James Gordon Bennett, Jr. was born in New York City, the son and namesake of the wealthy publisher of the New York Herald, Gordon Bennett was educated primarily in France, a country where he would spend a good part of his life.
Bennett lived in the same exclusive world as other Newport, Rhode Island summer elites, such as the Vanderbilts, the du Ponts, and the Astors, who made ostentatious displays of their wealth with luxurious steam and motor yachts, opulent private railcars, and lavish mansions. He became the youngest Commodore ever of the New York Yacht Club. However, as a sailing enthusiast, Gordon Bennett did serve in the Navy during the Civil War, and in 1866 won the first trans-oceanic boat race before taking over his father's newspaper publishing business the following year. Once in charge, he raised the very successful newspaper's profile even further when he provided the financial backing for the much talked about 1869 expedition by British explorer Henry Morton Stanley into Africa to find David Livingstone. The journey lasted for two years until November 10, 1871, giving Bennett's paper exclusive coverage that fascinated readers for a sustained period. This expedition is now remembered for Stanley's apocryphal greeting - "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?". The New York Herald's stories from the "Dark Continent" were the envy of the paper's competitors.
In 1877, a few years of taking control of his father's paper, Gordon Bennett left New York after a scandal that ended his engagement to socialite Caroline May. The incident involved Bennett arriving late and drunk to a party at the May family's New York mansion, and urinating in the living room fireplace in full view of his hosts. This incident is thought to be the origin of "Gordon Bennett" as an expression of disbelief, common in the southern regions of the United Kingdom.
Settling permanently in Paris, he began to publish a quality English language daily that continues to this day under the name of the International Herald Tribune. From Paris, or from aboard his luxurious 300 foot yacht, he directed operations in New York and following the success with Henry Stanley, Bennett's newspaper supported the voyage of George W. DeLong through the Bering Strait to the North Pole. The ill-fated 1879–1881 expedition led to the starvation deaths of DeLong and 19 fellow crew members, a tragedy that only increased the newspaper's circulation.
He was a co-founder of the Commercial Cable Company, a successful venture to break the Transatlantic cable monopoly held by New York financier Jay Gould.
Bennett's enthusiasm for sports extended to his sponsoring of several highly popular events amongst the wealthy of the time that allowed his newspapers the inside story and exclusive interviews with the events participants. After seeing a Polo match in England, Bennett returned to the United States and established the Westchester Polo Club on May 6, 1876, the first ever in America. In addition, he established the Gordon Bennett Cup as a trophy in international yachting and in 1900 the Gordon Bennett Cup for automobile races that would be the precursor to Grand Prix motor racing. In 1906, he provided the funds and trophy for a gas balloon competition, launched with great fanfare from the Tuileries Gardens in Paris. As he did with his automobile races, the subsequent ballooning event would be hosted by the country of the most recent winner. The Coupe Aéronautique Gordon Bennett continues to this day. Later, Bennett also gave a trophy for airplane racing.
Gordon Bennett scandalized many in the elite societies of New York, London and Paris with his always flamboyant and sometimes erratic behaviour. He had a horde of women at his disposal, using them for entertainment, not marrying until the age of seventy-three when for business reasons he wed Baroness de Reuter, a daughter of Paul Reuter, the founder of the famous Reuters news agency.
Gordon Bennett died in Beaulieu-sur-Mer, Alpes-Maritimes France on May 14, 1918 and was interred in Cimetière de Passy in the Parisian suburb of Passy. His father, James Gordon Bennett, Sr. (1795–1872), had been a "hands-on" workaholic publisher, who failed to build a strong management team beneath his autocratic rule. As a result, his son's high profile image only helped for a while but without strong day-to-day management, the paper's fortunes declined under Gordon Bennett Jr.'s absentee ownership. After his death, his New York Herald was merged with its bitter rival, the New York Tribune.