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The Fall of the House of Bingham

ISSUE:  Winter 1989
House of Dreams: The Bingham Family of Louisville. By Marie Brenner. Random House. $19.95.

Most medium to upper-size American newspapers are survivors of many decades of unruly competition that came down, during the first half of this century, to morning-afternoon mergers and local-monopoly presses. Ownership of the typical publishing firm meanwhile spread from a family unit to scattered descendants sharing, against here and there a wish for managerial authority, waning attachment to property and growing appetite for capital gain. A wave of newspaper sales to chains or conglomerates, maybe with bruising ramifications among kin, is an ongoing phenomenon. More than 70 percent of newspapers in this country now are owned by chains such as the $2 billion Gannett Company, which is best known for publishing USA Today.

Along this pattern, cost-conscious Gannett in May 1986 acquired from the easy-spending Binghams the Louisville Courier-Journal (and the limping afternoon Times, which it immediately closed). The late Barry Bingham, then 80 years old (he died of a brain tumor last year), who had inherited the Courier-Journal from his father, Judge Robert Worth Bingham, and had recently placed it under his son, Barry Jr., ramrodded the sale amid much anguish and some joy in his family. Mary and Barry Bingham and their children—Sallie, Barry Jr., and Eleanor, plus the widow of their son Worth— split $307 million in Gannett cash, a bundle even at inflated media prices but not enough to heal all wounds or shut all mouths; nor did an additional bundle from the separately sold Bingham television station and a printing enterprise restore (create may be a better word) harmony among parents, siblings, and their spouses, and nine grandchildren, ages 3 months to 24 years.

What made the Bingham case special enough to inspire Marie Brenner’s fascinating book—and, before its publication, numerous newspaper and magazine reports and explorations and a CBS “60 Minutes” telecast—was the aura that Mary and Barry Bingham had fashioned for themselves and their paper. They lived, looked, and behaved like storybook monarchs. And although the Courier-Journal already was among the region’s more influential papers when Judge Bingham bought it in 1918 with the first money to bless his line, and was vastly improved under Barry’s direction, it hardly served its 140,000 Kentucky subscribers better than it did Bingham vanity and commitment to noblesse oblige. Without belittling Barry Bingham’s press eminence, Miss Brenner makes the valid point, quoting Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post, that he was pretty much “a social publisher [who] loved the trappings of being a publisher”—loved them more than the nuts and bolts of running a complex business, which he left to people he paid, notably Mark Ethridge. The Binghams lived splendidly, traveled widely, sponsored good causes, cared about issues, sent their children to the best schools, talked with presidents and made governors and senators, and with their notable guests rivaled the roses as Kentucky Derby decorations. They could afford even to be liberals.

Miss Brenner might have suggested, but does not, that Barry Bingham’s World War II service was of similar cut: more glamorous than demanding. He obtained a Navy commission before Pearl Harbor and spent the war overseas, rising to the rank of commander. But he was in public relations, not a warship, stationed for the most part in London, where he performed as a glorified guide for correspondents and traveling diplomats and benefited socially from his father’s four-plus years there as President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s. Like everyone else, he endured hazard. Unlike most naval persons, though, he sacked in a delightful flat and spent his liberty at plush clubs, private tennis courts, and country places with the likes of Lady Astor and Noel Coward. When the European war ended, he insisted on being sent to the Pacific. Whether that was noble or not, Miss Brenner indicates that his extended absence from home was damaging emotionally to his children—was a source, indeed, of the distresses they encountered and developed. Although Mary staked out time to be with the youngest, she insisted on directing the Courier-Journal editorial page.

Mary Caperton was at Radcliffe and Barry Bingham at Harvard at a good time to be there, in the Roaring Twenties, when their enduring love story began. She was among six sisters who grew up in a modest Richmond home dominated by their well-born, scatterbrained mother. Usually there were more corsages than beefsteaks in the refrigerator. The father, “a sweet man” from a West Virginia farm family, was obscurely employed; after his daughters were grown, he “stepped in front of a trolley and was killed.” Mrs. Caperton wrote frothy articles for women’s magazines on such topics as preparing daughters for a suitable marriage. Mary, a rebel of sorts, being scholarly, turned out to be her prize exhibit.

