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The Wayward Commodore

April 2024
22min read

Outrageous and irreverent, publisher James Gordon Bennett shocked and delighted nearly everyone

Neither the Mrs. Astor nor any other of the formidable string of dowagers queening it over the Newport scene in the last decades of the nineteenth century could equal the imperiousness of James Gordon Bennett, an early devotee of the Rhode Island resort. His highhanded manner and the intensity of his tantrums when his will was not obeyed were unique. Professionally he was the publisher of the New York Herald , then the foremost American newspaper, and later of the Paris Herald ; and he was the man who casually sent H. M. Stanley to find Dr. Livingstone in darkest Africa. He was also as prominent in Newport society, in his own hectic fashion, as Mrs. Astor; he was the winner of the first transoceanic yacht race; and he was the most spectacular profligate of the Gilded Age—spending an estimated thirty to forty million dollars on various lordly whims. One of those whims was the Newport Casino, which he conceived in a fit of pique over being kicked out of the established male sanctuary—the Reading Room.

As a man whose bachelorhood lasted until his seventy-third year but who could never be persuaded of the virtues of celibacy, Bennett naturally attracted trouble, scandal, and controversy of all kinds.

He had begun sailing his yacht into Newport’s harbor in the seventies, had acquired a fine old stone-walled villa, called Sebastapol, on Bellevue Avenue, and was a pioneer member of the New York phalanx that began invading Newport. Until 1875, when he was thirty-four, he had been involved in a cozy and undemanding relationship with Miss Pauline Markham, a dark-eyed and statuesque English girl who was a star attraction with the Lydia Thompson Burlesque Company. Then he met Caroline May, the beautiful young daughter of a prominent Baltimore family that had produced a number of sprigs almost as high-tempered and erratic as Bennett himself. Caroline’s father was Dr. William May, a sedate New York physician, but her uncle, Colonel Charles May, had commanded a regiment of dragoons in the Mexican War and once rode his charger up three flights of stairs in a Baltimore hotel to indicate his displeasure with the management. Caroline’s uncle Julian had killed a man in a duel in Virginia. Her brother, Frederick deCourcy May, had become involved in a brawl with a New York policeman, who died of his injuries. Fellow members of the Union Club hid young May on the premises, then spirited him to South America and supplied him with remittances for a year until it was safe to return to their comradely embrace. Not, it seemed, a clan to trifle with, especially since its finances did not match the splendor of its social aspirations.


Bennett, however, could not be dissuaded from a courtship of Caroline. In the summer of 1875 he invited her and her parents to spend the summer at his Newport villa and soon found his bachelor establishment taxed to the utmost by an influx of Caroline’s brothers, uncles, aunts, and cousins. The resort’s gossips noted that Caroline was given the seat of honor beside Bennett on the box of his coach when they went out driving. Their suspicions were confirmed during the next year, when the engagement of James Gordon Bennett, Jr., to Miss Caroline May was announced.

Shortly after the announcement, however, Bennett began having doubts about the charms of domesticity. In the first place, there was that importunate swarm of Mays he would evidently be marrying as well as the lissome bride-designate; he envisioned bibulous uncles and quarrelsome second cousins littering every corner of his homes and was downright depressed by rumors that the May family was gloating over having snared the richest and therefore the most eligible bachelor in the country. Perhaps something of the caution of a long line of luckless Scottish ancestors—he was a first-generation aristocrat, his father having been a penniless printer until he founded the New York Herald —stirred deep inside him.

For some months he brooded over his situation and undoubtedly pondered various schemes for breaking his engagement without being invited to a duel. Marksmanship, as well as fecklessness, ran in the May family. Calculation was not Bennett’s long suit, however, and he usually solved his dilemmas by outrageous action.

The flash point in his relations with the May clan occurred on New Year’s Day, 1877, when it was the custom of fashionable New Yorkers to drive out in their sleighs on a round of calls, during which large amounts of punch and eggnog were swilled. By nightfall the streets of New York would be a tangle of erratically driven sleighs. Drunkenness would be endemic but excusable on the grounds that even George Washington had spoken favorably of the old Knickerbocker custom of getting outrageously drunk on New Year’s Day.

