LIFE STORIES OF SUCCESSFUL PEOPLE

The Monte Cristo of Journalism

GEORGE JEAN NATHAN April 1 1909
LIFE STORIES OF SUCCESSFUL PEOPLE

The Monte Cristo of Journalism

GEORGE JEAN NATHAN April 1 1909

JAMES GORDON BENNETT, owner of the New York Herald, is the most remarkable figure in the history of journalism. In his management of his great metropolitan newspaper, in the exploitation of many of his individualistic ideas, in his peculiar mode of life and in his accomplishments, he stands alone—the most unusual personality of Pressdom.

He has been referred to by his friends as the kingliest character of America, and his career warrants the tribute. He has been referred to by his enemies as an unbending tyrant and his methods have demonstrated that this tribute is not entirely unwarranted. He has ruled, not by the Machiavelian alternative of love or fear, but by fear and melodrama, and to-day the newspaper that he inherited from his father 's classed as one of the greatest.

James Gordon Bennett was born in New York. He is now sixty-seven years old. In appearance he is tall and slender and gives the impression of a vast amount of nervous energy. He carries himself with military erectness, and his steel-gray hair and moustache add to his general soldierly look. For many years he has made his home in Paris, and visits this country only about once every two years. He literally edits the New York Herald by cable. And the story of the way in which he does this is almost as unbelievable as it is curious.

It is the general public opinion that Mr. Bennett lets the Herald run itself, and that, particularly of late years, he has not kept in close touch with its affairs and progress. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, it may be said that he is devoting more time to the interests of his paper at present than ever before.

About two years ago, after Mr. William C. Reick, then president of the Herald Company, left to take an interest in the Times, Mr. Bennett placed the on-the-spot control of his paper in the hands of six or seven committees, composed of the various editors, heads of departments, and so forth. These committees were vested with scant power, however, and their status is always kept in doubt. It is not even within their power to discharge a reporter. It is their mission merely to carry out Mr. Bennett’s orders and to convey to him the various developments that may come up in connection with the operation of the newspaper. At the head of the table about which these committees gather is Mr. Bennett’s chair, always kept in position. At his place all the metropolitan papers are laid each day. Thus, even though he may not be present more than once every two years, lie imbues his men with the idea that lie is present in spirit and that he is “the boss”—not they. In his private office in the front of the Herald building, in Herald Square, his desk is ever kept in readiness for him, and even such details as filled inkwells and a handy ash-tray are looked after by attendants who have been impressed that they are to act just as if he came into his office every day. It is related, along this line, that even years ago, when the Herald was printed downtown, Mr. Bennett ordered that the light in his office be kept burning every night. The windows of his office looked out on the street, and he wanted passersby, as well as the office force, to know that he was, paradoxically, in his office every evening even if he happened to be abroad. The spirit presence of the proprietor is further impressed upon his general staff by frequently bulletined cablegrams detailing this or that order.

It must not be imagined, however, that Mr. Bennett is content to rest his work upon devices such as these. Although he is a man of millions and although he is getting along in years, it may be said of him that he works harder for the Herald than does any man in his employ. During the last year he has frequently been in the habit of rising at five o’clock in the morning, partaking of black coffee and working an hour and a half getting up his plans so that he might cable them in proper time to his workers in Herald Square for their immediate guidance. When he wishes to get into personal touch with the heads of his departments, he orders them to come to him in Paris, thus sparing himself the tedium of frequent ocean voyages.

Every day, three is sent to Mr. Bennett a copy of the Herald, every article in which is marked with the name of the man who wrote it. By this means, he keeps in touch with the daily work and progress of every man on his staff. The slightest error will be quickly ferreted out by his eagle eye and a warning bulletin is speedily posted by him following his detection in a “story” of, for instance, the word “gentleman” instead of “man,” the use of some such phrase as “J. Pierpont Morgan, the financier,” instead of “J. Pierpont Morgan, a financier,” or similar violations of a huge, freakish “don’t list,” the vigorous adherence to which he insists upon.

In addition to keeping in the closest touch with the New York Herald, this wonderfully odd man of journalism keeps in personal touch with the Paris edition of the Herald, makes intermittent trips to the London office and looks after, by cable, the New York Evening Telegram, in which he takes much pride, because he started it himself after he had inherited the Herald.

