When we left you in Part One we had narrowed the history mystery down to two potential namesakes for Eggs Benedict – one the wife of a respected member of the elite, Mrs LeGrand Benedict, the other a playboy stockbroker, by the name of Lemuel Benedict.
Lemuel Benedict was certainly the more colourful of the two characters credited with creating the dish. The New York Times archive has dozens of references – and they paint a portrait of an eccentric, sporty stockbroker and keen yachtsman who was the darling of the early 1900s New York scene.
He was the son of Coleman Benedict, a successful New York banker who had his own brokerage, which young ‘Lemmy’ joined. In 1890, aged 23, he became a partner in the successor to his father’s firm. He is pictured in a caricature from the time as a dapper city boy with a glint in his eye.
L C Benedict was a regular in the society pages of the NY Times (whose brilliant online archives go all the way back to 1851!). At the age of 25 he was noted to have been ‘looking after the interests of the dancers’ at a hospital benefit ball where the women outnumbered the men by more than 3 to 1.
It wasn’t just in the kitchen where Lemuel was setting trends. The newly-invented air-filled pneumatic tyre led to a new trend amongst America’s social elite in the 1890s of bicycling and LC was one of the founder members of the Brooklyn Cycle Club. They would meet at a special rink at a local park where a band would play while the young men and women wheeled around below, and there were even games of bicycle polo!
One article describes how Lemuel was one of thirty brokers who took time out from the floor to attend a lecture at the Exchange from a local surgeon, who was passing on tips in First Aid. A report from 1901 describes how Mr Benedict was badly injured during a fall while riding his horse in Central Park, breaking his left leg above the ankle.
It seems Lemuel was not a man easily kept-down. He recovered from his fall to woo and marry Miss Carrie Bridewell, an opera singer, in 1908. She has recently caused a stir around the city for singing a male part in ‘Faust’! A year later the couple were at the heart of New York’s trendy, well-to-do set, and were among a group of rich young things gifted a plot of land on Long Beach which was to become an ‘exclusive beach colony’ of the city’s socialites, the ‘Riviera of the East’.
It’s fitting that Chiswick’s Art Deco eatery which inspired me to look into the origins of Eggs Benedict has a common link with Mr & Mrs Lemuel Benedict’s summer retreat – the New York Times article of 1909 describes Long Beach as “its increasing number of push chairs and the added number of parasols and smart frocks with each day lend a decided dash of colour to the scene.” I’m sure the affluent yummy-mummies of Chiswick High Road wouldn’t have looked at all out of place strolling down the board walk of Long Beach, looking out over the newly carved Reynolds Channel.
Despite his boozy lifestyle he lived a long life, passing away in September 1943 – the year after he gave his interview to the New Yorker in which he made his claim to be the creator of Eggs Benedict.
I’ve got to admit I like the sound of Lemuel – a flamboyant, decadent 1900s warrior of Wall Street who enjoys a drink, and is popular with the ladies…he’s hard not to like. But what of Mrs LeGrand Benedict? Surely we can’t simply assume our favourite breakfast was down to a hungover broker just because it’s a great tale…so I carried on digging, and was surprised to discover a second intriguing story – and a fierce battle between the Benedicts’ ancestors which nearly tore a family apart.
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