new york’s newspaper wealth -- 9/19/23

Today's selection -- from Once Upon a Time World by Jonathan Miles. In the late 1800s, the French Riviera became one of the most popular destinations for the world’s wealthiest people. One of those was James Gordon Bennett, the scandalous owner of New York's most successful newspaper, the New York Herald

“The wealthiest enclaves on the [French Riviera] coast attracted fantasists, the spoilt and the self-indulgent. The most eccentric and striking inhabitant of Beaulieu was the American newspaper proprietor James Gordon Bennett, who built his Villa Naouma in the part of the town where bananas grew -- Petite Afrique. The tall, blue-eyed Bennett had been obliged to quit New York in 1877 after committing a social transgression at the home of his rich fiancee. Notorious for being unable to hold his liquor, Bennett arrived drunk and proceeded to urinate -- there are two versions -- into a fireplace or onto the grand piano. The girl's brother clobbered Bennett, who responded by challenging him to a duel. The upshot was that Bennett became a pariah in New York, departed for Paris and remained in France for forty years. In exile, he launched the Paris-based edition of the New York Herald. Son and heir to the paper's founder, Bennett Jr ruled his new roost in the best Citizen Kane manner -- 'I want you gentlemen to remember that I am the only reader of this paper. If I want the columns to be turned upside down, they must be turned upside down.' Eccentricity ruled as Bennett printed the same letter to the editor every day for nineteen years. From an 'Old Philadelphia Lady' living in Paris, it enquired how to convert Fahrenheit to centigrade and vice versa.  Method in his madness, the editor's reply would have been perennially useful for American visitors to France.

“An adept and flamboyant newspaper man, Bennett made the Herald the 'most serious of frivolous newspapers', read by kings and leaders. Technologically advanced, it was the first to use radio to receive news. Enterprisingly, Bennett sent Henry Morton Stanley to Africa to find the lost British missionary Dr David Livingstone. The mission's success was reported in the Herald with Stanley's phrase 'Dr. Livingstone, I presume'. The weekly explored new sports exploiting new equipment. Top couturiers such as Worth and Poiret were happy to grant exclusive interviews, as the paper was a barometer of the preoccupations and habits of the affluent classes in Paris and on the Riviera.

James Gordon Bennett Jr.

“Impetuous, Bennett was known to throw rolls of banknotes into open fires and to pass between the tables of a restaurant and swipe the cloths from underneath plates and glasses in protest against slow service. When he arrived at a Monte Carlo restaurant which he prized for their mutton chops and found all tables occupied, he bought the establishment for $40,000. When his favourite waiter, Ciro, arrived with his chops, he gave him the restaurant as a tip. As with the Belle Otero/Liane de Pougy jewel contest, there are other versions of this incident. Ciro -- variously an Egyptian pastry cook or a Neapolitan who had worked at New York's fashionable Delmonico's – was Bennett's favourite waiter at the Cafe Richel, where he liked to eat on the terrace.  Arriving one day, Bennett found all the tables cleared away and so he bought the restaurant, gave the deeds to Ciro and told him that, as the new owner, he could put the tables back on the terrace and serve him a mutter chop. More tamely, Polovtsov claimed that Bennett merely liked Ciro's pastries and encouraged him to set up a restaurant of his own, promising free publicity in the Herald. 

“Gordon Bennett kept his yacht Lysistrata anchored off the coast. It boasted a suite of rooms on each of the three decks, a Turkish bath, a crew of a hundred, and an Alderney cow -- presumably for fresh milk.  One evening, Bennett invited some American society ladies to dine with him on board. In the middle of dinner, he retired to his cabin as the yacht put out to sea. When the Mediterranean became choppy, the ladies pleaded with the captain to return to port. 'I have Mr Bennett's order to proceed to Egypt,' he replied. No entreaty would sway him, and Bennett was locked in his cabin. The following morning, the host saw reason and ordered the Lysistrata to return to France. The furious guests were put ashore in evening dress. Embarrassing -- if not compromising -- only generous presents and extravagant apologies restored relations.”



Jonathan Miles


Once Upon a Time World


Pegasus Books


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