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Wikimedia Commons

The Fabulously Eccentric Life of James Gordon Bennett, Jr.

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Gilded Age New York had more than its fair share of outlandish rich people. Take Evander Berry Wall, whose crazy fashion choices (including thigh-high patent leather boots for him and bespoke collars and ties for his dogs) earned him the nickname "King of the Dudes." Then there’s C.K.G. Billings, the industrialist who hosted a dinner party on horseback in a Fifth Avenue ballroom, during which guests drank champagne through rubber tubes. And let’s not forget Alva Vanderbilt, who went ahead and founded the Metropolitan Opera when she couldn’t secure a private box at the Academy of Music. But there is perhaps no high-society New Yorker who was as consistently and astoundingly eccentric—or as influential—as James Gordon Bennett, Jr.

The son of a fabulously wealthy newspaper magnate, Bennett makes the trust fund kids of today look positively tame by comparison. From epic yacht races and colorful journalism to naked carriage rides and public urination, the man did it all. It’s no wonder that “Gordon Bennett!” became a British slang exclamation of shock and awe.

THE BEGINNINGS OF THE HERALD

James Gordon Bennett, Sr., a Scottish immigrant, founded the New York Herald in 1835, building the paper from the ground up. Within 10 years, the Herald had become the most widely read daily in America, thanks to its cheap cover price, up-to-the-minute news, and blatant sensationalism; Bennett Sr. once told a young staffer that “the object of the modern newspaper is not to instruct, but to startle and amuse.”

The elder Bennett’s fellow New Yorkers didn’t take too kindly to all the gossip-mongering; angry crowds regularly gathered outside the Herald's headquarters to the point that Papa Bennett kept a cache of weapons secreted behind the walls of his office—so it’s no surprise that he sent his son away to be educated in Paris.

‪Bennett Sr. continued to run the paper throughout the first half of the 19th century, sensationalizing the news while also pioneering the way it was reported. In 1836, he published what many historians believe was the first newspaper interview ever (the subject, naturally, was the madam of a brothel). So by 1886, when Bennett ceded editorial control of the paper to his then-25-year-old son, the Herald was well established.

THE LUCKY OWL

Bennett the younger first arrived on the New York scene as a teenager. Commanding a luxury yacht (courtesy of dad), he distinguished himself in the boating world at an early age and, at 16, became the youngest ever member of the New York Yachting Club. He took his ship to battle during the Civil War, spending a year at sea in the service of the Union. Legend has it that one night on the water, the warning hoot of an owl woke a sleeping Bennett and prevented his ship from running aground.

Whether the story is true or not, it was the catalyst for a lifelong obsession with owls. Bennett could not get enough of the predatory birds: he ran editorials on species preservation in the Herald and collected owls (both live and statuary) throughout his life. When he commissioned renowned architect Stanford White to design a new Herald building in the 1890s, it included plans to have the roof lined with bronze owl effigies—26 of them—whose eyes flashed at regular intervals with electric light.

Though the building was demolished in 1921, two of the owls now flank the Minerva statue (which also began life on the building’s roof) that stands in modern-day Herald Square—and their eyes still glow a ghostly shade of green.

YACHT ROCK

There’s a reason why Bennett’s nickname around the NYYC was “The Mad Commodore.” Though he engaged in every rich-boy pastime under the sun—polo, ballooning, tennis—his lifelong passion was yachting. He won the first-ever transatlantic yacht race in 1866, guiding the Henrietta on a two-week voyage from the New Jersey coast to the Isle of Wight. Aboard his next vessel, a steam yacht called the Namouna, he entertained artists, painters, bon vivants, and even a very young Winston Churchill.

But they were all outdone by the Lysistrata, a 300-foot monster with such onboard amenities as a Turkish bath, a milk cow in a fan-cooled stall, a theater troupe, and a luxury automobile—which he drove across Bermuda in 1906, marking the first car ever to touch the island’s soil. His joy ride earned him the enmity of two prominent vacationers: Mark Twain and a pre-presidential Woodrow Wilson, who campaigned to have cars banned from Bermuda after they saw Bennett roaring around in his De Dion-Bouton.

It wasn’t all fun and boat cows, however. Bennett kept up his publishing duties throughout his life, rising at the crack of dawn to run the Herald via letters and articles cabled to him by his editors.

WHIZZER ABOUT TOWN

To say that Bennett lived it up would be an understatement. His partying ways were infamous, fueled by a seemingly infinite store of funds and a flair for the dramatic. One of his hobbies included driving a coach-and-four at breakneck speed through the streets—often in the wee hours of the night, and often in the buff. (He once ended up in the hospital after driving under a low archway in Paris and clocking himself on the head.)

Bennett was also a cocktail enthusiast, and his boozing landed him in a heap of trouble one notorious evening in 1877. The story goes that on New Year’s Day, the publisher got rip-roaring drunk, stumbled into a fete being thrown by the family of his then-fiancée Caroline May, and proceeded to urinate into the fireplace in front of everybody. The engagement was called off, but that wasn’t the end of it: Caroline’s brother, Frederick, attacked Bennett with a horsewhip the next day, and later challenged him to a duel. Pistols at dawn were considered archaic by the 1870s, but that didn’t stop Bennett and May. As luck would have it, both of them were such bad shots that they completely missed each other, and that was the end of that.

