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!”).

There is something showy about Mary and Barry’s relationship; they have a shared urge to put their marriage on display. As octogenarians they keep a painting of a ravished-looking female nude over the living room mantelpiece. As Brenner is quick to notice, they adore publicity about themselves as a couple. The arrival of legions of reporters in Louisville because of the family feud was far from entirely painful for them, and they apparently regarded the Pulitzer Prize that Alex Jones of The New York Times won for a long story about their troubles as another tribute to the family. It seems odd that they made their letters, which are full of references to their (great) sex life and other private matters, public during their lifetime.

In such a union, the children tend to occupy a place outside the inner circle of family intimacy. In the Binghams’ case, this problem was especially pronounced because Barry was away so much. He enlisted in the Navy in March of 1941 and served overseas—patriotically but hardly arduously, as a public-relations man—until after V-J Day, and he traveled constantly in the following years as well. That he left for the war after Sallie’s fourth birthday and didn’t return until she was eight and a half must have had a powerful effect on his daughter’s emotional life.

The terrible death of Jonathan Bingham, which Mary and Barry actually witnessed during the forty-five minutes it took the ambulance to get to their mansion, was especially devastating to Mary, who had been a single parent to Jonathan throughout his infancy (he was born in 1942). Afterward something brittle and inflexible seems to have grown about her—her elegant surface hardened, and she couldn’t react quickly to crises. Worth’s death destroyed the family’s orderly plan for the succession of the business, in which Worth was to run the papers and the less prepossessing Barry Junior the broadcast properties. Meanwhile Sallie was enduring the failure of two marriages, difficulties in her career as a writer of fiction, and problems with one of her children; by her forties she was bitter and angry.

The Bingham end-game, when it came in the mid-Eighties, was the product of an intricate interweaving of each family member’s weaknesses and flaws of character. Sallie, who was the instigator of the troubles, appears in Brenner’s book as someone who wanted to hurt her mother for being too critical of her, her father for his remoteness, and her brother for having been given the kingdom instead of her. She seems to have gotten so deep into the contemplation of her own problems that she could not see that the papers were larger than her wish for revenge. As a board member she seems pointlessly destructive, and her claim after the sale of the papers that she had won a victory for feminism is further evidence of an inability to distinguish between personal and institutional issues. Gannett is hardly known as the corporate cutting edge of the struggle for women’s rights, whereas the Binghams in the Seventies appointed the first female big-city managing editor in the country.

Sallie’s triumph was not inevitable, though. Any one of the other family members could have stopped it, and chose not to. Barry Junior, who was proud of having purged himself of all the standard hypocrisies of newspaper publishers (the Courier-Journal in his reign was known for aggressively reporting on its own foibles), could have bought Sallie out. One of the family’s investment advisers, Goldman Sachs, told him that he could pay Sallie as much as $32 million, which was the amount she asked for, without overburdening the company with debt. But to Barry Junior, a rigid purist committed to doing everything by the book, paying Sallie all that money was irregular and therefore unjustifiable. Eleanor, the youngest sister, wouldn’t make a separate peace with her brother. Barry Senior could have simply ordered Barry Junior to buy out Sallie, but he didn’t. More broadly, in putting his two daughters on the board and giving them voting stock, he had violated what is practically the cardinal rule for passing on family businesses, which is never to divide control among several children. The standard practice is to give each child control of a separate part of the empire or to keep the ones who aren’t managing the company from having a voice in its decisions. In the Thirties Barry’s own father cut out his two oldest children and put all power in Barry’s hands. Even after bungling the transfer of power, Barry Senior, who controlled a majority of the stock, still could have saved the papers by giving Barry Junior complete support, but he never did.

Brenner, who lays out all these complexities with a deft, subtle touch, has two possible explanations for Barry Senior’s inaction. First, the ability to blot out conflict and tragedy that helped him so much to survive the difficulties of his own early life made it impossible for him to deal with the family’s final problems. The sale of the papers, on this theory, represents the long-delayed destructive effect of the deaths of Robert Worth Bingham’s first two wives. Second, and even more chilling, Brenner creates the impression that Barry and Mary may have been so involved in the performance of their own love story that they not only didn’t allow their children to grow up, but on some level wanted the wonderful drama of the Courier-Journal to end with their own exit from the stage.

The sale was Sallie’s moment of glory. She became, finally, the celebrity she had always wanted to be, appearing on television, being quoted everywhere, setting up philanthropies such as the Kentucky Foundation for Women and a feminist literary journal with the money (more than $50 million) she got for her stock. Her public personality was built around the enumeration of her family’s weaknesses, a subject on which she was sometimes willfully cruel and inaccurate, but also quite astute (Brenner has artfully incorporated a good deal of Sallie’s analysis of the family into her book while making it clear she doesn’t for a minute buy Sallie’s assertion that she’s a feminist heroine bringing justice to her oppressors).

One of Sallie’s projects has been to revive the Mary Lily Bingham scandal, which her father spent so much of his life trying to bury. She has set up a Mary Lily Bingham Trust Fund, and she strongly encouraged David Chandler in his efforts to write a book accusing Robert Worth Bingham of having murdered Mary Lily.

When Chandler, who had previously written a biography of Mary Lily’s first husband, Henry Flagler, began working on the book, Barry Senior was cooperative and even encouraging, as he usually is with writers working on Bingham projects. But when he figured out what Chandler was up to, he made a tremendous effort to get the book suppressed. This was not only uncharacteristic but futile: Barry did get the original publisher, Macmillan, to withdraw the book last spring, when it was on the presses, but Crown picked it up and brought it out in the fall, and any charitable feelings Chandler may have harbored toward the Binghams were extinguished.