Barry’s childhood was more scarred than Mary’s. His mother was killed in an automobile struck by an interurban train as he, age 7, sat in her lap. He thereupon was sent from Louisville, where his mother had grown up as a wealthy manufacturer’s daughter, to Asheville, his father’s former home, to live with two aunts. He was 12 when his father, practicing law and politics with just enough success to be briefly mayor and a district judge, and having lately remarried, figured in a nationally publicized scandal.

The second Mrs. Robert W. Bingham (there would be a third) was born Mary Lily Kenan, member of a North Carolina plantation family that produced also soldiers, scientists, industrialists, and lawyers. Although she was four years older than Bob Bingham, he briefly had courted her while attending the University of North Carolina. Unexplainably he had transferred to the University of Virginia, and she had become the mistress and eventually the second wife of old Henry Flagler, the Florida oil, railroad, and resort baron. Upon Flagler’s death, at about the time Bingham lost his wife, Mary Lily inherited $100 million.

When Mary Lily married Judge Bingham (the title stuck forever, as that one usually does), he waived any claim to her wealth. She turned out to be a whiskey and possibly morphine addict with a bad heart and an inclination toward depression. In mid-1917, seven months after her marriage and one before she would die, she signed in her doctor’s office a codicil, handwritten on the doctor’s stationary and witnessed by him and her husband’s attorney, willing Bingham $5 million. The doctor was a dermatologist beholden to Bingham. It is easy to believe he doped Mary Lily into amending her will or withheld dope from her until she complied. “Although there is no substantial, much less conclusive, evidence that Bingham actually murdered Mary Lily, the events of her first and only year in Louisville leave little doubt that the Judge was dangerously irresponsible toward a very sick woman, unable to care for herself,” Miss Brenner writes.

Back in North Carolina, the Kenans did not doubt that Bingham murdered Mary Lily. They challenged the codicil in court but dropped their suit after a farcical hearing. They had Mary Lily’s body exhumed and examined, only to keep the report a secret.

Judge Bingham bought the Courier-Journal nine days after his check came through. Editorially he advocated liberal causes in line with his reformist politics and also his prominent father’s social progressiveness, which centered on education and race.


Inasmuch as Miss Brenner writes—and writes convincingly—as an amateur psychohistorian as well as a professional journalist, it is too bad that she did not take a closer look at Judge Bingham’s father for further clues to Barry’s astonishing refusal to show sorrow or admit failure or shame, which is at the heart of her narrative. Although the elder Robert Bingham’s Confederate military record was substantial, he was not quite “the Colonel” that the author accepts. The charred flag of the Forty-fourth North Carolina Infantry Regiment that hung under glass in Barry’s office, like the Judge’s assertion in a mushy fan letter to Gone With the Wind author Margaret Mitchell that “My father commanded the 44th North Carolina Infantry before he was twenty-four,” was misleading. Robert Bingham entered and left the Confederate Army as a captain; he commanded not the Forty-fourth Infantry but Company G, a component of it. He never claimed the title of colonel until Governor Charles B. Aycock, the North Carolina Democratic Party’s “Redeemer,” conferred it on him 35 years after Appomattox in payment for political support. At about the time of his promotion Robert engaged in a Bingham family rift nearly as spectacular as the one Miss Brenner chronicles. Instead of a newspaper, a preparatory school fueled the fuss.

The school was founded in Pittsboro by the Rev. William Bingham, a Presbyterian minister of English and Scottish blood who studied at the University of Glasgow before immigrating to North Carolina from Ireland 200 years ago. He moved the school to Hillsborough and eventually to a nearby country place called Oaks. His son, William James Bingham, succeeded him as headmaster. While keeping at Oaks the few slaves he had inherited, William James became engrossed with abolitionism and joined an abolitionist society—the first evidence of a social consciousness that would become a Bingham trait.

Robert was the second of William James Bingham’s sons; William was three years older than he. Like their father, both graduated from the University of North Carolina, where their grandfather, suspending his school for four years beginning in 1801, had been professor of Latin and Greek.

After two years Robert returned to Chapel Hill to take, in 1860. a master’s degree. With the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. he organized neighboring youths into Company G and led them to Virginia and some of the South’s hardest fighting against the Union. William, too frail for the field, remained with their father at the school. The war nearly ruined the two. But toward its end it not only rescued them but launched the school into its best era.

