A cellar in Nassau Street was the first office of the „Herald.” It was a real cellar, not a basement, lighted only from the street, and consequently very dark except near its stone steps. The first furniture of this office, – as I was told by the late Mr. Gowans, who kept a bookstore near by, – consisted of the following articles: –
Item, one wooden chair. Item, two empty flour barrels with a wide, dirty pine board laid upon them, to serve as desk and table. End of the inventory.
The two barrels stood about four feet apart, and one end of the board was pretty close to the steps, so that passers-by could see the pile of „Heralds” which were placed upon it every morning for sale. Scissors, pens, inkstand, and pencil were at the other end, leaving space in the middle for an editorial desk.
This was in the summer of 1835, when General Jackson was President of the United States, and Martin Van Buren the favorite candidate for the succession. If the reader had been in New York then, and had wished to buy a copy of the saucy little paper, which every morning amused and offended the decorous people of that day, he would have gone down into this underground office, and there he would have found its single chair occupied by a tall and vigorous-looking man about forty years of age, with a slight defect in one of his eyes, dressed in a clean, but inexpensive suit of summer clothes.
This was James Gordon Bennett, proprietor, editor, reporter, book-keeper, clerk, office-boy, and everything else there was appertaining to the control and management of the New York „Herald,” price one cent. The reader would perhaps have said to him, „I want to-day’s ‚Herald.'” Bennett would have looked up from his writing, and pointed, without speaking, to the pile of papers at the end of the board. The visitor would have taken one and added a cent to the pile of copper coin adjacent. If he had lingered a few minutes, the busy writer would not have regarded him, and he could have watched the subsequent proceedings without disturbing him. In a few moments a woman might have come down the steps into the subterranean office, who answered the editor’s inquiring look by telling him that she wanted a place as cook, and wished him to write an advertisement for her. This Would have been entirely a matter of course, for in the prospectus of the paper it was expressly stated that persons could have their advertisements written for them at the office.
The editor himself would have written the advertisement for her with the velocity of a practiced hand, then read it over to her, taking particular pains to get the name spelled right, and the address correctly stated.
„How much is it, sir?”
The money paid, the editor would instantly have resumed his writing. Such visitors, however, were not numerous, for the early numbers of the paper show very few advertisements, and the paper itself was little larger than a sheet of foolscap. Small as it was, it was with difficulty kept alive from week to week, and it was never too certain as the week drew to a close whether the proprietor would be able to pay the printer’s bill on Saturday night, and thus secure its reappearance on Monday morning.
There were times when, after paying all the unpostponable claims, he had twenty-five cents left, or less, as the net result of his week’s toil. He worked sixteen, seventeen, eighteen hours a day, struggling unaided to force his little paper upon an indifferent if not a hostile public.
James Gordon Bennett, you will observe, was forty years old at this stage of his career. Generally a man who is going to found anything extraordinary has laid a deep foundation, and got his structure a good way above ground before he is forty years of age. But there was he, past forty, and still wrestling with fate, happy if he could get three dollars a week over for his board. Yet he was a strong man, gifted with a keen intelligence, strictly temperate in his habits, and honest in his dealings. The only point against him was, that he had no power and apparently no desire to make personal friends. He was one of those who cannot easily ally themselves with other men, but must fight their fight alone, victors or vanquished.
A native of Scotland, he was born a Roman Catholic, and was partly educated for the priesthood in a Catholic seminary there; but he was diverted from the priestly office, as it appears, by reading Byron, Scott, and other literature of the day. At twenty he was a romantic, impulsive, and innocent young man, devouring the Waverley novels, and in his vacations visiting with rapture the scenes described in them. The book, however, which decided the destiny of this student was of a very different description, being no other than the „Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin,” a book which was then read by almost every boy who read at all. One day, at Aberdeen, a young acquaintance met him in the street, and said to him: –
„I am going to America, Bennett.”
„To America! When? Where?”
