The disintegration of the Bingham family’s Louisville media dynasty in 1986 prompted no fewer than four books about patriarch Robert Worth Bingham and the two talented but troubled generations he left in his wake.
Each book was revealing, but the basics were well-known: ambitious politico loses his wife in a tragedy and remarries America’s richest widow, who soon dies mysteriously. With his inheritance, he buys a newspaper and influence, which includes the ambassadorship to Great Britain. The Courier-Journal becomes a great newspaper until squabbling among his grandchildren prompts its sale to a chain.
Emily Bingham’s Irrepressible: The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham (Farrar, Straus and Giroux $28) is a thoroughly researched, well-written and frank biography of the great-aunt her elders never wanted to discuss.
Bingham, a Harvard graduate with a Ph.D. in history from the University of North Carolina, will talk about and sign her book at 3 p.m. Sunday at The Morris Book Shop, 882 East High Street.
Henrietta Bingham was intelligent, beautiful and seductive. But she was forever traumatized by witnessing her mother’s death when a commuter train hit their car, and she could never escape the emotional grip of her narcissistic father.
She also was bisexual. Her most intense relationships were with John Houseman, who later became a legendary film producer and Oscar-winning actor, and the 1930s tennis star Helen Jacobs.
Other lovers included three members of England’s famous Bloomsbury set: writer Mina Kirstein, painter Dora Carrington and sculptor Stephen Tomlin. Then there were the actresses: Hope Williams and, probably, Tallulah Bankhead. And, possibly, black musicians of both sexes in Harlem.
Henrietta spent the Jazz Age and Great Depression living high on daddy’s money. Had she been straight, she, rather than her younger brother Barry, would have inherited the family’s media empire.
Instead, she lived a life of leisure, attracting lovers then pushing them away. Her only real accomplishment was a late-in-life career as a Thoroughbred horse breeder.
Despite years of psychoanalysis with Ernest Jones, a famous protégé of Sigmund Freud, Henrietta could never escape her demons. She died in 1968 at age 68 from the effects of alcoholism and mental illness.
After reading this book, I had to ask Emily Bingham: what did the family think of her unflinching book?
“My generation has just all been fascinated,” said Bingham, 50. “We had only heard these sort of negative stories. It’s as if this whole part of our family tree is alive instead of shriveled.”
Her mother, Edie Bingham, and aunts, Sallie Bingham and Eleanor Bingham Miller, the last survivors of their generation, passed along photographs and heirlooms and have been very supportive of the book, she said.
“But if my grandparents (Barry Bingham Sr. and his wife, Mary) had been living, this would have been hard to do,” she acknowledged.
“I think they were quite understanding, actually, about that part of Henrietta’s life,” she said. “They also were the ones who bore the brunt of being worried for her, and the shame that came with that. People couldn’t talk about mental health, either.”
Emily Bingham said that every day growing up at the Binghams’ Melcombe estate she saw a framed photograph of an octagonal barn at her great-aunt’s horse farm, now the Harmony Landing Country Club at Goshen.
“I just remember being told she was an accomplished horsewoman,” she said. “It would be the one thing they would say and then the conversation would end. I got the feeling that she was sort of not very interesting. And that was obviously wrong.”
In an interview with her grandmother before she died in 1995, Mary Bingham finally talked about Henrietta.
Only after Emily Bingham and her husband, Stephen Reily, named their daughter Henrietta, because they liked the old-fashioned name, did her startled father, the late Barry Bingham Jr., discuss his aunt, whom he called “a three-dollar bill.”
He told his daughter there might be a trunk of Henrietta’s stuff in the attic. There she discovered personal possessions and old clothes, including one of Jacobs’ monogrammed tennis outfits. Then she found another trunk stuffed with nearly 200 love letters to Henrietta from Houseman and Tomlin.
That trunk, stored for decades above her childhood bedroom, led her to search out archives containing the revealing letters, diaries and memoirs of her great-aunt’s friends and lovers.
But Henrietta’s own voice is largely missing from this biography; she left no diary, and fewer than a dozen letters. She seems to have destroyed most evidence of her homosexuality.
“This project was like putting together a broken mirror and knowing that you were only going to see bits of the person in the end,” the author said.
Bingham would love to know more about Henrietta’s passion for black music in the 1920s and her relationships with famous performers she knew. She wishes she could have “been on the couch with her” during psychoanalysis, especially to understand more about Henrietta’s complex relationship with her father.
And, in a life with so many passionate, complicated relationships, she said, “I would want to ask her, ‘Who did you really love?”
Bingham thinks her great-aunt’s alcoholism and mental illness were fueled in part by social pressure to keep her lesbian relationships secret. Her efforts to live a lie included a brief, failed marriage in 1954.
Henrietta’s life could have been much different had she lived today, her great-niece thinks. She could have enjoyed openly gay relationships and become more independent from her controlling father.
Bingham hopes readers come away with a desire to find out more about the gaps and silences in their own family histories.
“They don’t not matter because they haven’t been talked about,” she said. “Often, they are creating some of the reality you are living with; you just don’t know how they shaped it.”