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Breaking Up

The Binghams of Louisville: The Dark History Behind One of America’s Great Fortunes

by David Leon Chandler, with Mary Voelz Chandler
Crown, 292 pp., $17.95

The Louisville Courier-Journal was for many years perhaps the most famous provincial newspaper in the United States, partly because it was among the few liberal ones and partly because of its many journalistic awards. Although the Courier-Journal and its sister paper, the Louisville Times, had several legendary editors, like Henry Watterson and Norman Isaacs, there was no doubt that the overriding reason why the papers were special was that they were owned and run by the Bingham family. The local newspaper is one of the few American institutions remaining in which greatness seems to be associated with Victorian social norms; it can’t be an accident that the three best ones, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, are all still essentially family businesses.

Perhaps because an aristocratic act plays better in a small city like Louisville than in a big one like New York, the Binghams even more than their bigger-time confreres seemed to embody enlightened patrician publishing. They lived and constantly entertained in a mansion. They traveled in the highest international political, diplomatic, and cultural circles but also were the prime movers in virtually every local worthy cause. Their principles seemed to spring from a purely disinterested calculation of what was right and what was wrong. They were rich, but everyone understood that they would be even richer if they weren’t so dedicated to journalistic excellence, because, for example, they maintained a much larger editorial staff than was financially rational.

In 1986, as if to prove that their image was too good to be true, the Binghams put the papers up for sale because the three children of the family patriarch, Barry Bingham, Sr., were at odds with one another. The family continued to squabble freely in front of the many out-of-town reporters who descended on Louisville, and much dirty linen was aired. After a few months, the buyer who came forth to take over the Bingham media properties was not one of the most journalistically prestigious communications companies but Gannett, the cost-conscious chain best known for publishing USA Today. So far Gannett has maintained the standards of the Courier-Journal, but it quickly closed down the financially troubled afternoon paper, the Times. The Bingham family is still feuding. They are rich but they have lost their power.

History, as we know, is on the side of corporations, and family businesses have been falling into their clutches for generations. But it would be wrong to say that the fate of the Binghams was therefore inevitable. Too many other families in newspaper publishing—more than in most other businesses—have been able to stay in control. Owning a monopoly newspaper (especially if, as is often the case, there is an early-vintage VHF television station license to go with it) puts a company in such an extraordinarily protected economic position that families aren’t severely penalized for being marginally less efficient at it (if indeed they are) than a big managerial company would be. This is fortunate because, of all companies, newspapers are probably the ones you’d most want to remain in benevolent family hands: they can use their economic freedom for the benefit of the community more than other local businesses can. The Bingham papers had more freedom than most because they weren’t publicly traded and so were under no outside pressure to produce high profits. Practically the only serious threat to them was family dissension. It was the Binghams themselves, rather than any inexorable outside forces, that brought the Binghams down, and their fall hurt Louisville as well as the family. As the subject of a book, the Bingham story is a writer’s dream—first-class gossip that isn’t trivial.

The plain facts of the family’s history, which both Marie Brenner and David Chandler lay out in detail in their books, make an enthralling story. The founder of the Bingham empire was Robert Worth Bingham, a man who today looks like a period piece from several different periods. His childhood was Reconstruction: he was born in 1871, the son of a Confederate colonel who ran a shabby-genteel prep school in North Carolina and regularly wore his old gray uniform well into old age. “I know every phase of it all,” Robert Bingham wrote Margaret Mitchell in 1937, in a long fan letter about Gone with the Wind, “the poverty and the pride, the gentility, the gracious manners, the romance, the preservation of dignity and high and generous humanity in rags and semi-starvation.” Bingham mysteriously dropped out of both the University of North Carolina and the University of Virginia, taught at his father’s school in Asheville for a while, and then married a well-to-do woman from Louisville and moved there. He went to law school and entered his Progressive phase, serving briefly as a mildly reformist county attorney, mayor, and district judge.

In 1913 Bingham’s wife Eleanor was killed when an interurban train hit her car; seven-year-old Barry Bingham, who was sitting in her lap, survived. The accident marked the beginning of Robert Bingham’s Gilded Age, which occurred out of its proper historical order. In 1917 he married Mary Lily Kenan Flagler, a woman four years his senior with whom he had had a brief romance in college. The former mistress, then wife, and now the recent widow of Henry M. Flagler of Standard Oil and the Florida East Coast Railway, she was the richest woman in the country. For a few months, the couple shuttled among Mary Lily’s several magnificent establishments, then she became gravely ill. When they married, Bingham gave up all claim to her estate. But on June 19, 1917, in her doctor’s office, she signed a handwritten codicil to her will leaving Bingham $5 million. On July 27, she died. In 1918, Bingham collected the $5 million, and nine days later he bought the Courier-Journal and the Times.

