Chapter 16
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Poor Little Rich Girl

Irrepressible is Emily Bingham’s exploration of the scandalous life of her great-aunt

Emily Bingham’s lively history of her great-aunt, Henrietta Bingham, brings to mind Friedrich Nietzsche’s canonical essay “On the Uses and Abuses of History for Life.” The antiquarian, Nietzsche wrote, “looks beyond his own transient, curious, individual existence and senses himself to be the spirit of his house, his lineage, his city.” In tracing the family lineage back to Henrietta—a history the Bingham family later tried to erase—the author recovers the “spirit” of her “house.”

In Irrepressible: The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham, the raven-haired, violet-eyed beauty who only intermittently found happiness living as a lesbian woman in a prejudiced world, appears at the center of the family story. Bingham pieces it all together from a vast number of sources, most of them unpublished. Amazingly, part of the story emerges from a long-forgotten steamer trunk left by her great-aunt in the attic of the family manse in Louisville. It’s a tidy metaphor: Henrietta as Nietzsche’s haunting family presence, unappeased until now.

In places Bingham’s story intersects with the remarkably fast rise of the Bingham media empire in Louisville. Here the book cuts a familiar American pattern—The Great Gatsby, to which Bingham refers a couple of times, is our great example. The pathos of Jay Gatsby is that he uses illegal means to attempt entrée into an established world that he can never really join. The irony of Gatsby is that the money he hears in Daisy’s voice wasn’t all that old or established in the first place. If, as some have suggested, all wealth has its origins in theft of one kind or another, some fortunes enjoy greater esteem by simply being just a little bit older than others. How could it be otherwise in America?

Robert Worth Bingham and his second wife, Mary Lily Flagler, Henrietta’s stepmother, lived at the Seelbach Hotel—the setting of Tom and Daisy Buchanan’s wedding, as it happens—for a time early in their marriage. The historical record is murky on the precise circumstances according to which Robert Worth Bingham came to inherit millions from Mary Lily, a desperate alcohol-and-morphine addict who died in July 1917, only a few months into their marriage. We do know that just before her death, she signed a codicil to her will leaving her husband a large fortune. Consequently the patriarch of the Bingham family never entirely escaped rumors that his wealth was the result of an unseemly crime.

Bingham’s restless self-invention and prickly sense of honor, character traits made all the more prominent by those rumors, were bound up in his relationship with his beloved daughter. The two were first tragically united by the terrible accident that claimed the life of Robert’s first wife and Henrietta’s mother, Babes Miller. Later, both were caught up in the swirl of accusations that followed the death of Robert’s second wife, whom Henrietta had ostentatiously disdained: after Mary Lily attempted to “Impress” her stepchildren with a mountain of presents at their first encounter, Henrietta “came into the suite, gazed at the grinning, pudgy, strangely giggling woman, and swept the pretty boxes on the floor,” Bingham writes. “She marched out, leaving her father to sputter apologies.” This rejection, some in Louisville believed, was part of what fueled Mary Lily’s downward spiral into fatal substance abuse, implicating Henrietta in tales of the Bingham family’s ill-gotten gain. But her father leveraged that money to build a newspaper empire with broad influence, and he lavished the fortune that came from it upon his daughter. It allowed Henrietta access to the highest reaches of transatlantic society, granting her the space to explore a sexually adventurous life rare for her time and place.

If this story sounds Freudian notes, then the reader’s ear is right. One of the great strengths of Irrepressible is surely the nuanced intellectual history that Bingham builds around the early reception of Freud’s ideas among social elites in the years following World War I. And, not surprisingly, Henrietta’s case provided rich fodder for the early Freudians. During the 1920s, as Henrietta left a trail of besotted lovers, male and female, among the fringe figures of the Bloomsbury group in England, she underwent countless hours of therapy with Ernest Jones, one of Freud’s epigones. Jones, in an effort to “bolster Henrietta’s latent heterosexual feelings,” Bingham writes, probably figured that Henrietta’s relationship with her father was somehow at the root of her attraction to women: “They doubtless discussed Henrietta’s oedipal development.”

It’s difficult to know precisely what Henrietta thought of all of his. Bingham suggests some answers, but in the end her great-aunt remains something of an enigma, and the Bingham family’s efforts to efface Henrietta from the family history form a tragic coda to a tragic life. The money that facilitated the family’s rise to an exalted place in American society for a time gave Henrietta enough freedom to love whomever she wanted. But with wealth often comes a heightened sense of propriety, and with that propriety comes the exclusion of one who was once beloved from “official” memory. We can only wonder what Robert Worth Bingham would have to say were he alive to read his great-granddaughter’s fascinating book.