None had followed tradition that day more diligently than young Mr. Bennett, and the brandy evidently only bolstered his conviction that marriage would be calamitous. Naturally he was expected to call at the May residence. He appeared at their door in an uproarious mood, lurched into the drawing room, surveyed the Mays and their friends through bloodshot eyes, and proceeded to pour down more steaming punch. It was evident to several of the Mays’ guests that he was in a dangerous mood, and they quietly called for their hats and coats. “He never stifled an impulse,” as one of his friends remarked.

What happened next is a matter of controversy, but it was sufficiently scandalous to be gossiped about in New York society for many years and ultimately to force Bennett to exile himself in Paris. Accounts of such occurrences, as any traffic investigator will testify, are likely to differ widely. There were almost as many different versions as there were witnesses. One story was that Bennett calmly unbuttoned his trousers and urinated on the grand piano. By another account he mistook the fireplace for a pissoir . He may merely have thrown up all over Dr. May’s brocaded waistcoat. Indubitably Bennett did something rather awful to get himself ejected from the May ménage; the Mays had been prepared to put up with almost anything from such a desirable son-in-law. Elizabeth Drexel Lehr, a member of the Newport set who was a friend of Bennett’s, may have been retailing his version of the incident when she wrote:

Any modern girl would have known how to handle the situation, and would have passed over the offense [the nature of which she did not describe]. But she [Caroline] belonged to another generation, and she was provincial to her finger-tips. She swooned in the classical manner of the ’nineties, and called upon her brother to throw her fiance out of the house. Within a few hours the story, greatly exaggerated, had become a first-class scandal.

Possibly Bennett believed he had insulted his way out of the entanglement with the May family. Certainly if he had experienced any twinge of contrition—an entirely unfamiliar feeling—he could have done one of several things. He could have appeared on the May doorstep the next morning as a penitent and begged the family’s pardon, or he could have boarded his yacht and steamed off to some remote island in the South Pacific, or he could have had himself committed to an asylum.

Instead he stayed undercover for two days, then ventured over to the Union Club to test the climate. His fellow clubmen, after all, were notorious for their tolerance; they had not only helped Fred May when he killed a cop but had refused to expel Judah P. Benjamin at the beginning of the Civil War, when he had joined the Confederate cabinet. Bennett was greatly relieved when he was allowed to enter the club and found that nobody turned his back on him when he appeared in the dining room.

Bennett lunched heartily and assured himself he would be able to ride out whatever storms of disapproval might be brewing. Just as he was leaving the club the ominous figure of Fred May, horsewhip in hand, loomed before him. May began beating him with the whip—an instrument commonly used in those days for chastising errant editors—but Bennett would neither suffer the punishment as something due him nor flee from his assailant. The two men grappled, punched, gouged, and clawed like a pair of dockwallopers outside a Tenth Avenue saloon; they rolled down Fifth Avenue and might have wound up in Washington Square if a couple of fellow members hadn’t run out and separated them for the sake of civic dignity.

Bennett’s Herald did not consider the encounter newsworthy, but the rival Sun was not reluctant to report that Bennett’s blood had run in the gutter and inaccurately reported that Bennett “was to have sailed for England yesterday with his bride.…” In fact, no wedding date had been set. Two days after the brawl with May the Sun was reporting the unfounded rumor that Bennett had “fled to Canada.” Actually Bennett just then was dispatching Charles Longfellow, the poet’s son, with a challenge to Fred May. The latter agreed to meet Bennett over pistols the morning of January 7 at Slaughter’s Gap, an old dueling ground on the Virginia-Maryland border.