In the management of his newspapers almost everything with Mr. Bennett seems to be a matter of mood. An editor one day may be assigned to “cover” the Harlem police court the following day. The foreman of the pressroom may be summoned to fill an important editorial chair. A comparatively obscure member of the reportorial staff may be elevated to a “desk job.” Such changes are naturally attributed by outsiders to the ever-changing moods of the Man in Paris, and yet, as has been stated, where the sudden changes may seem to be only the results of moods, subsequent developments may show the peculiar workings of the Bennett brain in the alterations. A man may be removed from a high position because he is making a name for himself through the efficiency of his work. There must be no individual “hits” made by Herald men. They are allowed to sign their names to no articles, and even an editor is known, not by his name, but by his office in the Herald realm. Thus, it is not “John Jones, the City Editor,” in communications, but merely “The City Editor.” James Gordon Bennett is the only name known in the Herald office. The “box” printed on the editorial page with the names of the editors and printers is only one of the contradictory Bennett angles.

As soon as a man in Mr. Bennett’s employ becomes well known he is discharged. “Workers, not celebrities,” is the rule. If he is not discharged, he is reduced in position. When Henry M. Stanley returned to Herald Square after having penetrated the African jungles in the search for Livingstone and had won world-fame, Mr. Bennett ordered him to “cover” the Tenderloin police station, one of the most meager of reportorial posts. When a certain dramatic writer on the Telegram several years ago was beginning to be praised for his work, Mr. Bennett ordered his discharge, and commanded that henceforth the critic’s work be done by different reporters—a new one for each play. One of the results was a “criticism” of “Sappho and Phaon,” by the reporter whose most regular assignment at the time happened to be the “covering” of fires.

Other whims of Mr. Bennett find illustration in his dismissal years ago of a music critic simply because “he was such a funny looking man” and of his making a financial editor about fifteen years ago out of a man whose forte was dramatic criticism. Mr. Bennett has always been a “stickler” in the matter of the personal appearance of the men in his employ, and he demands neatness above all things. They used to tell a story in this regard that shows the unexpected turns that Mr. Bennett makes every once in a while.

Anticipating a visit from the proprietor, word was sent quivering through the office that every man was to spruce up and look his best. There was a hurry, a clatter, a dash to get into trim, and when Mr. Bennett appeared the general survey was a pleasing one. That is, forgetting one man who had not heard the advance news of The Coming and who, consequently, had not “cleaned up.” When Mr. Bennett entered the big room of the city department the trim members of the staff clustered around the untidy one in an effort to hide him from view. Mr. Bennett spied him, however, and asked him to step out.

With visions of dismissal in his mind’s eye, the unkempt reporter faced his employer, who said lightly: “You are the only man in here who looks as if he’d been working. You can add fifteen dollars a week to your salary.”

Mr. Bennett does not like his men to have their visiting cards inscribed with the name of the Herald. It is related that when one of his men called upon him one day and presented his card, “John Smith,” with “The New York Herald” engraved beneath, Mr. Bennett glanced at him and sarcastically remarked: “Um, so you are the New York Herald.”

Illustrative of the peculiar campaigns which Mr. Bennett starts with his newspapers are the comparatively recent instances of his efforts to effect an American alliance with China, his efforts to stir up trouble with Japan and his efforts to introduce the metric system into usage in this country. He spends thousands of dollars exploiting every one of these schemes and pays many men to gather interviews praising the ideas and to evolve further ideas for the popularization of the fundamental ideas. For James Gordon Bennett is a fighter, and once he sets out to do a thing he either does it or does everything in his power to prove to himself that it is impossible of execution.

The introduction of the metric system into this country has been one of his greatest desires for many years, and, although two different campaigns that he has undertaken have not yet brought about the fulfillment of his purpose, he still maintains his fight for the American adoption of the French mathematical standards.

One of the best known foreign illustrations of Mr. Bennett’s stick-to-it-iveness is his printing every day in the Paris edition of the Herald the now famous letter of “An Old Philadelphia Lady.” One day, years ago, the other Paris journals ridiculed the Herald for entering into an explanatory discussion of the question : “What is the difference between Fahrenheit and centigrade?” propounded by a woman who signed herself as indicated above. Mr. Bennett, disliking the pooh-poohing attitude of the other papers, ordered that the letter be printed every day thereafter, and it has been and still is.

Sensational and stock-creating methods for the gathering and dispensing of news are among Mr. Bennett’s hobbies. The carrier pigeon service that he installed on the roof of the New York Herald building, the steam yacht Owlet that now meets the incoming liners, the wireless service imparting Wall Street market news to the New York Yacht Club fleet on its annual cruises, the placing of an American dramatic critic in London, and other equally novel features show the resourcefulness of this stop-at-nothing journalistic Monte Cristo. Although one of his rules is the prohibition of the use of superlatives in the columns of the Herald, Mr. Bennett indulges in all sorts of superlativeness to promote the interests of his newspapers. On election nights, the Herald’s signal searchlight must be placed on the highest tower in all New York. In the hurrying of the early editions to the trains, the Herald must be carted by the fastest of the newspaper delivery automobiles. In its reports of opera premieres, of summer resort news and of foreign happenings, the Herald must have more pictures and devote more space than any other paper. If another newspaper has six men on the Vanderbilt Cup race, the Herald must have seven. Everything must centre on the securing (this word is also a Herald “don’t”) of a “beat,” i.e., something exclusive. It is related that the entire staff of one of the Herald’s departments was discharged at one time because another metropolitan paper had printed a “beat” in its line.

