Excesses of the Rich and Wealthy James Gordon Bennett Part 1

About the excesses of the rich James Gordon Bennett, biography and history of his extravagent spending.



Webster's American Biographies describes James Gordon Bennett as a "publisher, sportsman, and bon vivant." This is a genteel description of the outrageous Bennett, who became rich when he took over his father's newspaper. The New York Herald, in 1868. He managed the paper so successfully that he made $1 million a year after taxes (worth at least six times that much in today's currency).

In the annals of the very rich there have been, as we have seen, a number of reckless and extravagant spenders. There have also been a good many wealthy eccentrics. Surprisingly, rarely do the two truly cross. In Bennett is found the best of the breed.

In The Big Spenders Lucius Beebe has deliciously described a handful of Bennett's escapades. It would be difficult indeed to improve on Mr. Beebe's selections, so here are some of our favorites in capsule form.

Though a notorious playboy, Bennett became engaged in 1876 to a beautiful socialite, Caroline May, and promised her that he would reform. On New Year's Day, 1877, he attended a party at her family's Manhattan home. Well in his cups, Bennett mistook the fireplace for the toilet, and there relieved himself of some New Year's libations. This faux pas caused such an unspeakable scandal that young Bennett, after fighting a duel with Caroline's brother (both parties intentionally misfired), retired to Paris and environs. Well, not retired, exactly-Bennett did nothing in a retiring way.

A wacky, drunk expatriate with money to burn, Bennett became a familiar sight in Paris's best restaurants. Stumbling in pie-eyed, Bennett would walk between the exquisitely laden tables of Maxim's or Voisin, and sometimes pulled hard enough on the surrounding tablecloths to send food, wine, and all crashing to the floor. Then he would command that the costly china, crystal, and food be replaced, send expensive bottles of wine to the tables of the bewildered customers, and order that all cleaning bills be sent to him. After his meal he would offer a wad of bank notes to the restaurant's proprietors, letting them extract what they deemed sufficient.

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