Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Giant Owl That Never Was

The highest natural point on Manhattan Island is near 183rd Street in Washington Heights and the US Geodetic Survey marker on an outcropping of Manhattan schist in Bennett Park measures it at 267.75 feet above sea level. This site was once the scene of a pivotal battle during the American Revolution and later part of the country estate of one of New York’s most colorful and eccentric newspaper publishers, James Gordon Bennett Jr. What is not here is a colossal monument planned by Bennett– an enormous bronze owl 125 feet high, standing on a granite pedestal 75 feet high, that would have made it nearly the size of the Statue of Liberty. It is not here only because its famous architect was murdered, in public and before hundreds of people in a scandal that shocked New York.

Bennett’s doting father, James Gordon Bennett Sr., invented scandal-sheet journalism for a mass audience in the late 1830’s with his tabloid newspaper, the New York Herald. At the time New York’s newspapers primarily published serious news about politics and business and were sold mainly by expensive subscription to prosperous merchants and professionals, ignoring the “workies”, Bowery Boys, artisans and newly arrived immigrants. Bennett put murder, gossip and scandal on the front page and his newsboys hawked the daily paper along Broadway for a penny, shouting out headlines like, “BLOODY MURDER IN THE SIXTH WARD!” The better classes were scandalized and the Herald’s circulation went through the roof. Within a few years Bennett’s penny horror had the largest circulation of any daily newspaper in America. The publisher was scorned by Gotham’s Knickerbocker aristocracy and occasionally horse-whipped on the street by some outraged magnifco or rival editor. He vowed that his son would not be touched by his notoriety, so he sent him off to Paris to be educated.

James Gordon Bennett Jr. was his only son and when the senior Bennett died in 1872 he left him the newspaper, a considerable fortune and his estate on Washington Heights. To avoid confusion with his father he was most often referred to as simply Gordon Bennett. By 1905 Gordon Bennett was spending much of his time in Paris, but his roots were in New York and he began thinking of building an eye-popping monument to himself (he was that sort of fellow) and commissioned the city’s most fashionable and brilliant architect, Stanford White, to design something that people would notice.

Bennett was fascinated with owls, so he told White that this would be his theme and he gave the architect specific directions. White commissioned the then-renowned sculptor Andrew O’Connor to create a clay model of a giant owl and White drew pencil sketches of the pedestal and presented the designs to Bennett, who was delighted.

The ambitious plan called for an immense hollow standing figure of an owl in bronze that would eventually contain Bennett’s sarcophagus. It was not only to be his monument, but his tomb as well. Two steel chains were to be hung from the inside of the top of the owl’s head and midway inside the monument Bennett’s coffin was to be suspended. The monument was to be open to the public with an interior spiral staircase, much like the one inside the Statue of Liberty. At the top of the stairs, in the owl’s head, a viewing platform would allow visitors to peer out of windows in the owl’s eyes at an unexcelled view 467 feet above the Hudson River. Bennett was now in his mid-sixties and wanted the tomb to be finished and set up at once so that he might enjoy the public’s awestruck response while he was still living.

Stanford White and Gordon Bennett were old friends. Both enjoyed the society party circuit, late nights and more than a little carousing. The firm of McKim, Meade and White had been commissioned by Gordon Bennett to design the Newport Casino in 1880. White then designed a magnificent Italian Renaissance palazzo headquarters in 1893 for the Herald uptown on a trapezoidal block along Broadway between 35th and 36th Streets. The city named the intersection of Sixth Avenue, Broadway and 34th Street as Herald Square. The building was festooned with twenty-six large bronze owls, each four feet high, with flashing electric lights for eyes. Under the loggia surrounding the building large plate glass windows at sidewalk level looked down into the basement pressroom where six huge presses churned out 90,000 papers per hour and late night passersby could see the next morning’s Herald being printed. Herald Square, at the turn of the last century, was the heart of the theater district and this stretch of Broadway was called “The Rialto”. Both White and Bennett were frequent first-nighters along the Rialto and often accompanied by attractive young women who were not their wives. Although White was married, his patient wife stayed at home with the children on Long Island most of the time. Gordon Bennett waited to marry until he was 73.

