Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Those dastardly newspaper men

During my tour of Bennett Park yesterday, one of the other two dozen or so group members asked why the city would name a park (and avenue) after James Gordon Bennett Sr. and Jr., a father and son who shared between them the epithets of racist, anti-Semite, drunkard and social pariah. Our tour guide said money talks and added that we were after all standing on their former estate, which had previously been occupied by the colonial Fort Washington.

It's sort of cute that we would want place names to memorialize only virtuous people today, but that unfortunately is not the case a lot of the time. And we don't always get around to changing them to a more palatable title, either.

Still, learning about the Bennetts was interesting. Their name does not ring as common a bell as, say, Pulitzer, Hearst and Greeley do in the world of New York newspapers, but they still have a legacy. Besides the uptown sites, there is Herald Square itself, named after the New York Herald, the penny paper that Bennett Sr. founded with just $500 capital. The publication thrived on scandals of the day, and heavy (but not always accurate) war reporting, but also supposedly gave the commerce capital of the U.S. its first Wall Street articles. (The Wall Street Journal didn't appear until the 1880s.)

The Herald name also lives on overseas, in the International Herald Tribune, the globally distributed Paris-based English-language paper that traces its lineage back to Bennett Jr.'s founding of a French edition of the Herald. The name reveals the paper's later merger with Horace Greeley's Tribune. But it's now owned by the New York Times Co., after it recently bought out the Washington Post's share in the venture.

Why was Bennett Jr. in Paris? In a stunt that made him a bit of an outcast in American society, he drunkenly urinated into either the fireplace or grand piano at his then-fiance's New Year's party. She ceased to be his fiance, and he escaped to France where he had previously been educated, and where he continued to run the New York operations by cable.

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