James Gordon Bennett - Innovative newspaper owner and yachtsman
Whenever James Gordon Bennett, Jr. was in Newport life among the very rich was never dull or boring. His strong presence and sense of adventure changed Newport's sporting activities and added to the pleasure of a summer at Newport.
Bennett's first visit to Newport was in the early 1870's. He came on his ocean going yacht, liked what he saw, and purchased a fine old, stone-walled villa called "Sebastapol." Unfortunately, this lovely estate no longer exists. On its site is a large parking lot and a group of modern stores. Sebastapol was on Bellevue Avenue, opposite the Casino.
When he first appeared, tongues wagged in Newport as it soon became obvious that he had a relationship with Pauline Markham, a dark-haired, statuesque, English beauty. Miss Markham was the star attraction of the Lydia Thompson Burlesque Company. By this time, Bennett was already enhancing his reputation as an innovative newspaper owner and yachtsman.
Much to the dismay of his friends, in 1875, Bennett severed his ties with Pauline Markham and became smitten with the very beautiful Caroline May. She belonged "to the flamboyant May family of Baltimore. The wealthy, but erratic Mays were involved in a number of scandals which included violence and an alleged murder. Bennett apparently was very much in love. He proposed to Caroline and a wedding date was set for January 1876.
According to Bennett's friends, he finally came to his senses by the end of December. He was now in the difficult predicament of breaking the engagement without being sued for breach of promise. Bennett, it seems, took advantage of what was a New Year's Day tradition in New York, ie: getting uproariously drunk. The story most often told, and there are a number of versions, is that Bennett, obviously inebriated, appeared at the May's New York apartment. Despite the protests of his hosts, he insisted on having more to drink, and allegedly urinated on the May's piano and vomited on one of Caroline's brothers. He was forcibly ejected from the house, and the wedding was canceled.
The May family, however, wanted their revenge. Fred May, who allegedly killed a policeman and bribed his way to freedom, assaulted Bennett at the Union Club in New York. May proceeded to whip Bennett, but the feisty young millionaire put up a fight and the Union Club had one of its more interesting evenings as members attempted to quiet the fighters.
Bennett, unwilling to let the episode die, sent his friend Charles Longfellow, the poet's son, to issue a challenge to a duel with May. The latter accepted and the duel was set for January 7, 1876 at Slaughter's Gap on the Virginia-Maryland border. Fortunately, neither was a very good shot as they both missed. Honor was satisfied and the episode ended. It is said that this was the last duel fought on United State's soil.
A few years later, Bennett was informed that May was planning on murdering him. Bennett decided to be sure this didn't happen and took to wearing a suit of mail under his clothing. After a number of months of living with the heavy, hot, uncomfortable armor, Bennett decided he had had enough and confronted Fred May, asking him what his intentions were. By this time, the May family was embroiled in other activities and Bennett was told no attempts would be made upon his life.
Stories such as this followed James G. Bennett throughout his career and because he was exciting and interesting, and spent money lavishly, he was often the center of attention. He loved speed and is often given credit for introducing a number of customs to Newport. He was especially fond of coaching, and loved to drive his own coach at breakneck speed down some of the country roads of Newport. Unfortunately, he often did this while drunk and could be seen at midnight driving with no regard to life or limb. On at least one occasion he took off all his clothes and rode stark naked claiming that he needed to in order to breathe.
Bennett, always the style-setter, formalized coaching and made it so expensive that only the very wealthy could engage in the pastime. In addition to the coach, it was necessary to have four trained horses, attendants, grooms and stable boys. The correct attire, as set by Bennett, was a silk top hat, a bright green coat, with the proper number of gilt buttons, a yellow striped waistcoat, and patent leather boots. Bennett and his comrades delighted in racing each other, often risking not only their own lives, but the lives of passengers as well.
Bennett nearly altered the course of history during one of these escapades. He had taken Jennie Jerome, the daughter of one of his good friends, Leonard Jerome, on one of these rides. Traveling at a high rate of speed he failed to negotiate a turn and and toppled the carriage, nearly killing both of them. Jennie, fortunately, survived, married Lord Randolph Churchill, and became the mother of Winston Churchill.