James Gordon Bennett, Jr.,a steel engraving by F.T. Stuart after a photograph. Courtesy the U.S. Naval Historical Center
Newspaperman, adventurer, sportsman -- and magnet for scandal -- James Gordon Bennett, Jr. was a very interesting fellow. His name even became a popular expletive in England -- “Gordon Bennett!” means essentially, “Good Lord!” Today’s tabloids would have loved him.
Bennett’s Scots-born father, James Gordon Bennett, was the founder of the New York Herald and a co-founder of the Associated Press. The son, James Gordon Bennett, Jr., was born in 1841 and largely educated in Europe. He briefly served in the Civil War as a naval officer before taking over the Herald from his father.
As a newspaperman, Bennett continued in his father’s footsteps, luring prominent writers and financing newsworthy ventures. It was Bennett who sent Henry Stanley to Africa to find Dr. David Livingstone (“Dr. Livingstone, I presume?), and who financed the disastrous expedition of the Jeanette to explore the Arctic and the North Pole (the expedition’s leader and 19 crew members died). Several islands in Siberia are named after Bennett.
After 1877, Bennett lived in Europe, mostly on his 301-foot yacht. He sort of had to, having precipitated a scandal so great that he was no longer welcome in polite American society. It’s even listed in the Guinness Book of World Records under the heading, “Greatest Engagement Faux Pas.” Bennett, it is said, showed up late to his fiancée’s father’s New Year’s party roaring drunk and proceeded to mistake the fireplace for a toilet, urinating into the flames in front of his astonished future in-laws and their guests. The engagement was broken off -- perhaps a good thing, since Bennett gained quite a reputation as a playboy.
Bennett was able to run the Herald from abroad via transatlantic cable. He partnered with John W. MacKay to organize the Commercial Cable Company to handle European dispatches. A cable-laying ship, the MacKay-Bennett, was named for the two founders. In 1912, the MacKay-Bennett was chartered by the White Star Line to recover bodies from the wreck of the Titanic. The ship found the remains of 306 victims, including those of John Jacob Astor and Isador Straus.
Bennett also played a role in luring Guglielmo Marconi -- and hence, wireless communication -- to the United States. In 1899, he persuaded Marconi to come to New York to demonstrate his new invention. His motive: he figured he could scoop his rivals by using wireless to transmit results of a yacht race. It worked.
Today, Gordon Bennett is probably best known for his contribution to sports. He is generally credited with introducing polo to the United States. He also established trophies for races in a number of other sports, including yachting, automobiles, airplanes, and of course, balloons. As the organizer of the world’s first major automobile race, the Gordon Bennett Motor Car Road Racing Trials, he is considered to be the father of auto racing. This long-distance endurance race was founded in 1900 and ran through 1905. As with the later balloon race, the winning driver’s country had the honor of hosting the next year’s race. Ironically, Bennett never drove a car and never attended the race.
The Gordon Bennett balloon race is the only one of the events Bennett founded that survives today as a major international event. Bennett remained active in journalism into World War I, but his charitable contributions, expensive journalistic stunts, outrageous lifestyle, and passion for sports had depleted his and the Herald’s resources. Bennett died in France in 1918, and five years later, the Herald merged with its hated rival the Tribune to become the New York Herald-Tribune.