The shoot-out was something of a fizzle by standards then established in Dodge City and other centers of gunplay. The duelists each took twelve paces and then turned and fired. Both shots went wild. Bennett and May, accompanied by their retinues, repaired to a hotel at Dover, Maryland, where they “betook themselves to their rooms,” as the Sun joyfully reported, and “the proprietor mistook his guests for pickpockets and consequently sat up all night watching their movements.” It was said to have been the last duel fought in the United States.


That may have settled accounts with the May family, but the leading hostesses of New York society were not satisfied that Bennett had purged himself of misconduct. They firmly crossed him off their guest lists. It was a different story in Newport, where the New York dowagers were not yet entrenched. The Newport News had risen to Bennett’s defense without knowing just what he was accused of and reported, “It is a well known fact that Miss May’s brothers, cousins and other members of the family spent the last season here, and that they were not backward in accepting Mr. Bennett’s hospitality.”

(There was a farcical sequel to the Bennett-May duel. According to Mlle. Camille Clermont, intimate friend of Bennett’s Paris exile, May appeared in Paris some years after the duel, and the rumor sped around the American colony that he was planning to “shoot Bennett on sight.…J.G.B. valued his life far too highly to be thus lightly disposed of, so he ordered a magnificent coat of mail to wear under his clothing, and with his long, lanky figure he looked supremely ridiculous. He wore that coat of mail for a month or so, until he tired of carrying the abnormal weight, so he sent two of his friends to Mr. May to ask what his intentions were, preferring the risk of a duel to the constant fatigue imposed by the medieval armour. Mr. May declared that he had no homicidal intentions, so, to his great relief, J.G.B. discarded the cuirass.” Mile. Clermont’s memoir was one more proof that a rich man should choose someone illiterate for his intimate friend.)

In Newport he would always be regarded as a legendary figure, a lordly dispenser of hospitality. “His entertainments were as fiery as himself,” as Maud Howe Elliott, a Newport contemporary, recalled. “At one ball, as night stretched into morning, some of the guests who could not be served fast enough cracked open the champagne bottles by knocking them together and striking off their heads.…”

The money that spawned such exuberances came from the efforts of James Gordon Bennett, Sr., to develop a new and more compelling form of American journalism. In the mid-1830’s the New York Herald was merely one of fifteen newspapers struggling for survival in the competition of Park Row. Bennett senior migrated from Scotland in his youth to thwart his family’s determination that he enter the priesthood; he taught school in Maine, read proof in a Boston printshop, and wound up in New York as a reporter and Washington correspondent for one journal and associate editor of another. In 1835 he established the Herald in a Wall Street basement, having decided that American newspapers were overstaffed with opinion and lacking in human interest, the blood-and-thunder drama of daily events. Sensationalism put the Herald over; its pages dripped gore, clamored over various scandals, exposed the corruption on Wall Street and in City Hall, and avidly reported sexual misconduct.

A rather unhappy marriage with an Irish girl, which produced James Gordon Bennett, Jr., and his sister Jeanette, only increased the senior Bennett’s devotion to his journalistic creation. Mrs. Bennett simply couldn’t bear the ostracism, the violent assaults that were the portion of any vigorously independent, outspoken publisher of his day. She declared her intention of taking herself and their children “out of the sphere of calumny, misrepresentation and reckless wit” into which her hard-bitten husband daily flung himself with the joy of a Highland chieftain.

James junior spent his boyhood in Paris, spoiled by his mother, despaired of by a succession of tutors who tried to acquaint him with some measure of discipline. He grew up firmly convinced that he was the center of the universe, and his life rarely offered any correctives to that view. At the age of fifteen he was returned to New York to rejoin his father, who was simply too busy with the Herald to keep an eye on a youth who had already acquired a taste for alcohol and a seigneurial attitude toward the female sex. Long before he reached voting age, he bore himself with the contemptuous manner of a Regency buck.