James Gordon Bennett’s actions have always been modeled after the Monte Cristo principle: “The journalistic world is mine!” And his great fortune he is always ready to use to back up his cry. His personal life, too, has been laid in the lane of royalty, in a romantic Monte Cristoan atmosphere that is almost unequalled in modern day American prosaicism. His friends have been culled from the royal houses of Europe; kings, queens, lords, dukes, earls have been his companions. He has “put up” in the Imperial Palace with the Czar (which he spells Tsar) and he has wagered on the Derby’s outcome with the then Prince of Wales and the now King of England. His breast has been decorated with multi-colored ribbons and variously made medals. His yacht Lysistrata, ornamented with the same sort of owls that blink from the cornices of the Herald Building in New York, has entertained on board many of the world’s rulers, artists, men of affairs and other brilliant personages.

At Monte Carlo, in the Riviera, as in the capitals, James Gordon Bennett has been a notable figure. His advent has always been preceded by that expectant hush and semi-repressed sense of preparation that is reserved for “Them of the Crown.” With his small accompanying party he has ever been the centre of the thousand glances of surrounding tables. His departure has always been characterized with a similar dignity, solemnity and half-mystery that is as inexplicable as it is unusual in the instance of an American, of any other American.

There has always been something of swashbuckling, soldier-of-fortune, dare-devil regality in this man Bennett’s romantic make-up. Years ago, while seated in front of the blazing grate in the Union Club with Pierre Lorillard and several other friends, one of the latter, glancing out at the snow that swirled against the huge windows, remarked that it was a bad night on which to venture out.

“You call this bad?” laughed Bennett, “why, I wouldn’t mind sailing my yacht across the ocean in just such weather.”

“Ten thousand dollars you would not do any such thing,” cried out his friend.

“I’ll take the bet,” replied Bennett quietly, “and I’ll double it and race you to England.”

The story of Mr. Bennett’s yacht race across the winter seas created the sensation of the day.

Several years later, Mr. Bennett, back in America again at the holiday season, dropped into one of his clubs and, in an absent-minded moment, handed the waiter, who was serving him, his purse containing several hundred dollars. The waiter, dumbfounded, took the purse and went back to the service room. Recovering from his surprise half an hour later, he approached the table where Mr. Bennett was seated. Several of the latter’s friends had joined him by this time.

“I beg your pardon, sir,” the waiter addressed Mr. Bennett, “but you gave me two hundred and ninety dollars a while ago. You didn’t mean to, did you, sir?”

Sensitive about his even rarely occurring absent-mindedness and rather than let his friends know about it, Mr. Bennett, looking over his shoulder, said to the waiter: “Certainly I did, James, just as a little Christmas gift. Only I thought I had given you an even three hundred. Here is the other ten.”

On another occasion, while at the Herald office on one of his periodic visits to this country, a small fire broke out in West Thirty-sixth Street, near the Herald building, and the dignified Mr. Bennett, in truly democratic spirit, headed a score of men of his staff in a “fire brigade” to extinguish the blaze. The strings of office hose were jerked from their rests and, dragged to the north windows, were trained on the fire, which was quickly put out. No one in the office enjoyed the fun more than did the owner of the Herald.

It is related that on the occasion of another of his visits, while walking through the west corridor of the Herald building, he came into collision with a “copy boy,” who was rushing headlong down the hallway, and that, appreciating the lad’s vim in getting around, despite the discomfort that the boy’s head had caused his stomach when it came into quick contact with it, he handed the “copy boy” a two-dollar bill.

About twelve years ago (Mr. Bennett rules that starting a paragraph with an expression of time is bad journalism), the Herald proprietor decided that he wanted a new head for his Paris edition. He had two men in mind for the position and he asked both to call on him a certain evening at his hotel. One of the men had been so busy in the office all day that he had no time to change his clothes before going to meet Mr. Bennett. The other man, however, appeared in immaculate evening attire. Mr. Bennett’s decision was immediate. He pointed to the carefully groomed man and said : “The position is yours.” That man is still in his employ and holds one of the best posts in the Bennett command.

