Who Was Gordon Bennett?

English people finding themselves on the Avenue Gordon Bennett – probably when attending the French Open tennis tournament or visiting the Serres d’Auteuil – must smile in surprise when they see one of the street signs.

For those not familiar with the name, ‘Gordon Bennett’ has been used as an expression of surprise in England for at least 80 years. Although the expression is probably dying out now, its origin remains one of the mysteries of the English language.

Is there a connection to this Gordon Bennett, labelled here as an American journalist who lived from 1795 – 1872 (at right)? The answer is probably not – but it might refer to his identically named son (left)!

A quick visit to Wikipedia will tell you that James Gordon Bennett Sr was the “editor and publisher of the New York Herald and a major figure in the history of American newspapers”. He had though been born in Scotland, eventually emigrating to the Americas when in his 20s. A self-made man, he put years of failure behind him when starting the Herald, a paper which eventually boasted the highest-circulation in America.

The city of Paris calls him a pionnier du journalisme moderne in its listings of street nomenclature, but many have said that his pioneering was actually of a sensationalist, tabloid style of journalism.

His son, James Gordon Bennett Jr, took over the running of the paper, but became more famous for his wild living. Born into what had become a rich family, he spent his life – and money – enjoying adventures and luxury. His name though is remembered today for three reasons. He was a promoter of certain sporting events, some of which, including an international hot-air balloon race, still exist today.

Secondly, he is credited by the Guiness Book of World Records as committing the ‘Greatest Engagement Faux Pas’. Legend or otherwise, it is said that his engagement to Caroline May was broken off during the party in which it was being celebrated, after Bennett – having obviously consumed too much alcohol – urinated in a fireplace in front of the guests.

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