Historic Blunders

21st October 2005 at 01:00
Chances are that these days Gordon Bennett would have got away with it. The notorious faux pas that ended his engagement and turned him into a mild expletive would probably only merit a tut-tut from his prospective mother-in-law and a tearful reprimand from the bride-to-be.

But this was 1877 and they did things differently then. James Gordon Bennett Jr was born with a silver tablespoon in his mouth. His father, a diligent Scottish Catholic, had founded the New York Herald, handing it over to his son in 1867. Gordon wasn't a bad publisher, and he won many new readers by backing and reporting Henry Stanley's expedition to find DrLivingstone.

But he was not a hard worker like his dad. There was too much else to do, too many other rich and famous people to socialise with. His particular chum was William Douglas, also young and also rich courtesy of a hard-working father. They shared a love of polo and ocean sailing. When they weren't riding or yachting, they were wining and dining - even, it was whispered, sipping champagne from the slippers of women at Douglas's mansion in Flushing. But it didn't last. William married Adelaide May, a New York socialite. And Gordon had his eye on her younger sister Caroline.

She accepted and their engagement was announced. Then it all went wrong. On New Year's Day, 1877, Gordon Bennett disgraced himself at a party at Caroline's house. The next day her outraged brother, Fred, armed with a bullwhip, attacked the ex-fiance in Fifth Avenue.

In response, Gordon challenged him to a duel. They both survived, but fear and scandal drove Gordon out of the country to Paris. Rumour has it that when Fred May visited the city many years later Bennett was so scared he bought a suit of armour and lived in it for a month. Gordon didn't marry until he was 73, and then it was for business purposes, to the daughter of the founder of Reuters news agency.

He behaved better during that engagement. At least he didn't get drunk and wee in his future mother-in-law's fireplace in front of all her posh guests.

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