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Sallie Bingham’s Philanthropy

In response to:

Breaking Up from the April 28, 1988 issue

To the Editors:

I wish to make known the help I have received from the Kentucky Foundation for Women, founded by Sallie Bingham, which has currently been demeaned—along with Sallie—in the recent book reviews about the Bingham family [NYR, April 28].

I am a graduate student in fiction at the lowa Writers’ Workshop and would not have been able to continue my education if it weren’t for a grant from Sallie and the Kentucky Foundation for Women. I am not alone. I know many, many women who have benefited from her generosity.

I strongly resent the fact that in recent reviews of the books about the Bingham family, Sallie has been labeled a “do gooder” and an “alleged feminist heroine.” Strange, don’t you think, that we don’t look for ulterior motives in, or have such derogatory labels for, the philanthropy of men?

Shame on you for printing such rubbish about a woman who has helped so many. Would your reviewers have preferred that Sallie spend her money by buying a home on the Riviera?

Lisa Koger

Iowa City, Iowa

Nicholas Lemann replies:

This letter is one of at least twenty very similar ones The New York Review has received in the last few weeks. All come from recipients of grants from Sallie Bingham; all complain that book reviewers, in writing about Marie Brenner’s House of Dreams, have “demeaned” Ms. Bingham’s philanthropy; and most of the letter writers say they have “learned,” or “been made aware” of the contents of “reviews” of the Brenner book, not that they have actually read my review. The opening paragraph of Ms. Koger’s letter is word for word the same as that of three other letters, which emanated from Boone, North Carolina, Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, and Fort Mitcheli, Kentucky.

The one reference I made to Ms. Bingham’s philanthropy was a completely neutral one, in which I said that Ms. Bingham had set up “philanthropies such as the Kentucky Women’s Foundation and a feminist literary journal.” I didn’t call her a “do gooder” or an “alleged feminist heroine.”

The premise of all the letters—that any criticism of Ms. Bingham’s conduct during the family wars that led to the sale of the Bingham papers is really an attack on feminist philanthropy—is absurd on its face. I wouldn’t have preferred that Ms. Bingham spend her money by buying a home on the Riviera, but I do wish that she had not forced the Bingham family to sell the Louisville papers to Gannett. If she had agreed to sell her stock back to the family instead she still would have had plenty of money to start the foundation that inspires such touching loyalty among its beneficiaries.

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