Mary Lily’s family, the Kenans, suspected that Bingham, aided by a complaint doctor, had doped her up to the point where she signed the codicil and then got her killed to inherit the money so that he could buy the newspapers. They challenged the codicil in court. The case became a notorious newspaper scandal of its day; Mary Lily’s body was exhumed and an autopsy performed. Then suddenly, without giving a reason, the Kenans dropped their suit and refused to release the autopsy report.

Within a few years, Judge Bingham, now a distinguished liberal publisher, managed to create an aura of utter probity around himself. In the last decade of his life, he was an exemplar of that rare and rarefied breed, the New Deal businessman. He helped Kentucky tobacco farmers form a successful economic cooperative, contributed heavily to Franklin Roosevelt’s 1932 presidential campaign, and ended his career as ambassador to the Court of Saint James.

Of the children of Robert Bingham’s first marriage, two were alcoholics who never worked, but the youngest child, Barry, came into adulthood remarkably unscathed by the deaths of his mother and stepmother, or so it seemed. At Harvard Barry met Mary Caperton, the product of a poor-but-proud Richmond family similar to his father’s, and a few years after graduation they married. The marriage was a brilliant match, out of a nineteenth-century novel. Barry took over the papers before he was thirty and ran them successfully. He and Mary had five handsome children. The Binghams’ glittering social circle encompassed the Louisville gentry, theater people in New York, and upper-class Democratic politicians such as Adlai Stevenson and Averell Harriman. Barry supported virtually every liberal position imaginable, some of them, like desegregation and environmental protection in the Kentucky coal country, at some personal cost in Louisville.

In 1964 the third Bingham son, Jonathan, twenty-one years old, a Harvard dropout who had a history of using LSD, was electrocuted on the grounds of the family estate while working on a power line. Two years later the eldest son and heir to the papers, Worth, was killed in a car accident. To judge from outside appearances, the family managed to get through these tragedies. The last surviving son, Barry Junior, took over the papers, which continued to take liberal positions and to win Pulitzer prizes. The obvious trouble didn’t begin until the late Seventies, when the two Bingham daughters, Sallie and Eleanor, after many years away from home, moved back to Louisville and were put on the board of the family company by their father. They began to criticize Barry Junior’s management of the paper, and Sallie in particular felt that her views about the running of the paper were not being listened to. When he tried to remove them from the board, Sallie refused to leave unless the company bought out her stock. A long wrangle ensued about how much it was worth, Barry Junior would not meet Sallie’s price, and finally Barry Senior decided to sell the paper.

The main question about the Binghams is what it was that made them suddenly unable to function as a working family. Midway through the research for her book, Marie Brenner learned from Barry Bingham, Sr., that his extensive correspondence with his wife had been deposited at the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe. Brenner went there immediately to find hundreds of long letters that to a perceptive reader revealed many of the roots of the family’s troubles. Brenner has done plenty of interviewing, too, but her reading of the Barry–Mary letters forms the heart of her book. This tends to give it a slightly ripe, women’s magazine quality—the great events the Binghams lived through come across mostly as a backdrop to this or that wedding or dinner party—but it also provides Brenner with clues to what is rightly her main concern, the family psychology, of which her analysis is completely persuasive.

Barry Senior was mostly raised by aunts in Asheville, to whom he was sent for long periods following the death of his mother, his father’s remarriage, and the death of his stepmother. Under his aunts’ wing, according to Brenner, he developed an awesome power of denial, which took the form of a gauzy southern romanticism that covered over all unpleasantness. Throughout his adult life, he claimed to have no memory of the scandal surrounding Mary Lily’s death, although he was twelve at the time.

He and Mary had an almost ostentatiously perfect marriage. Mary had a toughness that Barry lacked and must have known he needed if his ambitions were to be fulfilled. She seems to have given him the all-encompassing love of which he had been deprived by his mother’s death. Herself the product of an unhappy childhood, she too wanted a life without rough edges, and, being a southern belle and a serious young woman, she shared Barry’s natural inclinations about the particular style that life should have. Their letters are remarkable not only for their volume and intimacy, but for the plantation voice in which both Mary and Barry wrote (and talked: at their first meeting with Brenner, Mary said to her husband, “Barry, I cannot imagine that our problems with the children will ever heal! I cannot imagine why Barry Junior cannot reconcile himself to our dilemma!”).

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