Which isn’t to say that Bennett wasn’t mortified by the whole incident. Shortly afterwards, he left New York in shame and spent most of the rest of his life in France and traveling the world aboard his many, many yachts, and eventually founding the Paris Herald. He also maintained lavish houses in New York, Newport, Paris, the French Riviera, and Versailles—in one of Louis XIV’s chateaus, naturally, where he played host to kings and dukes.

PAY DIRT, I PRESUME

Though Bennett lived in the lap of luxury himself, he funded the exploits of adventurers willing to get their boots dirty. Most prominent among them was Henry Morton Stanley, a regular correspondent for the Herald and legendary explorer. In 1871, Bennett bankrolled Stanley’s expedition to track down a beloved Scottish missionary, David Livingstone, in the jungles of Tanzania. And naturally, he traveled in style: an armed guard, 150 porters, and 27 pack animals, while a man in front carried the flag of—what else?—the New York Yacht Club.

Stanley tracked down his target after a six-month trek, at which point he allegedly uttered the famous line: “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” Livingstone wasn’t actually missing, per se, but it sure made for a good story—and one that sold a lot of newspapers.

So did the next epic journey that Bennett funded, though it proved to be far less successful for the explorers themselves. Bennett backed an 1879 expedition to the as-yet-undiscovered North Pole, led by U.S. Navy vet George Washington De Long. But the trip ended in disaster when De Long’s ship was crushed by ice in the Bering Strait, and the surviving crew was forced to trek overland. Only 13 made it back to civilization in Siberia, while 20—De Long included—perished.

THE MAUSOLEUM THAT WASN’T

As Bennett aged, his affinity for the insanely opulent never waned. He went back to Stanford White (who, besides being a prominent architect, was also Bennett’s drinking buddy) with an idea for his final resting place: a 200-foot-tall mausoleum built in the shape of an owl, to stand on a promontory in Washington Heights. Inside the owl, a spiral staircase would lead visitors to the bird’s eyes, which would be windows offering sweeping views of the city. When Bennett died, his body would be placed in a sarcophagus and suspended from the ceiling on chains, to dangle in the middle of the monument.

But Bennett’s ridiculous tomb never came to be. In 1906, White was murdered by his lover Evelyn Nesbit’s millionaire husband, resulting in a lengthy court case that the media (the Herald included) dubbed “The Trial of the Century.” Bennett scrapped his plans for the giant owl, depriving New York City of what could have been its weirdest landmark.

LAST COMES MARRIAGE

Though Bennett was a notorious playboy, he eventually did settle down—at the ripe old age of 73. His wife was Maud Potter, the widow of George de Reuter (of Reuters news agency). They were married until Bennett’s death five years later, when he passed away at his villa in the Riviera in 1918.

Sadly, Bennett's paper followed him to the grave; the Herald was sold off in 1920 and was absorbed into an amalgam that became the now-folded New York Herald-Tribune.

But perhaps Bennett always knew his baby was doomed to die with him. When he moved the Herald building uptown, he only signed a 30-year lease. When an underling questioned this decision, he was quickly told by the mercurial publisher that, “Thirty years from now, the Herald will be in Harlem, and I’ll be in Hell!”

Here’s hoping Bennett’s having an entertaining eternity down there in the inferno; otherwise, after a life like that, he’d get terribly bored.

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History
The Secret World War II History Hidden in London's Fences

In South London, the remains of the UK’s World War II history are visible in an unlikely place—one that you might pass by regularly and never take a second look at. In a significant number of housing estates, the fences around the perimeter are actually upcycled medical stretchers from the war, as the design podcast 99% Invisible reports.

During the Blitz of 1940 and 1941, the UK’s Air Raid Precautions department worked to protect civilians from the bombings. The organization built 60,000 steel stretchers to carry injured people during attacks. The metal structures were designed to be easy to disinfect in case of a gas attack, but that design ended up making them perfect for reuse after the war.

Many London housing developments at the time had to remove their fences so that the metal could be used in the war effort, and once the war was over, they were looking to replace them. The London County Council came up with a solution that would benefit everyone: They repurposed the excess stretchers that the city no longer needed into residential railings.

You can tell a stretcher railing from a regular fence because of the curves in the poles at the top and bottom of the fence. They’re hand-holds, designed to make it easier to carry it.

Unfortunately, decades of being exposed to the elements have left some of these historic artifacts in poor shape, and some housing estates have removed them due to high levels of degradation. The Stretcher Railing Society is currently working to preserve these heritage pieces of London infrastructure.

As of right now, though, there are plenty of stretchers you can still find on the streets. If you're in the London area, this handy Google map shows where you can find the historic fencing.

[h/t 99% Invisible]

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Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
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History
A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

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