His father scorned society as something fit only for females and effeminate men, but Bennett junior found the sporting element of the fashionable world to his liking. Generous with everything but paternal guidance. Bennett senior indulged his son to the utmost; the power of the Herald enabled James junior to join the exclusive New York Yacht Club at the age of seventeen and sail, with professional help, the sloop Rebecca and subsequently the 160-ton yacht Henrietta . His father’s influence also persuaded the Revenue Cutter Service, a shore-patrolling adjunct of the Navy during the Civil War, to commission him as a third lieutenant and accept the Henrietta as an auxiliary in the task of blockading the southern ports.

Meanwhile James junior was becoming the youthful satellite of a group of sportive financiers, the Belmont-Jerome clique of bon vivants , who spared as much time from moneymaking on Wall Street as possible to pursue in gentlemanly fashion the avocations of wining, wenching, yachting, and coaching. The three Jerome brothers included Leonard, whose daughter married Lord Randolph Churchill and produced the great Winston. With August Belmont the Jeromes founded the Coaching Club and popularized, for those who could afford it, the sport of driving a four-in-hand.

Young Bennett not only became a dashing “whip” but displayed some of the temperamental traits that made his subsequent antics the talk of two continents. At coaching races he would sometimes race across the finish line and then continue to career down the road for miles. Speed intoxicated him to an alarming degree, particularly when combined with reckless amounts of alcohol. He often took midnight rides into the countryside, cracking his whip and driving his horses at a lunatic pace. Often he tore off all his clothes and rode the box stark naked because, as he explained, “I want to be able to breathe.”

While only nominally the managing editor of the Herald , Bennett also imprinted his name permanently on the history of American yachting. The opportunity arose one evening over copious amounts of brandy in the Union Club. An argument over the merits of the centerboard versus the keel in yacht construction led to a challenge: Bennett’s keel-equipped Henrietta to race two centerboard-equipped yachts—Frank Osgood’s Fleetwing and Pierre Lorillard’s Vesta —all the way across the Atlantic, though no yacht of either sort had as yet attempted such a distance. The purse was to be $90,000, the race was to take place in December, and all three boats were to be skippered by their owners. On sober consideration of the perils of that winter crossing, Lorillard and Osgood decided not to accompany their yachts but to turn them over to professionals. Bennett undeniably had the courage of his convictions and was man enough to point out that he couldn’t ask other men to take unshared risks for his sake. He would command the Henrietta , with Captain Bully Samuels as his sailing master. Three other amateurs were part of Bennett’s crew: Charles Longfellow, Stephen Fiske, the playwright, and Lawrence Jerome.

The three contending yachts sailed off into the winter storms of the Atlantic. On December 19, 1866, they ran into heavy seas, and the Fleetwing , trying to drive through the storm, had six crew members washed overboard; but the Henrietta hove to under bare masts and survived without losing a man. Vesta , however, had sailed into the teeth of the gale-force winds and gained two hundred and twenty-two miles on its competitors and was well in the lead when the three contenders sighted the lights of the Scilly Isles on Christmas Eve. Superior seamanship in negotiating the English Channel—thanks more to Bully Samuels than to Bennett—resulted in the Henrietta ’s sailing first into Cowes Roads several hours ahead of its rivals.

That feat greatly increased Bennett’s standing with his father for a perfectly understandable reason. Bennett senior made full use of the recently completed Atlantic cable to plaster the front page of the Herald with accounts of the victory in a proprietary manner. Nothing warmed the old man’s heart faster than a boost in circulation.

Bennett senior sensed in his son a growing maturity and urged him to accept partial control of the Herald . Bennett junior agreed, and at the age of twenty-six he began appearing regularly at the Herald offices. His father was seventy-two and preferred to seclude himself in his mansion in Washington Heights. One day, six months after bestowing partial responsibility on his son, he studied the first edition of the Herald in his study and was astonished to note that Bennett junior had changed the masthead to read “James Gordon Bennett Jr., Editor-in-Chief and Publisher.” Flaming mad, he hurried down to Park Row and ordered the page replated and his own name reinstated in command of the newspaper.