For in December 1864 the elder Bingham and William shifted the school five miles to the railroad station at Mebane, which consisted of little else, and converted it into a military academy with ties to the North Carolina militia. Cadets were exempt from Confederate service until age 18, but could be called into action by the Governor—as was the case when General Stoneman in the spring of 1865 led a raid into North Carolina in support of General Sherman’s march. As headmaster, William was commissioned a militia colonel.

Capt. Robert Bingham, CSA, upon rejoining his father and brother after the surrender, assumed the militia rank of major, which the school’s state charter provided for the second in authority. (Senior to both him and his brother in the gray ghost-army was the school’s part-time tailor, Col. William H. Cheek, who had risen from captain of Company E, First North Carolina Cavalry, to commanding officer of the regiment and, briefly, a brigade.)

The elder Bingham died in 1866. Under his sons, Bingham Military School became nationally renowned, although its facilities never were more than primitive. William wrote its four Latin and English textbooks. Every old boy who put onto paper his recollections of the school, among them Dr. Paul B. Barringer, 1896—1903 faculty chairman at the University of Virginia, noted Colonel William’s and Major Robert’s reliance on the guardhouse and strap.

William died at age 37 in 1873. Robert became the school’s fourth headmaster, major still; North Carolina just then was under a Republican governor, Tod Caldwell, successor to the impeached William Holden and disinclined to improve the status of a Democrat known to be active in the Ku Klux Klan. Right away Robert found himself in conflict with his brother’s widow.

She claimed ownership of the school on the basis that Robert had rejected his father’s and brother’s urgings to leave the Confederate service and help them reorganize it. Countering her, Robert barred from his staff her son, William James Bingham II, a Chapel Hill graduate continuing his studies while teaching ancient languages at the University of Virginia. He objected also to her management of the school’s boarding department.

Without relinquishing all claim to it, Maj. Robert Bingham in 1891 withdrew from the Mebane property and established the Bingham Military School in Asheville, to which a board of trustees took title. Thus he broke finally with his brother’s family: widow, a daughter, two deaf-mute sons, and a younger son, Herbert, a student at Chapel Hill. William James II had died at age 30 after becoming a full professor at Davidson College.

Mrs. William Bingham leased the Mebane campus to the Presbyterian High School of North Carolina, which soon foundered. Having then finished at Chapel Hill, Herbert revived the Bingham school, but died of typhoid fever within a year. So Mrs. Bingham sent out to Bristol for her daughter, Mary Stuart, and Mary Stuart’s husband, Preston Lewis Gray, an attorney. Gray renamed the school for William Bingham and assumed its principalship.

In Asheville, Robert Bingham—a colonel at last—sued Gray for infringing on the Bingham name. Gray, acting as his own attorney, disproved the saw of his thereby having a fool for a client by winning the case with evidence that William Bingham’s heirs held legal possession of the original school. In the village of Mebane, where Miss Mary Stuart had more kin than Major Bob, people said her side of the family had been hard put upon—and some of them were still shaking their heads about it when I grew up there between 1912 and 1933.

During that span both schools failed. The one at Asheville never gained the prestige its Mebane predecessor enjoyed during the last third of the 19th century. Taps were sounded for it—and for the Bingham influence in North Carolina—in 1923. Robert W. Bingham might have extended Bingham headmasterships into a fourth generation had he not left a teaching job under his father to marry a Louisville girl, study law at the University of Louisville, and found “the Bingham Family of Louisville,” which differed from the old breed mainly for the Flagler money he snagged.

Nothing went right in Mebane for Preston Gray after his court success. He and Mary Stuart, who had been a brilliant music student at Mary Baldwin Academy in Virginia, ran afoul of the law for misadvertising their school as its student body dwindled. They kept a mad son at home in chains. Another son, banished to an empty barracks, fatally slashed his throat. During the twenties the Grays tried to turn the sagging school buildings into a tourist camp. They forbade their six younger children to attend Mebane’s public school till 18, when each in turn would show up at the principal’s office and pass a college-entrance examination. Every kid and half the adults in our village believed that in the decaying and shuttered headmaster’s house the Grays sheltered the younger of Mary Stuart’s deaf brothers, who had disappeared after leaving Gallaudet College in Washington and murdering—so the victim’s tombstone read—an Eastern Carolina girl who refused him her hand. Then one night in 1930 all the Grays left town in a curtained tourist car and headed for California. Mrs. Gray’s 1933 obituary in the Greensboro Daily News said she had died in Hollywood at 65, survived by six children and her husband, Colonel Gray.


