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  • Paul Anthony Jones

Gordon Bennett

(n.) an expression of surprise or exasperation

front cover of the new york herald

It’s a quintessentially British expression of everything from shock to frustration, disgust to incredulity: Gordon Bennett! But who exactly was Gordon Bennett? And on earth do why do we call on him by name in times of frustration or surprise?

portrait of James Gordon Bennett, Jr., the son of American newspaper magnate James Gordon Bennett, Sr., who founded the New York Herald in 1835

The Mr Bennett in question is James Gordon Bennett, Jr., the son of American newspaper magnate James Gordon Bennett, Sr., who founded the New York Herald in 1835. Before long, the Herald was America’s best-selling newspaper, thanks to a winning combination of sensationalist journalist and a one-cent cover price—making Bennett Sr. one of the richest men in the city. And his son, born in 1841, was soon reaping the rewards of his family’s wealth and status.

Educated in France, Bennett Jr. returned to America and for his sixteenth birthday was given a yacht, the Rebecca, and an annual allowance equivalent to roughly $1 million today. Having been made the youngest commodore in the history of the New York Yacht Club, during the US Civil War Bennett was posted to another family yacht, the Henrietta, and spent two years patrolling the Eastern Seaboard. In 1866, he organized the world’s first transatlantic yacht race, which he won comfortably in just under two weeks; he celebrated the win by having tea with Queen Victoria at Osborne House.

In the same year, Bennett Jr. was handed the editorship of the New York Herald by his father and soon picked up precisely where he had left off: the sensationalist journalism stayed, but Bennett Jr. brought his own sense of recklessness, impulsiveness and adventure to the newspaper. In 1871, he funded Henry Morton Stanley’s expedition to locate the long-lost English missionary Dr David Livingstone. In 1879, he funded George W De Long’s attempt to reach the as-yet-untouched North Pole. While Stanley’s expedition was a success, De Long’s was a grim catastrophe, but no matter—every moment of both expeditions was reported regularly to the Herald’s readership, which continued to grow and grow. And all the while, Bennett Jr. became a very wealthy young man indeed.

Stories abound about Bennett’s playboyish behaviour and his heedless spending. He once drunkenly rode a horse into the library of a gentleman’s club while holidaying in Rhode Island. He commissioned a yacht large enough to house its own dairy cow to provide his passengers with fresh milk each morning. He drove his imported French sports car so recklessly around Bermuda that a petition was started to have cars permanently banned from the island. He almost died when the horse-drawn coach he liked to ride at high-speed around New York crashed one night; when he tried the same trick in Paris shortly after, he split his head open on a low bridge. And, if legend is to be believed, he once arrived to a board meeting at the Herald with such a wad of banknotes in his back pocket that he couldn’t sit straight at the table; frustrated, he merely threw the cash onto the fire.

But in 1877, Bennett’s improvident partying finally got the better of him, when he arrived riotously drunk to a high-society party held by the parents of his then fiancée, New York socialite Caroline May. Blanking Caroline and the other guests on his arrival, Bennett proceeded to blindly stagger over to the fireplace in the mansion’s plush drawing room and urinate on the fire. The following day, Caroline (understandably) called off their engagement, while her brother (perhaps just as understandably) chased him through the streets with a horsewhip and challenged him to a duel. Even for Bennett, the May affair was a scandal too far, and he fled to England—arriving, as luck would have it, at a very opportune time.

By the late nineteenth century, the slang expression gorblimey! had become one of the buzzwords of English slang. As a rough mangling of the imprecation “God blind me!”, however, not everyone was happy with using such a potentially sacrilegious expression—but luckily for them, the name of the eccentric celebrity playboy whose name was soon on every turn-of-the-century gossipmonger’s lips acted as a perfect euphemistic sound-alike to replace it. Soon, the go-to expression of late Victorian England wasn’t gorblimey!, but Gordon Bennett!

The expression Gordon Bennett! hasn’t quite maintained the popularity it once had, but it nevertheless retains a place both in our dictionary and in the Great British vernacular. The life of the extraordinary character behind it, however, is perhaps just as worthy of remembrance.


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