It became even more evident after Bennett senior’s death that the son had inherited several of his father’s more valuable journalistic traits. Bennett junior soon demonstrated a talent for picking extremely capable men, a flamboyant spirit of enterprise that was to electrify the world on occasion, and a sense of what people—especially those whose literary interests were confined to the daily press—wanted to read about. From the age of twenty-seven on he was one of the moguls of the newspaper industry.

By now having been made commodore of the New York Yacht Club—a title that delighted him—he also prided himself on running a tight ship on Park Row. All employees were required to write fitness reports on one another, which comprised a system of internal espionage. He was “too suspicious to trust his friends,” wrote Stephen Fiske, who served as dramatic critic on the Herald for a time and perhaps hoped that as a member of the crew in the transatlantic yacht race he would at least be favored with Bennett’s confidence, “and he makes enemies unconsciously of those who would be, and have been, most truly devoted to him, by regarding all mankind as a band of conspirators organized to influence the Herald for their own purposes.” That syndrome, too, he had inherited from his self-sufficient and solitary father.

During the ten years between the time Bennett took charge and his exile to France following the imbroglio with the May family in 1877, he spent much of the paper’s $750,000 annual net income on projects that not only enhanced its prestige but also increased its circulation. In fact, the Herald acquired an international reputation, as a rival New York editor grudgingly admitted, “unsurpassed by any journal in the world.” Other newspapers had to copy it or pass up news they could ill afford to ignore. His roving correspondents were not merely journalists but adventurers on the grand scale, ambassadors without portfolio, intrepid commanders of “Herald Search Expeditions.”

His greatest discovery was the Welshman named Henry M. Stanley, raised in a workhouse as “a deserted bastard” (the Victorians could be blunt enough when dealing with the lower orders), who shipped out as a cabin boy and jumped ship in New Orleans. A swarthy, tough, and energetic young man, Stanley journeyed to New York with a scheme for covering a British punitive expedition to Abyssinia. He planned to use funds he had earned as a roving journalist after the Civil War to pay his own way if some newspaper would agree to publish his dispatches at space rates. The Tribune turned him down, but Bennett agreed to commission him as a special correspondent to the Herald . His accounts of the colonial campaign were so graphic Bennett put him on the payroll. [See “The Making of an American Lion,” February, 1974, A MERICAN H ERITAGE .]

Bennett was vacationing in Paris when he was seized by one of those impulses that made the Herald celebrated for its enterprise and often brought it to the verge of ruin. He summoned Stanley from the Greek islands, where Stanley was writing some travel sketches. Both men were then twenty-eight years old. When Stanley appeared in his Paris hotel room, Bennett, without wasting words, announced that Stanley was going to Africa at the head of a Herald Search Expedition to find Dr. David Livingstone, the Albert Schweitzer of his time, who supposedly was lost. Never mind that he wasn’t. Never mind that, after heroic effort, Stanley “found” Livingstone and the latter referred to the Herald as “that despicable newspaper.” The understatement of the first Stanley-Livingstone exchange (“Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” “Yes.”) still echoes. And the Herald ’s circulation broke through the magic ceiling of a hundred thousand. Bennett’s reaction to his employee’s worldwide fame was outrage. “Who was Stanley before I found him?” the commodore demanded. “Who thought of looking for Livingstone? Who paid the bills?

Throughout these years, when he wasn’t enlivening Newport or thundering orders around the Herald building in New York, Bennett was travelling as widely as any of his roving correspondents. His highhanded eccentricity was never more in evidence than when he was sailing the Mediterranean on one of his yachts, which he always personally commanded in the style of Captain Bligh. Both crew and guests were subject to his imperious whims. One guest who incurred his displeasure was marooned on an uninhabited islet in the Mediterranean with food and water for a few days and a white shirt to wave at any passing ships. On another cruise he and his guests went ashore on an island off the Greek coast, the attraction of which was a monastery in which a votive flame reputedly had been kept burning for more than a thousand years. The flame fascinated the commodore and presented him with an irresistible challenge. “Are you sure this thing has been burning for a thousand years?” he asked the monk who was escorting them. The monk assured him it had. “Well,” replied the commodore, leaning over and blowing out the flame, “it isn’t now.”