Now, although it is perfectly natural that an act like this on the part of a man looking for an able journalist to fill an important post is to be regarded in the light of a freakish, unthinking whim, it is nevertheless paradoxically true that the final results obtained by Mr. Bennett from such “whims” have almost always seemed to justify his instantaneous, peculiarly angled decisions. The intricate journalistic psychology whereby he reads men, the bold theory that a man’s mind is frequently to be judged by the degree of his well-groomedness and an inborn reliance in his lucky star have made this man what he is—the plutocrat of the press.

Mr. Bennett is a journalistic fatalist. With his “damn-the-torpedoes-go-ahead” policy, it is not entirely to be doubted that, even had he been born to comparative poverty, he would have gained for himself a place of prominence in the press world. He is a man who does not believe in second thoughts. He is action, all action and quick action. His character is best summed up in a remark he made to a friend of his many years ago at Newport: ‘I admire a fighter, yes,” he said, “but only when he gets in the first blow.” Reference has been made to Newport. It has probably been forgotten by this time that much of that resort’s claim to the name of The American Society Capital rests in what Mr. Bennett did for it in years gone by. With his intimate knowledge of European purpledom, his own red-white-and-blue social standing and his command over the powers of gold and black-and-white, he devoted a great deal of his attention toward the development of the Rhode Island colony of ultra-New Yorkers. The Newport Casino was an inaugurative gift of his. The great affairs at which he was host, his magnificent villa that encouraged the erection of others, his urging of the elaboration of yachting interests, his showing of prancing turn-outs that did much toward bringing out society’s equine displays and his activity in working for the general improvement of the resort were all big factors in the evolution of the Newport of former days the glorious Newport of Here and Now.

Even though Mr. Bennett is rarely seen at Newport these years, his interests in its welfare is shown in many different ways. The news of the resort is featured in his newspapers and particularly detailed attention is devoted to the doings of its leading social lights. In the last few summers Mr. Bennett has worked out a launch service so that the resort may be supplied with his newspaper at an earlier hour than would be possible if the old-time train service were relied upon.

In his dealings with the men who have served him, James Gordon Bennett’s way is spectacularly contradictory. Some men who have served well on his newspapers for many years have been suddenly removed from their positions with no word of explanation. Others who have labored faithfully in his employ have been relieved from work, and have been given a handsome pension for the rest of their days. Men who have been employed by him as personal servants have been given easy tasks in their old age, and a sufficient remuneration on which to live well. An old valet, who had been with Mr. Bennett in his younger days, is at present in charge of the visitors’ corridor in Herald Square. And the same old negro who washed the Herald windows long, long years ago, is still washing them at a yearly increased salary.

Two of Mr. Bennett’s idiosyncracies are his lack of belief in the value of a college education and his aversion toward smoking the last half of his cigars. In relation to the first, it is not uninteresting to note that most of the men who have been given high positions by him have been non-university men. Mr. Bennett himself is not a college graduate and he holds that collegiate training is not necessary in the making of newspaper men. Those few college men who have won the higher positions in his employ have not held them long.

As to cigars, and he is an inveterate smoker, the Herald proprietor never consumes more than half of one of the heavy Havanas he has manufactured especially for his use. When he has smoked half a cigar, he throws it away and lights a fresh one.

No better further illustration of the Bennett oddness is to be had than the Herald building in Herald Square. Modeled after one of the famous Venetian palaces, its interior arrangement is like that of a yacht. The city room is the rear deck, the reception room and offices make up a forward deck, and the departments — dramatic, financial, correspondents, etc. — are a la cabins. “Below” is the machinery that makes the Herald go. When the building was erected Mr. Bennett said he meant it to be an argument against the sky-scraper class of architecture that he detests.

Journalism, travel and society, however, is not the sole trinity of James Gordon Bennett’s interests. He is a lover of sport of every kind, and the many “Gordon Bennett cups” that he has offered to further competition in various lines of sport, both at home and abroad, demonstrate his personal attention to the outdoor world of skill and muscle.

Children do not interest Mr. Bennett. Animals do. He is a great lover of dogs and it is a well-known Herald office tradition that he would almost rather see a good “dog story” on his first page than the narrative of a fatal tunnel explosion. Just as Mr. Pulitzer, of the World, likes front-page stories, dealing with peculiar optical operations and just as Mr. Hearst, of the American, prefers stories of political scandal, so does Mr. Bennett cherish a good “human interest” dog story.

Such a man, all in all, is James Gordon Bennett, friend of copy-boys and monarchs and enemy of both. Such a man is the Bennett who one moment discharges a reporter because of a slip of the pen and the next moment startles the world with a cable campaign against an empire. Such a man is he who, with millions at his command, feels the pulse of the earth’s beating hearts and prescribes frowning or smiling lino-type according to the dictates of a passing mood.

Patron of sport, man of whim and mystery, respecter of all governments and none—James Gordon Bennett, the Monte Cristo of modern journalism.