Gordon Bennett! is a phrase that we all know and love. Admittedly, today it’s more likely to be said in jest rather than as a genuine expression of surprise or as an expletive, replaced instead by ‘bloody hell,’ or the f-letter’s slightly more sweary equivalent.
Still, we’ve all heard of him, right? There’s even a bar named after him in the town I grew up in. It’s quite impressive being that famous without anyone actually knowing who you are, isn’t it? Because, you see, it’s not a meaningless phrase that doesn’t really refer to anyone. There really was a Gordon Bennett (well, two of them actually) to whom we refer whenever we declare his name. But who exactly was he, and how did his name become quite so infamous?
James Gordon-Bennett The First (or rather, J. Gordon-Bennett Sr.)
Born in 1795, Scottish James Gordon-Bennett later moved to the US to become a journalist, and a bloomin’ good journalist he became too, for he founded the New York Herald in 1835. He was quite lauded, truth be told, for his innovative contributions to the journalistic world, such as illustrated news articles, European correspondence, and perhaps more interestingly, a precursor to the world of ‘kiss and tell’ stories. That’s right—JGB the First put an advert in his paper, offering money to women who would be willing to set a trap for Presbyterian parsons and show them in all their ‘flagrante delicito’.
James Gordon-Bennett The Second (or merely Gordon Bennett, as we know him)
His son, James Gordon-Bennett Jr. (or simply Gordon Bennett) was born in 1841, and it’s actually to this Gordon Bennett we cry in surprise. Why? Well, because he was a bit of a minx, that’s why. JGB the Younger was in fact rather notorious for his extravagant spending and playboy hi-jinks. He took over the running of the New York Herald in 1867 and, just like his father, he was incredibly successful. He even funded expeditions to the North Pole (although they failed), and he paid for Henry Morton Stanley’s trip to find Dr. David Livingstone in Africa (which of course was successful, and led to the now famous line, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”).
He was also an avid sports fan, and actually a number of events were named in his honour. There was the James Gordon-Bennett cup for yachting, for example, and the Gordon-Bennett hot air balloon race that still exists today. He was also the catalyst behind the TT races on the Isle of Man after funding an early version of them in 1904: the Gordon-Bennett Motor Car Road Racing Trials. In 1877, after a failed relationship, he moved to live on his 301-foot yacht and stayed there until his death in France in 1918, a 78-year-old man.
A Man, An Exclamation
Whilst he remained a successful journalist throughout his life, the truth is he was in the papers for much more than work. He often performed acts that were scandalous or outrageous, and found himself gracing the newspapers’ pages once more. Such as the time he urinated in the fireplace of his fiancée’s father’s house, after having drunk a copious amount of alcohol and in front of a room full of guests (it’s this incident that led to the failure of the relationship that resulted in him living on his yacht). Or the time that he burned a wad full of cash because the bulk of it in his pocket irritated him (oh, to be so rich…).
Perhaps it’s these exploits that resulted in the man becoming an exclamation, as wealthy gentlemen opened their newspapers each morning to find yet another story, only to declare “Gordon Bennett! He’s done it again!” Perhaps, then, as time progressed, it became an amusing euphemism for gorblimey, which in itself is a euphemism for God blind me. And the rest, as they say, is history.
So the next you find yourself crying “Gordon Bennett! That’s amazing!”, think about a wealthy drunkard, swaying in front of a fire with his manhood dangling dangerously in front of him, and then picture the horrified looks of the gentry behind him, as the room fills with the sour stench of beery pee.