Aboard the last and lordliest of his yachts, the Lysistrata , which included a Turkish bath for the commodore’s sole use and a miniature dairy outfitted for an Alderney cow to provide fresh milk for his table, he sometimes steamed as far as Turkey—where he struck up a friendship with another tyrant, the sultan known in western Europe as Abdul the Damned—and into the Indian Ocean to Ceylon.

He did not hesitate to resort to kidnapping when he fancied company on a cruise, according to Consuelo Vanderbilt, later Countess Balsan, who with her parents often visited Bennett at his villa at Beaulieu. Once three American beauties whom he had met in Newport during his salad days but who were now married—Lady Lily Bagot; Adele, Countess of Essex; and a third whom Countess Balsan identified only as “the malaprop Mrs. Moore of Paris”—had lunch with him at Beaulieu. He invited them aboard the Lysistrata for dinner. Nothing untoward happened except that the commodore seemed to be sluicing down an abnormal amount of champagne and brandy. When the ladies went out on deck after dinner, they found that the yacht had put to sea. Bennett had disappeared, locked himself in his cabin. The Lysistrata was heading into a storm, and the seas were getting rough. Appealing to the first officer on the bridge, the ladies were told, “I have Commodore Bennett’s orders to proceed to Egypt.” Not until the next morning could the commodore be aroused and persuaded to return to Beaulieu.

Even after the commodore expatriated himself to Europe and established the Paris Herald , mainly for the benefit of fellow American expatriates on the Continent, he sometimes returned to the States for a whirlwind descent on the Herald building in New York, during which heads invariably rolled, and then sailed up the coast to Newport.

Such visits were awaited in the summer colony with a combination of delight and terror. Invariably they were accompanied by wild entertainments and outrageous incidents. “He had certain likable traits,” as a Newport historian observed, “and was doing pretty well on the whole; but he was no sycophant. There was a streak of the devil in him, a love of dangerous practical jokes and a perverse desire to outrage even those people he was courting. Particularly when he was drunk, he was capable of feats of rebellious daring or mean little outbursts of spleen that threatened to prove his undoing. He belonged to the Reading Room, but was regarded by the other members as a sort of Peck’s Bad Boy sadly in need of the birch-rod of discipline.”

One summer the commodore appeared in that masculine refuge with an old friend, Captain “Sugar” Candy of the Ninth Lancers, who was a member of the British polo team. With Captain Candy’s assistance Bennett had introduced polo to the United States. In 1876 he had watched a polo game in England, where the sport was imported by officers of the Indian army. One of the players was Captain Candy, whom he persuaded to accompany him back to the States, along with a collection of polo mallets and balls. Candy taught the rudiments of the game to Bennett and several of his friends, August Belmont, Frank Gray, and William P. Douglas, first using a riding academy in Manhattan as their training field, then moving from the tanbark to a field at Jerome Park. Other members of the sporting element were recruited to form other teams, and the game began to catch on among people able to afford a string of polo ponies. Bennett became the undisputed father of American polo. Subsequently the commodore and his fellow sportsmen founded the Westchester Polo Club, built a clubhouse, and engaged a member of the Delmonico family to take charge of providing the cuisine. All this happened several years before Bennett introduced Candy to Newport society in striking fashion.

On this trip Bennett had whetted his appetite for social adventure by storming through the Herald building, with Captain Candy acting as his aide-de-camp, and firing anyone whose looks didn’t appeal to him. Then they steamed up to Newport in a mood to shake up the old place.

On a morning soon after their arrival he was irked by the senescent decay that, it seemed to him, had overtaken the Reading Room. All those old fossils, former dandies, and walrus-faced clubmen retired from Wall Street piracies gossiping away on the piazza. The place needed livening up. A gentlemen’s club needn’t be a men’s nursing home.

