New York in the late 19th century was filled with gluttonous characters. But James Buchanan “Diamond Jim” Brady may have topped them all.
Born on Cedar Street the son of a saloon owner, Brady made millions selling railroad supplies.
By the 1880s, that allowed him to indulge in his passion for glittery jewels, beautiful women (his longtime ladyfriend was A-list actress Lillian Russell), and food.
The chronicles of his consumption are legendary. “I have seen him eat a pound of candy in five minutes,” a friend is quoted saying in his obituary. [Below, at Delmonico's, second from right]
“A typical lunch consisted of two lobsters, deviled crabs, clams, oysters, and beef,” wrote H. Paul Jeffers, in his book Diamond Jim Brady: Prince of the Gilded Age. “He finished with several whole pies.”
Dinner included “a couple dozen oysters, six crabs, and bowls of green turtle soup. The main course was likely to be two whole ducks, six or seven lobsters, a sirloin steak, two servings of terrapin, and a variety of vegetables. . . . Because Jim did not partake in alcohol, all this was washed down with carafe after carafe of orange juice.”
Restaurant owner George Rector, who ran one of the fashionable “lobster palaces” of Times Square, reportedly said Brady was “the best 25 customers I ever had.”
“When he pointed at a platter of French pastries, he didn’t mean any special pastry, he meant the platter,” William Grimes quoted Rector saying in Grimes’ book Appetite City.
Could Brady, admittedly a very large man who held court night after night in the city’s poshest eateries with groups of friends and celebrities, really have wolfed down all this food?
Grimes poses the possibility that the myth played into the sense of excess and extravagance that characterized the Gilded Age.
“[Brady's gluttony] symbolized the outsized appetites of a gaudy, grasping, exuberant America, where income went untaxed and a robust mass media panted after images of the rich at play.”
Read more about Diamond Jim Brady in New York City in 3D in the Gilded Age.
[Photos: second: MCNY photo collection, 1905]