May 10, 2012

Gordon Bennett!

Today is the birthday James Gordon Bennett Jr. (1841).

Gordon Bennett(!)
int. expressing surprise, incredulity, or exasperation
Oxford English Dictionary

Gordon Bennett is perhaps the only historical figure of etymological note who also once had an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records. He has the dubious distinction of committing the Greatest Engagement Faux Pas for drunkenly urinating in the fireplace belonging to his fiancée’s parents. Despite being a Yank, his name has been invoked by Brits for years as an alternative interjection to the slightly sacrilegious “gorblimey!” contraction of “God blind me!”

James Gordon Bennett Jr. was the son of newspaper magnate James Gordon Bennett Sr. In 1835, the elder Bennett founded the infamous New York Herald, which practiced what journalist and critic H. L. Mencken called “journalism for the frankly ignorant and vulgar,” and Bennett openly admitted that he felt the role of his publication was “not to instruct but to startle.” Its sensational headlines and publicity stunts gave it the leading circulation of its day, but it was the junior Bennett (who was called simply Gordon) who took the paper to new highs (and lows), in perfect keeping with this outrageous lifestyle.

Born in 1841, Bennett spent most of his childhood in France but took over the running of the American paper in 1866. He quickly proved himself to be an equal showman to his father by hiring journalist and adventurer Henry Morton Stanley to find missionary and explorer David Livingstone, who had disappeared in Africa searching for the elusive source of the Nile River. Stanley’s exciting dispatches made the Herald’s circulation skyrocket, culminating with his fantastic discovery of the pneumonia-, cholera-, and ulcer-ridden Livingstone near Lake Tanganyika and his now infamous introduction “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” Bennett had decidedly less geographical success (but, again, increased his circulation) after funding the tragic North Pole expedition of George W. DeLong, who starved, along with nineteen of his crew, while trying to navigate the Bering Strait.

As a newspaper mogul, Bennett lived the opulent life of an international playboy and high-society sportsman. He won the first yacht race across the Atlantic Ocean in 1866, founded the first polo club in the United States in 1876, and established the first and oldest (and still flying) gas balloon race in 1906—the Gordon Bennett Cup in ballooning. He allegedly whipped the white tablecloths off the tables of other diners when he entered restaurants and caused a social scandal when he ruined his engagement with New York socialite Caroline May by entering her family’s mansion drunk and then relieving himself in their fireplace. He moved permanently to Paris in 1877, launched the Paris Herald, and (somewhat less successfully) ran his now-international newspaper operations primarily by telegram sent from aboard his yacht, the Lysistrata.

In 1914, at the age of seventy-three, he married the Baroness de Reuter, widowed daughter-in-law of Paul Reuter, the founder of Reuters news agency. Bennett died four years later and was buried in France. His legacy is a peculiar one. His American newspaper ultimately went out of business, but the Washington Post and the New York Times reincarnated its European version as the International Herald Tribune. He has streets named for him in Paris, a statue erected in his paper’s Herald Square in New York City, and since 1869 has represented the highest award for heroism a New York firefighter can receive—the James Gordon Bennett Medal.

But, most strangely, though he never worked or lived in England, since the early 1930s its inhabitants have exclaimed “Gordon Bennett!” to express tasteful shock. Beyond his flamboyant international lifestyle and newsworthy notoriety, its origin is a mystery.