So he challenged Captain Candy to ride a horse up on the piazza of the Reading Room. Candy took the dare, charged up the steps of the piazza as though leading the Light Brigade against the Russian batteries at Balaklava, clattered into the hall of the club, then out and away. Bennett was standing outside bellowing with laughter.

An emergency session of the board of governors was convened. Elderly members waved their canes and demanded that Bennett be cashiered. The shock waves went up and down Bellevue Avenue that afternoon.

“This was enough to set Newport agog,” as Ward McAllister, a fossilized member of the club himself but one who evidently approved of Bennett’s horseplay, recorded. “What sacrilege! An Englishman to ride in upon us, not respecting the sanctity of the place! It aroused the old patriots of that institution with the spirit of ’76, and a summary note was sent to the great journalist, withdrawing the invitation the club had previously extended to his guest.”

Although his own membership was not withdrawn, Bennett reacted violently to the club’s rather mild reproof. He considered Newport as part of his fief, like the Heralds of New York and Paris, his yacht, and his French villa. He had been summering there long before those so-called society people from New York had ever heard of the place.

He thereupon consigned the Reading Room to the depths of social oblivion—despite which it survived and still does—and announced plans to build his own playpen, something much grander and more attractive than the stodgy quarters occupied by the old club. It would be the Newport Casino and would include clubrooms, a tennis court, a restaurant, and a theatre.

Stanford White was engaged to design the casino, with orders to spare no expense. Undoubtedly White took on the task with trepidation. Bennett could be a demanding patron of architecture, and there was also his penchant for owls to be taken into consideration. The commodore regarded the owl as his family’s good-luck symbol, totem, and an invariable part of the Bennett escutcheon; he was as superstitious about owls as any witch doctor assembling his magic kit. When White was commanded to design the new Herald building on what became known as Herald Square, he conceived a classic structure modelled after the Palazzo del Consiglio of Verona with an arcade supported by slender white marble columns. Bennett promptly ruined the cool classicism of the façade by demanding that two dozen bronze owls—equipped with electric eyes to blink over the square at night—be placed around the cornices; the exterior was further disrupted, to the artistic eye, by a huge $200,000 clock with two bronze figures trundling out to strike the hours.

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,

and it’s building marks an epoch in Newport life. In the morning at eleven o’clock, the gay summer crowd assembled to play tennis or listen to Conrad’s orchestra while they exchanged the news of the day. The theater was used chiefly for the biweekly dances that took the place of the Ocean House hops. Everybody attended them; the elders to watch, the youngsters to dance on that perfect parquet floor.…In the tangled web of memory many threads lead back to the Casino Theater where—besides the dances—concerts, readings and private theatricals were held.

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:

At the ball given by [New York] Governor Levi P. Morton for the debut of his daughter, Lena, a darkeyed beauty of the first-water, an outside ballroom was built and decorated with columns of glittering ice, festooned with smilax and roses. Thousands of lamps illuminated the pillars; the place looked like the cave of Aladdin.…Social life in every way showed increasing formality. The old high teas faded out of the picture, and late elaborate dinners took their place. Great emphasis was placed on gastronomy. The dinners were endlessly long, the decorations costly. A popular feature was a pond in the middle of the table, in which floated blue and pink water-lilies. These banquets now seem truly Roman in their gross exaggeration of the importance of eating.…

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:

At this ball appeared a Blue Domino that set all the men wild. Coming to the ball in her own carriage—her servants, she felt, she could trust not to betray her—she dashed into the merry throng and gliding from one to the other whispered airy nothings into men’s ears. But they contained enough to excite the most intense curiosity as to who she was. She was the belle of the evening; she became bold and daring at times, attacking men with the inmost secrets of their hearts, so as to alarm them, and when she had worked them all up to a fever heat, she came to me to take her to the door that she might make good her escape. A dozen men barricaded the way, but with the rapidity of a deer she dashed through them, reached the sidewalk, and her coachman literally threw her into the carriage. Her coachman, well drilled, dashed off at a furious rate.

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.


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