„I am going to Halifax on the 6th of April.”
„My dear fellow,” said Bennett, „I’ll go with you. I want to see the place where Franklin was born.”
Three months after he stepped ashore at the beautiful town of Halifax in Nova Scotia, with only money enough in his pocket to pay his board for about two weeks. Gaunt poverty was upon him soon, and he was glad to earn a meagre subsistence for a few weeks, by teaching. He used to speak of his short residence in Halifax as a time of severe privation and anxiety, for it was a place then of no great wealth, and had little to offer to a penniless adventurer, such as he was.
He made his way to Portland, in Maine, before the first winter set in, and thence found passage in a schooner bound to Boston. In one of the early numbers of his paper he described his arrival at that far-famed harbor, and his emotions on catching his first view of the city. The paragraph is not one which we should expect from the editor of the „Herald,” but I have no doubt it expressed his real feelings in 1819.
„I was alone, young, enthusiastic, uninitiated. In my more youthful days I had devoured the enchanting life of Benjamin Franklin written by himself, and Boston appeared to me as the residence of a friend, an associate, an acquaintance. I had also drunk in the history of the holy struggle for independence, first made on Bunker Hill. Dorchester Heights were to my youthful imagination almost as holy ground as Arthur’s Seat or Salisbury Craigs. Beyond was Boston, her glittering spires rising into the blue vault of heaven like beacons to light a world to liberty.”
In the glow of his first enthusiasm, and having nothing else to do, he spent several days in visiting the scenes of historic events with which his reading had made him familiar. But his slender purse grew daily more attenuated, and he soon found himself in a truly desperate situation, a friendless, unprepossessing young man, knowing no trade or profession, and without an acquaintance in the city. His last penny was spent. A whole day passed without his tasting food. A second day went by, and still he fasted. He could find no employment, and was too proud to beg. In this terrible strait he was walking upon Boston Common, wondering how it could be that he, so willing to work, and with such a capacity for work, should be obliged to pace the streets of a wealthy city, idle and starving!
„How shall I get something to eat?” he said to himself.
At that moment he saw something glittering upon the ground before him, which proved to be a silver coin of the value of twelve and a half cents. Cheered by this strange coincidence, and refreshed by food, he went with renewed spirit in search of work. He found it almost immediately. A countryman of his own, of the firm of Wells & Lilly, publishers and booksellers, gave him a situation as clerk and proof-reader, and thus put him upon the track which led him to his future success.
This firm lasted only long enough to give him the means of getting to New York, where he arrived in 1822, almost as poor as when he left Scotland. He tried many occupations, – a school, lectures upon political economy, instruction in the Spanish language; but drifted at length into the daily press as drudge-of-all-work, at wages varying from five to eight dollars a week, with occasional chances to increase his revenue a little by the odd jobbery of literature.
Journalism was then an unknown art in the United States, and no newspaper had anything at all resembling an editorial corps. The most important daily newspapers of New York were carried on by the editor, aided by one or two ill-paid assistants, with a possible correspondent in Washington during the session of Congress. And that proved to be James Gordon Bennett’s opportunity of getting his head a little above water. He filled the place one winter of Washington corespondent to the New York „Enquirer;” and while doing so he fell in by chance in the Congressional library with a volume of Horace Walpole’s gossiping society letters. He was greatly taken with them, and he said to himself: „Why not try a few letters on a similar plan from Washington, to be published in New York?”
He tried the experiment. The letters, which were full of personal anecdotes, and gave descriptions of noted individuals, proved very attractive, and gave him a most valuable hint as to what readers take an interest in. The letters being anonymous, he remained poor and unknown. He made several attempts to get into business for himself. He courted and served the politicians. He conducted party newspapers for them, without political convictions of his own. But when he had done the work of carrying elections and creating popularity, he did not find the idols he had set up at all disposed to reward the obscure scribe to whom they owed their elevation.