Bennett was a celebrated yachtsman, bon vivant and often a prodigious consumer of cocktails. As a young man-about-town in the 1870’s his favorite was the “Razzle-Dazzle”, a potent mixture of one part ginger ale, one part brandy and one part absinthe. On New Year’s Day, 1877 the old Knickerbocker families on Washington Square and along lower Fifth Avenue held their traditional New Year open houses, a custom handed down from the Dutch period and still observed among the city’s bon ton . After indulging in a number of Razzle-Dazzles at the Hoffman House bar he headed downtown to the open houses of those families that would still receive him. Late in the afternoon, after several stops along the circuit, he finally arrived at the home of his fiancée, Miss Caroline May. Her father, Dr May and her brother Frederick noticed that Caroline’s intended was more than a bit tipsy as Bennett lurched toward the crowded drawing room’s fireplace and proceeded to urinate into the fire in front of dozens of observers, gasping in horror. The next day, as Bennett arrived at the Union Club for lunch Frederick May accosted his sister’s now former fiancée as he climbed down from his carriage and horse-whipped him on the sidewalk in front of the clubhouse and dozens of shocked members. One of the two men challenged the other to a duel, and although dueling was then long out of fashion, a few days later they met with dueling pistols, attending surgeons and their seconds on a dueling ground across the Maryland-Delaware state line. Both men fired wide of their marks and declared that they were satisfied.

Bennett was, amazingly enough, so embarrassed by the whole affair that he left New York for good to take up residence in Europe and only returned occasionally to visit Newport during the season and to the city for business. He spent much of his time aboard a series of lavish steam yachts, first the 226-foot Namouna (which his editors slyly referred to as the Pneumonia), fifty feet longer than JP Morgan’s Corsair. This was followed in 1900 by the 300-foot Lysistrata, that cost Bennett more to build that his new headquarters building in Herald Square. With a crew of 100 men, a milk cow riding in a padded stall and a new De Dion Bouton French automobile on board he was ready to roll. On a visit to Bermuda he rolled onto the beach in his shiny new car, the first ever seen on the island. Its appearance awed the locals and appalled vacationing Mark Twain and a Princeton professor named Woodrow Wilson who promptly registered complaints with the British governor. Bennett ignored them and drove wherever he pleased.

It was at about this time that he began corresponding with his friend Stanford White about his idea for a monumental tomb atop Washington Heights. It didn’t seem to bother Bennett that he planned to site it in the middle of what had once been Fort Washington, the almost sacred site of a great battle in the Revolutionary War. On November 16, 1776 the largest fort on Manhattan had fallen to an attack from British and Hessian armies in one of the new nation’s worst defeats. 3000 American defenders were taken prisoner, marched down to New York and held in terrible conditions in freezing cold, improvised prisons where most of them died.

By early 1906 White was well along with the monument plan and this was only one of many great projects on the drawing boards of the stellar architectural firm of McKim, Meade & White. Stanford White was at the top of his game and the most sought-after architect in America and his work had transformed the city. One of his masterpieces was Madison Square Garden, a vast entertainment complex at Madison Avenue and East 26th Street. On the southeast corner of the building was a great tower, modeled on the Giralda in Sevilla, Spain. At the top of the tower stood sculptor Augustus StGauden’s large gilded bronze figure of the goddess Diana, nude and balanced on one foot, about to fire her arrow. She could be seen for a mile around Madison Square as she slowly turned in the wind. Inside the tower was Stanford White’s pied a Terre apartment overlooking the roof garden theater. For the summer of 1906 the outdoor roof garden theater was selling out every night. Rooftop theaters were very popular during hot New York summers before the advent of air-conditioning and the show being presented on the warm evening of June 25 was opening night of a musical revue, Mam’zelle Champagne.

