Americans of the Riviera
James Gordon Bennett
For many years Londoners, when expressing incredulity at an achievement or triumph, would cry out heartily, ‘Cor, Gordon Bennett!’. It is possible that those exclaiming in this way had little idea who Gordon Bennett actually was or why they were using his name. The dictionary feels it was possibly an alliteration of ‘Gorblimey’ which it is said comes from ‘God Blind Me’. But it could also be down to the stories of Bennett’s flamboyant and controversial lifestyle which had travelled widely, plus the knowledge of the stream of gold cups awarded to those who had won the many yacht, motor, aeroplane and ballooning races he sponsored. He was also responsible for founding the first Polo club in America. For James Gordon Bennett was, without doubt, larger than life.
Left – James Gordon Bennett Jnr
(Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
There were a variety of reasons why people left their own countries to make their homes on the Riviera over the years. For the American James Bennett, the owner of the New York Herald, one of those reasons was the result of relieving himself in the fireplace of his fiancée’s home in New York. This misplaced event happened during a New Year’s party to welcome in the year of 1877 and led to the end of the romance with the socialite Caroline May and a challenge to a duel from Caroline’s brother. By the end of the year, after surviving the half-hearted duel, Bennett found himself ostracised by New York Society and firmly unengaged.
Obliged to make his permanent home anywhere except the United States, Bennett first of all chose Paris (he had been educated partially in France) where he founded what is now the International Herald Tribune. While in charge of the New York Herald, which his hard-working Scots father had founded as a successful popular news sheet, Bennett became famous for sending the reporter Henry Morton Stanley to Central Africa to search for the missing missionary Dr David Livingstone who had been missing for three years. From which excursion was born the cool greeting ‘Dr Livingstone I presume’ when Stanley ran the former to earth.
Bennett then travelled to Nice, renting a villa at 81 Promenade des Anglais, where he was wined and dined with members of the Russian Court on their luxurious yacht in the harbour. He then travelled along the Riviera coast, discovering the village of Beaulieu-sur-Mer, between Nice and Monaco. Here he decided to make his home and restored and extended the Villa Namouna (the ex-Villa Belvédère) in the area of Petite Afrique, where he remained for 40 years, visiting in the season and running his newspapers and sporting events both from there and from his steamship of the same name. He was eccentric and erratic, covering his lawn with models of animals and installing a cow in a padded stall on another of his yachts, the Lysistrata, in order to have fresh milk on board. He would occasionally cast anchor and sail his yacht away without telling his on-board guests he’d decided to change course. Behaving rudely and rowdily in restaurants was one of his least endearing qualities.
But he could also be wildly generous, sometimes handing out tips sufficient for their recipients to be able to set themselves up in business. He founded a stagecoach service, La Réunion, between Nice and Cannes in 1890, a proportion of the profits going to the poor of the towns. He installed the first telephone in Beaulieu – but mainly so that he could book tables at his favourite restaurant, La Reserve, and he tarmacked the road which led to his villa. He loved to give prizes that bore his name, both in France and America, and as the years wore on he became more philanthropic, donating large amounts of money to local charities.
It was not until 1914, when he was 73, that Bennett became engaged once again and married Maud, the widow of George Reuter of the Reuter’s News Agency. Maud’s father-in-law, who had founded Reuters, had retired in Nice, living at Villa Reuter, 97 Promenade des Anglais. They were together barely four years before he died at his villa at Beaulieu. He is buried at the Passy cemetery in Paris. There is no doubt that Gordon Bennett’s name lives on.
(Villa Namouna, James Gordon Bennett’s home in Beaulieu sur Mer, still exists and has been converted to holiday apartments – click here for details).
Copyright © Maureen Emerson 2022
- Michael Nelson. Americans and the Making of the Riviera. McFarland and Company, 2008.