A dozen years ago, at a meeting of the American Society of Newspaper Editors in Washington, I chatted pleasantly with Barry Bingham of our Mebane backgrounds. But when I asked him what became of his Gray cousins, he abruptly turned away.

Miss Brenner writes that Barry dealt with all conflict and tragedy that way. He professed not to have been aware at the time of the scandal of Mary Lily’s death, although newspapers had a field day with it. Denial was his armor and his habit. At an early point in House of Dreams, outlining what will follow, the author tells us:

The family knew there were powerful taboos where Barry Senior was concerned, that you never brought up his mother’s death or the threat of murder charges against the old Judge. What’s more, his own children had never seen him cry, not even on the two worst days of his life: the first, in March 1964, when his twenty-one-year-old son, Jonathan, had climbed a utility pole and was electrocuted, and then two years later, in July 1966, when his oldest son, thirty-two-year-old Worth, the star of the family, was killed in another freak accident while vacationing in Nantucket with his wife, Joan, and their two young children. The death of two sons within two years, and from Barry Senior not a tear that anyone except perhaps Mary and one intimate friend ever saw. And so, as an old man standing at his library window, having buried two sons without breaking down, Barry Senior was not going to indulge in a pathetic display just because his family was breaking up, the murder allegations about the old Judge were about to be dredged up again and his communications empire was being turned over to strangers. As Mary wept about her children and wondered if they would appear at her funeral, he turned to her and said with only the slightest tremor, “My heavens, the tulips are always so lovely at Derby time.”

Jonathan Bingham, like Nathan Landau in William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice, believed he had medical insights. He dropped out of Harvard, where he had experimented with LSD. The other two sons graduated there. The middle one, Barry Jr., would have grown tea in Africa if allowed to go his way, but was groomed to take over the Bingham television station. Worth, after overcoming a youthful fondness for the bottle, began seriously to prepare himself to run the newspaper and clearly had the ability to succeed.

When Worth perished, Barry Jr. was chosen by his father to head the empire. Everybody else in the newspaper industry believed the boy was being pushed over his head. Lacking imagination and drive, he concentrated on enforcing a notion of ethics that mocked the First Amendment’s breadth.

But it was his sister Sallie—Radcliffe-trained, fortyish, and angry—who threw the bullhorn into the presses. Coming home from New York with the wreckage of two marriages, a stalled fiction-writing career, a zeal for feminism, and doubts about Barry Jr., she demanded a part in the family action. Her father put her on the board of directors, along with her younger sister Eleanor, who too had returned to Louisville, having flopped in sundry colleges, turned flower child, and engaged in filmmaking here and there, including New York.

Barry Bingham of all people should have known better. The old Judge on placing the Courier-Journal in his hands all those years ago, before Barry was 30, was careful to protect him from any interference by his brother Robert or sister Henrietta, both alcoholics who never hit a lick of work in their lives.

At last realizing that she could not budge Barry Jr. from his authority or methods, Sallie demanded that the paper buy her stock. Barry Jr. wouldn’t meet her $32 million price, although a consultant advised it was bearable. Eleanor badgered Barry Jr. for the TV station’s management. At length the father, without criticizing anybody or explaining anything, stepped in and sold the kit-and-caboodle. Although Sallie wound up with more money than she had asked for, she stayed mad at everybody, including her parents. Barry Jr. turned bitter.

As that wasn’t the first family ruckus to lead to a newspaper sale, it won’t be the last. It wasn’t much worse than the Bingham school hassle. Surely, though, it has become singular for the public spectacle that the Binghams have made of their row—the Barry Binghams of Louisville now, always before so proper, so glamorous, so imperial, so way-up-there. Mary and Barry appeared actually to delight in the exposure of their personal lives, which they aided and abetted by welcoming to their door every caller bearing a notepad or camera and especially by steering Miss Brenner to the collection of their letters, their very intimate and revealing correspondence during a long and blissful marriage interrupted by extended separations demanded by duty and aspiration, which Mary had given to the Radcliffe library. Oh, well. If Binghams have enjoyed the revelations, House of Dreams is a nice invitation for the rest of us to join the party.


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