White sat at a table near the stage as the chorus sang “I Could Love a Million Girls”. At another table, on the balcony, there was a young couple, Harry Thaw and his new wife, Evelyn Nesbit Thaw. Both of them knew Stanford White well. Evelyn had arrived in the city in 1900 and soon found work as an artist’s model. She was 15. She posed, with or without clothes, for artists, photographers and illustrators and she became the inspiration for illustrator Charles Dana Gibson’s celebrated “Gibson Girl”. In 1901 she was introduced to Stanford White who, at the age of 47, soon fell in love with her and with introductions to his theater friends she was hired as a chorus girl in the hit Broadway musical, Floradora.

After a year or so Evelyn’s beauty had made her famous on Broadway and she became a kind of “sex symbol” for the Broadway crowd, most of whom knew about her relationship with White. That relationship began to fade after a few years, but the two remained friends. Meanwhile every night, in the same box seat at Floradora, Harry Thaw could be found watching intently Evelyn’s every move on stage. Harry was the spoiled and unbalanced son of a Pittsburgh millionaire and stood to someday inherit over $40,000,000 and now he was in love. He finally arranged an introduction and began courting Evelyn. As he learned more of Evelyn’s affair with Stanford White he became obsessed with this brilliant and well-liked man who Harry saw as a social and romantic rival. Soon Evelyn and Harry married and left for a honeymoon in Europe. Although Evelyn would say nothing against White, Harry was convinced that White had “ruined” his bride. After their return to New York Harry’s obsession with the architect became uncontrollable and, using detectives, he began to stalk White, following him everywhere - so it was no coincidence that the newlyweds were there in the audience on the roof of Madison Square Garden that June night, Harry seething with jealousy as he watched White enjoying the young chorus girls a few feet away from his table. As the performers sang on the stage Harry, dressed in a long black overcoat, rose from his chair and calmly walked down to the orchestra, through the packed audience, to Stanford White’s table. White was absorbed with the chorus line on the stage as Harry pulled a pistol from his coat and shot three times, point blank, into the back of White’s head. The great architect died instantly.

Harry was arrested and brought to trial and his mother hired lawyers who evolved a strategy of blaming the victim and proceeded to blacken the late architect’s reputation in the Hearst newspapers. After being bribed by Harry’s mother, Evelyn testified for the defense and Harry was found not guilty by reason of insanity. He was sent to the Mattewan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in upstate New York and released in 1915. By the early 1920’s he had come into his inheritance and during a visit to Palm Beach he was invited to a dinner party at a new beachfront Spanish-style mansion. During the dinner his hostess turned to him and asked, “Mr. Thaw, what do you think of our new house?” Harry looked around the pretentious beamed dining room and remarked, “I think that I shot the wrong architect.”

The news of Stanford White’s murder came to Gordon Bennett the same night by Marconi wireless as his yacht steamed through the English Channel. The next morning he wired the office of McKim, Meade & White with his condolences and his order to cancel work on the monument. Bennett was convinced that no other architect would be capable of building his giant owl tomb.

Gordon Bennett died at his home in Beaulieu in the south of France in 1918 and was buried in Paris, in the Cimetiere de Passy, in an ordinary grave. The cemetery is quite near the site of the French Open on Avenue Gordon Bennett. One hopes that they thought of carving an owl into his headstone.

Bennett Park, on Fort Washington Avenue, between West 183rd Street and West 185th Street in Washington Heights can be visited today. The city established a park here in 1928 on what had been the Bennett estate and the park was named in their honor. In 1910 Gordon Bennett paid for a large plaque that commemorates the Battle of Ft Washington and it can be see on the wall of the northeast bastion of the fort, along the east side of the park. The rock outcropping in the center of the park would have been the site of the monument.

Stanford White’s Herald Building was demolished in 1930, but two of its bronze rooftop owls now grace the little triangular park across Broadway from Macy’s between 34th and 35th Streets. The great bronze clock that once stood on the roof of the old Herald Building is the centerpiece of the park. If you visit this spot at twilight you’ll see the lights flashing in the owls’ eyes just as they did so long ago when James Gordon Bennett, Stanford White, Evelyn Nesbit and Harry Thaw walked through “The Rialto”, along this block of Broadway.