The censorship of Chandler’s book would seem to indicate that he has come up with something profoundly damning, but in fact he does not prove, or even make a convincing case for, his central assertion. It is true that Mary Lily’s death was suspicious. She seemed to be in good health when she married Bingham, and she was dead within a year. While Bingham himself regularly received medical treatment from internationally known experts, he had his fabulously rich and cosmopolitan wife treated by a Louisville dermatologist. He spent very little time with her during her final illness. It certainly would have looked better if the codicil to her will had not been handwritten, or signed in the doctor’s office while she was being treated, or kept by someone other than Bingham himself. The timing of the purchase of the Courier looks suspicious, and so does the dermatologist’s immediate move to a grander apartment.

The reason there is no smoking gun in the case is that Mary Lily’s family, the Kenans, refused (and continue to refuse) to release the results of the autopsy. There is no satisfactory explanation for this. Thomas Kenan’s assertion to Chandler that he won’t make the autopsy report public because it “would renew the problems between the families” seems hollow, since he feels no compunctions about telling reporters that Mary Lily was murdered.

The Bingham family version of what happened, as near as can be determined, is that Robert Bingham realized just after the marriage that Mary Lily was a hopeless alcoholic and kept her out of view and under the treatment of his cronies to avoid word getting out and embarrassing her. Even so, as Brenner says, he was “dangerously irresponsible toward a very sick woman,” and it’s hard to believe that the thought of getting her to change her will before her steep decline ended didn’t cross his mind. But it’s a long way from this to Chandler’s theory, which is that Mary Lily died of tertiary syphilis—the long-delayed recurrence of a dose she had contracted from Bingham years earlier, when they were students at the University of North Carolina—and that Bingham used the disease to get her addicted to morphine and to blackmail her into signing the codicil.

The greatest advantage of Chandler’s theory is that it would explain why the Kenans don’t want to release the autopsy report. Among other problems, though, Chandler’s evidence for sexual contact at the university is that Mary Lily told a reporter in 1916 that she and Bingham had as students had “an affair,” a word that didn’t necessarily mean then what it means now. As further evidence, he says that dermatologists in those days often treated venereal disease, but that’s wildly circumstantial. He says that Bingham was already negotiating to buy the Courier before Mary Lily’s death and planned to use the codicil as collateral to borrow the purchase price, but there is no evidence for this; indeed, Chandler doesn’t have any hard proof for the contention, crucial to his theory, that Bingham was in bad financial shape at the time of Mary Lily’s death.

In general, Chandler’s handling of his material doesn’t inspire much confidence. He uses vivid scene-setting details about Bingham’s private conversations with Mary Lily without any source or attribution. He leaps to large conclusions from sketchy references in the Bingham papers. Bessy Young, the wife of a close friend, writes Bingham in the spring of 1917 asking that “when you re-invest your money, as you spoke of having to do, this summer, you do a little of it through my brother”; to me this clearly refers to small investing with a stockbroker, but to Chandler it’s proof that “in an unguarded moment, he had told Bessy that he might be coming into sums of money.” Chandler treats as authoritative sources stories in New York newspapers of the Teens, and also various assertions about the Mary Lily case by Sallie—Sallie who wrote in Ms. in 1986 that it was the Binghams who had and wouldn’t release Mary Lily’s autopsy report. Overall, his portrayal of Bingham is too simplistic to be believed. “Bingham, the conniving, lying, and deadly political hack, changed almost overnight [after buying the Courier] into something akin to an ideal journalist,” Chandler writes midway through the story, by way of explaining why his main character’s evil side went into remission for the last two decades of his life.

The more likely truth about Robert Worth Bingham is that he combined ruthless ambition, romanticism about the South, skill in the use of power, and sincere if self-interested public-spiritedness for all of his life. If so, he would be typical of the people who run the cities of the South, in his character if not his life story. So would Barry Bingham, Sr., and so too would Barry Junior if he didn’t so sorely lack skill in the use of power. Chandler’s book is too accusatory to convey a real feeling for the society in which the Binghams existed, and Brenner’s book, which evokes the internal life of the family so well, largely ignores its civic life. She makes Barry Senior seem detached past the point of credulity from the running of the papers, and there are a few places where she displays ignorance of southern civic life. She says one Bingham “exemplified the New South mentality with his chivalry and devotion to the Lost Cause,” but the point of the New South was to forget the Lost Cause. She seems to miss a reference by Mary Bingham to H.L. Mencken’s indictment of southern culture, “The Sahara of the Bozart,” the reaction against which practically defined southern intellectual life for a generation or more. She accepts too readily the Bingham’s characterization of the other country-club families in town as crude racists, when paternalism would more likely have been their creed (as it was the Binghams’: Brenner reports that Mary, who prided herself on her benevolent feelings toward blacks, had the swimming pool drained when she found out that Worth had invited a black child to swim in it).

The public life of a southern newspaper family, powerful in but aloof from its city, using its influence to select political leaders, to mount crusades, and to enhance its own position—all that would have made an absorbing book. Someone should write it one day. For the time being, Brenner has done an admirable job of explaining how the Binghams ceased to be such a family.


Sallie Bingham’s Philanthropy July 21, 1988

The Binghams June 16, 1988