Emily Bingham had no idea that her great aunt had such an amazing life.
She had heard about her, of course, but only that she was an accomplished equestrian. After she named her daughter Henrietta, her father told her that Henrietta Bingham was an embarrassment and a “three-dollar bill.” And that there was a trunk in the attic.
The findings in that trunk and other research led to Irrepressible: The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham, a fascinating look at Henrietta’s life, published in 2015. I read this book a few months ago, and absolutely loved it. I couldn’t recommend this book enough to those interested in Louisville history, women’s history, Jazz Age history and LGBTQ history and issues. It’s rare to find a well-researched history book that is actually fun to read. It won the Lambda Literary Award in 2016 for Bisexual Nonfiction.
Henrietta (and consequently, Emily) was born into the Bingham family, one of the wealthiest in Louisville. The family owned the Louisville Courier-Journal and the Louisville Times until they were sold to Gannett in 1986. (Full disclosure: I worked there for 11 years. The family is revered among those who were lucky enough to work for them.)
More background on the Bingham family can be found in Robert Worth Bingham and the Southern Mystique by William E. Ellis (I read it in grad school for a class). It’s an excellent look at how the Binghams gained their fortune and affected Louisville history. Robert Worth, known as “The Judge.” Henrietta’s father and Emily’s great-grandfather, was quite an interesting man, and I’ll probably write more about him and that book later. It must be strange to be from a family about which people write entire books. Best to write one yourself.
I interviewed Emily Bingham several months ago for a story I wrote for the Voice-Tribune. She was participating in an event in which she interviewed Wendy Whelan, the ballerina. I was so excited to interview her, because her career was similar to mine. We were both journalists who became historians, and I think we connected on that. At the time of the interview, I had just begun reading the book, and I tried so hard not to act like a fan-girl. I later met her at the event, and she was lovely. I don’t think she saw through my excitement.
Henrietta Bingham was athletic and beautiful, and she competed for the attention and admiration of her father, which she gained heartily. Her mother, Babes Miller Bingham, was killed when her carriage was hit by a train when Henrietta was only 12. Her older brother Robert became an alcoholic and her younger brother Barry (Sr.) was frail and often ill. So Robert Worth doted on Henrietta and indulged her dalliances as much as he could stand to.
Henrietta spent a lot of time in England, which was much more liberal than the U.S. was at the time. She hung out with wealthy, popular friends and artists who let her be herself. Her father often begged her to come home, spoiling her with horses and diamonds when she visited. The Judge really wanted Henrietta to take over his newspaper business eventually, but she didn’t have much interest in that career.
In college at Smith, Henrietta befriended a young literature professor, Mina Kirstein, also a graduate of Smith. Kirstein, recently jilted by a man who left her to marry a Swede, became close with Henrietta, and the two quickly fell in love. But Henrietta’s low grades and “Miscellaneous Actions” and “deficiencies” caused the administrative board to dismiss her as a “Detriment to Community.” It’s now believed that she was dyslexic, which wasn’t well-understood at the time.
While at Smith, she became known as a flapper and a person who was “forming bonds where love met danger,” Emily Bingham wrote. I love this side of her — her willingness to cause trouble and flout societal norms. Rock on, Henrietta.
Henrietta and Mina went to London with the Judge and Barry, and stayed on in the fall. They did not tell him that she had been kicked out of Smith, only that she left voluntarily. Mina was able to take a sabbatical, and the two gallivanted around Europe reading each other love poems and making love. Mina also sought psychoanalysis for Henrietta to help her overcome her panic attacks and homosexuality (yes, while being her lover). She would stay in therapy for many years.
The two began hanging around the Bloomsbury Group, a collection of upper-class, wealthy artists and writers in London. The group enjoyed the women, two young, beautiful, intellectual Americans, and both women began dating men and women in the group. Some members of the group went on to be famous, including Virginia Woolf and John Maynard Keynes.
Henrietta loved living in England, and when her father became Ambassador to England (1933-1937), she took on the party hostess role that his then-wife, the shy Aleen, wasn’t cut out for. Henrietta already knew so many major players in London, so hosting parties and planning meals with the chef were in her wheelhouse. A London newspaper called her “Miss America.”
Despite her therapist’s attempts, Henrietta was never “cured” of her homosexuality, and lived her life as openly closeted as possible. There were always rumors and innuendo, and a few misplaced public come-ons that didn’t go over well with the Judge, but she was mostly able to live life with whomever she chose.
She later suffered from mental illness and alcoholism, repeatedly overdosing on medication. It’s not clear whether this was intentional or otherwise. She collapsed and died in 1968. An autopsy revealed she died of a hemorrhage caused by an acute gastric ulcer.
There is far more to Henrietta’s story, which I couldn’t possibly relay here. She dated famous actors and actresses, including Beatrix “Peggy” Lehmann and John Houseman, to name two. She had a long relationship with tennis phenom Helen Hull Jacobs, and the two made a home on the Bingham estate in Goshen for years, breeding horses and Labrador retrievers.
Her family’s money likely made life a lot easier for her, giving a somewhat insular effect. LGBT people of the time who didn’t have the freedom to move about as they please without regard to jobs and financial limits likely had to hide deeper in the closet than Henrietta did. But that didn’t protect her from abuse and discrimination entirely. The public life that Robert Worth led also meant eyes were on her, setting her up for scrutiny and adding to her own feelings of obligation to him.
While reading this book, I felt a great deal of sadness that she was born at the wrong time. While the ’30s were a great time to party, she would have had it so much easier now. I wanted to whisper to her, “It’s OK, Henrietta. Gay marriage is legal now!” That’s one of the many complexities of studying history — the people we study lived and endured under their own unique circumstances, and we have to try to imagine their lives as they were.
I hope fans of history, as well as a good story, will pick up this book. I will be reading more of Emily’s books and will report back on them soon!