishly lavish spending in Newport. “The balls grew more elaborate, the hours longer,” as Maud Elliott recalled:
In some part, at least, Bennett’s construction of the casino as a slap at the Reading Room and its stuffiness resulted in the transformation of Newport from the informality of the seventies to the growing ostentation of the eighties and the great leap forward of exhibitionistic spending and party giving in the nineties. It was a contribution the commodore made unwittingly. He was a determined enemy, as he had demonstrated, of formality and display for its own sake; his theory was that wealth ought to provide a liberation from the rules and conventions.
Newport would see less of him in the ensuing decades. He still retained an interest in the casino, as he would cling to his newspaper properties even when they became unprofitable and were close to bankruptcy at the end of his life. But the casino was an undisputed success. “The place had an undeniable charm,” as one local historian wrote, “that had soon awakened the civic pride of the colonists; for all its bigness, it was somehow snug and cozy-looking, with a quality of unassuming hospitality about it.” All those who yearned for acceptance in resort society schemed to become casino stockholders. Even after he transferred himself to Paris permanently, Bennett clung to his thirty-two shares of casino stock, which comprised the largest block of all. Otherwise he had no further connection with the institution he had established.
Even as an absentee the commodore was almost a palpable presence on the Newport scene, not only for his visible works but for the memories he left behind of a hectic and often mischievous personality. The old gentlemen maundering over their ancient escapades on the Reading Room’s piazza would certainly never forget, for instance, Bennett’s Domino Ball, which was held in a huge tent behind his house and was illuminated by the newly introduced electric lights. Even the deadly prose of Ward McAllister could not muffle the excitement of that occasion:
Blue Domino’s identity was never discovered, but there was little doubt in many minds that Commodore Bennet had hired and coached her in the spicy indiscretions that enlivened his party.