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Gordon Bennett

I’ve just finished reading a book called Gordon Bennett and the First Yacht Race across the Atlantic, by Sam Jefferson. No, don’t stop reading; it’s only partly about yacht racing – there’s a lot of other things in there as well. But first, the reason for the title. In 1866 New York, just a year after the end of the Civil War, three rich young men met in the Union Club and boasted about the prowess of their three racing schooners. The three were Pierre Lorillard, scion of a powerful tobacco family, financier George Osgood and James Gordon Bennett junior, son of the proprietor, publisher and editor of the New York Herald, at the time the most successful newspaper in the USA (and arguably, the world: the only title that could compete in circulation was the London Times). The boasting continued through some truly heroic drinking – egged on by Leonard Jerome (Winston Churchill’s grandfather) and his brother Lawrence, who were stock market operators. By the end of the evening, the three had agreed a bet to race their yachts across the North Atlantic, from New York to the Needles, the tip of the Isle of Wight. Having made the bet, there was obviously no point in hanging around when they could make a prompt start, so they agreed a date a few weeks ahead, in mid-December. Clearly, December would be your time of choice to race a yacht across the North Atlantic……….

Jefferson tells the story of the race – and yes, it’s about as rough and unpleasant as you would expect sailing over the Grand Banks in mid-winter snow and ice – but intersperses it with a plethora of background about the state of New York society in the immediate post-War period. Our three heroes(?) are very wealthy young men, but it’s new money, and they are not part of the charmed high society world of Mrs Astor; none of them would be welcome at her dinner parties. Instead, they occupy a kind of demi-monde, also peopled by other up and coming capitalists, like Andrew Carnegie and J P Morgan. This is where the connection with metals comes in, because this was the period when the railroad really started crossing the continent in earnest. And that created the demand – the insatiable demand – for the output of his steel mils that made Andrew Carnegie ultimately the richest man in the world (although, interestingly, a report I recently read would put Vladimir Putin up there with him, in constant-money terms). But this isn’t the Carnegie we all know, the quiet philanthropist and putative peacemaker. In the 1860s, he’s still building his fortune, raw in tooth and claw. Likewise J P Morgan, who pulled off what no doubt he regarded as a great coup. During the war, he was behind the purchase of a shipment of condemned rifles from the Union government, for around $17,000. They were shipped to the front line near St Louis, and sold back to the Union forces fighting there, for around $110,000. Well, we all know stories of incompetent purchasing and equipment management by war departments; except in this case, it mattered. The soldiers to whom the guns were issued mostly lost their thumbs when they fired them; that’s why they were condemned in the first place. Still, all grist to the mill of J P, Carnegie and the like. The malevolent Jay Gould makes an appearance, as well, as does Cornelius Vanderbilt.

I’m sure American readers will be familiar with a lot of this, but for those of us raised on British and European history, it’s a fascinating picture of the period when the USA really started to flex its muscles as the next economic superpower. And by the turn of the nineteenth/twentieth century, these hell-raising nouveaux riches (the ones who were still alive, anyway) had become fully acceptable to Mrs Astor at her dinner parties. Robber barons to high society in about thirty-five years.

So the yacht race went on, serious amounts of money wagered on the result. The professional crews flogged against the icy weather, while the passengers swigged Chateau Margaux. Actually, that’s slightly unfair; from what I can discover, Bennett, who was the only owner to sail with his yacht, was by all accounts a skilled seaman, and well able to navigate the Atlantic. And these were serious yachts; if you look at pictures of them and their peers of the time, they were sleek, low in the water and heavily, heavily over-canvassed. I think you had to be pretty brave to set out as they did in December and point eastwards across the Atlantic – six crewmen died in a heavy storm from one of the boats. They finished the race in less than fourteen days – a very respectable time. You’ll have to read the book to see who won.

Bennett returned to New York, where his father finally handed over the reins of the Herald. If anything, Junior made it even more successful, in his idiosyncratic way, at least for a time. He sponsored Stanley to hunt the Congo for Dr Livingstone, a publicity coup of the highest order. In the end, though, he retreated to Paris after a very unfortunate incident involving a fireplace at the home of his fiancée’s parents, following an absinthe-fuelled binge (read the book: for aficionados of gross behaviour, this is a bit of gem…). Although he ran the Herald from France for some years, eventually it  merged with the Tribune, to become the progenitor of today’s International Herald Tribune.

This is a fascinating book, even for those with no interest in yacht racing. The yacht race is the means to tell the story of a boisterous time, before the world grasped the nettle of beginning to regulate financial markets – or at least, beginning to think that it might be a good idea to do it; the actuality took a long time coming. The (inevitable) stock market collapse of 1873 was sobering, at least for some, and in fact the period that followed it was known as the Great Depression, until 1929 usurped that title. But the second half of the 1860s set the course for the booming development of US capitalism.  

Gordon Bennett and the First Yacht Race across the Atlantic is written by Sam Jefferson and published by Adlard Coles Nautical, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing. 




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