But all this while he was learning his trade, and though he lived under demoralizing influences, he never lapsed into bad habits. What he said of himself one day was strictly true, and it was one of the most material causes of his final victory: –
„Social glasses of wine are my aversion; public dinners are my abomination; all species of gormandizing, my utter scorn and contempt. When I am hungry, I eat; when thirsty, drink. Wine and viands, taken for society, or to stimulate conversation, tend only to dissipation, indolence, poverty, contempt, and death.”
At length, early in 1835, having accumulated two or three hundred dollars, he conceived the notion of starting a penny paper. First he looked about for a partner. He proposed the scheme to a struggling, ambitious young printer and journalist, beginning to be known in Nassau Street, named Horace Greeley. I have heard Mr. Greeley relate the interview.
„Bennett came to me,” he said, „as I was standing at the case setting type, and putting his hand in his pocket pulled out a handful of money. There was some gold among it, more silver, and I think one fifty-dollar bill. He said he had between two and three hundred dollars, and wanted me to go in with him and set up a daily paper, the printing to be done in our office, and he to be the editor.
„I told him he hadn’t money enough. He went away, and soon after got other printers to do the work and the ‚Herald’ appeared.”
This was about six years before the „Tribune” was started. Mr. Greeley was right in saying that his future rival in journalism had not money enough. The little „Herald” was lively, smart, audacious, and funny; it pleased a great many people and made a considerable stir; but the price was too low, and the range of journalism then was very narrow. It is highly probable that the editor would have been baffled after all, but for one of those lucky accidents which sometimes happen to men who are bound to succeed.
There was a young man then in the city named Brandreth, who had brought a pill over with him from England, and was looking about in New York for some cheap, effective way of advertising his pill. He visited Bennett in his cellar and made an arrangement to pay him a certain sum every week for a certain space in the columns of the „Herald.” It was the very thing he wanted, a little certainty to help him over that awful day of judgment which comes every week to struggling enterprises, – Saturday night!
Still, the true cause of the final success of the paper was the indomitable character of its founder, his audacity, his persistence, his power of continuous labor, and the inexhaustible vivacity of his mind. After a year of vicissitude and doubt, he doubled the price of his paper, and from that time his prosperity was uninterrupted. He turned everything to account. Six times he was assaulted by persons whom he had satirized in his newspaper, and every time he made it tell upon his circulation. On one occasion, for example, after relating how his head had been cut open by one of his former employers, he added: –
„The fellow no doubt wanted to let out the never failing supply of good-humor and wit which has created such a reputation for the ‚Herald.’… He has not injured the skull. My ideas in a few days will flow as freshly as ever, and he will find it so to his cost.”
In this humble, audacious manner was founded the newspaper which, in the course of forty-eight years, has grown to be one of national and international importance. Its founder died in 1872, aged seventy-seven years, in the enjoyment of the largest revenue which had ever resulted from journalism in the United States, and leaving to his only son the most valuable newspaper property, perhaps, in the world.
That son, the present proprietor, has greatly improved the „Herald.” He possesses his father’s remarkable journalistic tact, with less objectionable views of the relation of the daily paper to the public. His great enterprises have been bold, far-reaching, almost national in their character. Mr. Frederick Hudson, who was for many years the managing editor of the paper, has the following interesting paragraph concerning father and son: –
„Somewhere about the year 1866, James Gordon Bennett, Sr., inducted James Gordon Bennett, Jr., into the mysteries of journalism. One of his first coups was the Prusso-Austrian war. The cable transmitted the whole of the King of Prussia’s important speech after the battle of Sadowa and peace with Austria, costing in tolls seven thousand dollars in gold.”
He has followed this bold coup with many similar ones, and not a few that surpassed it. Seven thousand dollars seems a good deal of money to pay for a single feature of one number of a daily paper. It was not so much for a paper, single issues of which have yielded half as much as that in clear profit. And the paper was born in a cellar!