When author and historian Emily Bingham was growing up, her family didn’t talk about her great aunt Henrietta. The only connection Emily had to the mysterious sister of her grandfather, Barry Bingham Sr., was a photograph of her barn that hung on the wall in her house.
“It was just a picture of a barn, you know,” Bingham said. “That was it.” Bingham never saw the barn in person, never went to Harmony Landing, the farm where it stood, which Henrietta started and later sold, and which is now the subdivision of the same name.
It was only after naming her daughter after her great aunt — because she and her husband liked the unconventional name — that Emily Bingham began to learn more about the elusive Henrietta. Her father, Barry Bingham Jr., first bristled at the tribute, telling his daughter her great aunt was an oddity and an embarrassment to the family. But he also gave Emily a direct link to Henrietta’s past, telling her shortly before he died in 2006 of a trunk Henrietta had left that was in the attic of the family’s Melcombe estate in Louisville.
Nearly 10 years later, “Irrepressible,” Emily Bingham’s new book, gives life to the ethereal Henrietta, based in part on the discoveries of that trunk. It is a full measure of a person who had for decades remained obscured even to those in her orbit. The book chronicles Henrietta’s self-discovery during the Jazz Age, when she captivated artists and writers with her powerful gaze, keen social intellect, and overt sexuality. She left a trail of relationships and lovers, mostly women. At the urging of an early partner, the writer Mina Kirstein, who also taught Henrietta at Smith College, she tried psychoanalysis, becoming close to her analyst, the famous Ernest Jones, even as he tried to “convert” her to heterosexuality. She taught herself saxophone and immersed herself in early blues and jazz. She drank and partied as young bohemians did in the Roaring Twenties, leaving an imprint on most she encountered.
And yet she remained part of an aristocratic family, experiencing the world with the benefit of a generous allowance and the expectations that came with it. As Bingham reveals in her book, Henrietta had a complex and deeply codependent relationship with her father, Judge Robert Worth Bingham, one that animated the central conflict in her life: Whether to break free and live openly in a place where being gay was more accepted, or to take her place in the Bingham succession — which meant eventually running The Courier-Journal, among other family businesses — and make a home in Louisville.
“Irrepressible” is extraordinary as a historical document, the product of meticulous research rendered with vivid detail. It is also a candid view of a woman who could have reshaped the American media landscape. Whether her choice not to represents failure or the triumph of a life lived with intent is among the most complex in a series of difficult questions Bingham addresses throughout, giving “Irrepressible” depth and richness, and bringing power to its careful insights.
The following is a transcript of IL’s recent conversation with Emily Bingham. It has been edited for length and clarity. The author will read from and discuss “Irrepressible” on Thursday, June 18, at 7 p.m. at Carmichael’s Bookstore, 2720 Frankfort Ave.
IL: A lot of reviews of the book so far have focused on Henrietta during the Jazz Age — what that meant to her, this fun, adventurous time of self-discovery. But this is a really tragic book. What were your expectations going in, and where did you end up when you’d finished the book?
Emily Bingham: I really didn’t know I could even write anything about her for publication until I read one line in Mina Kirstein’s papers, and it said something like “with her brilliant judgment, the only person I would ever submit to for advice, aside from maybe my father” (was Henrietta). And how she could carve out judgments in a way that was so extraordinary — that she had a mind. That really helped, because that was not the picture I had, and coming from this professor who was so literary and so into intellectual life, it was clear that Henrietta’s capacity intellectually had been totally tossed aside.
So the way I first conceived it was an adventure of these two women. I was like, “Well, they were in love, but it had to end.” I could maybe capture just that. That gave it a legitimacy, something to hang her onto. But I didn’t have that much about her later life. I had a few family stories.
As I did more research and found out much more about Henrietta and the course she took through the ’30s and into the ’40s, I realized I could do her alone. But that really sad part, starting in World War II and getting worse through the two decades after, that I didn’t have documentation for until later. My father had kept — there were some letters that were in the Filson (Historical Society) that I came across that were the correspondence with the physicians who were caring for her in New York, correspondence my grandfather had. And there was attached to that correspondence a letter from my grandmother to my father saying, “Should I keep these? I don’t know. These are really pretty intense.” And my father writing back — this was all copied in the file — “Yes, I would put a hold on them. But I think it’s OK, and maybe someday these will be helpful to somebody.” And so that’s the kind of beautiful thing you see when you’re doing family history — of a family even wrangling with its own memory.
It was getting the other people’s letters — which ironically is the name of Mina Kirstein’s memoir — Henrietta isn’t really so much in that, because of course Mina excised her. But she is written through other people’s letters. So it was the hunt. What I found at home was great, but those were letters to her. To write the whole thing without Henrietta’s voice — that was the crazy thing.
IL: How difficult did you find it to write about your own family?
EB: Once I even thought I wanted to do it, I had already overcome like 10 years of thinking I’d never do it. I just swore up and down — it’s a good lesson that you never say never — but I swore up and down since the age of 21, when the companies were sold, that I would never write about my family. I did break that about six years ago, I did an essay in Newsweek that was about my dad and his perceptive, incredibly right awareness of the digital revolution that was going to hit media, and how no one listened to him, including me, in the ’80s.
That probably helped me overcome and see that there can be a positive (outcome). I didn’t want to write about it because of all that had happened. But it’s sort of like any job: It’s good to sometimes meet your discomfort. When I finally did decide to try to look at Henrietta, it felt — and this may have been just me convincing myself — it felt like I was doing something so different from the rest of the family story. It felt like she wasn’t part of that story to me.
IL: Or to anyone else.
EB: Yeah, she was this outsider, she was an outlier, she was outside of the succession, all of that. And what was really weird and surprising to me, ironically, she wasn’t outside of it. If you read the first section of the book, she’s directly in the line of succession, and that was a stunner to me. And then the relationship that I found between her and her father, my great-grandfather, who I of course never knew, made her a big part of the larger family story.
IL: That was the central conflict for her, to express herself and explore who she is in a place where it’s safe to do that, but she felt this incredible loyalty and connection to her father and to the family.
EB: And there was no solution to that.
IL: She tried to reconcile it. The closest she got was going to Harmony Landing (where Henrietta lived with Helen Jacobs, the tennis star and her partner for many years).
EB: The first few years there probably were the closest she got. And even the few years in the Embassy (Judge Bingham was British ambassador from 1933 until he died in 1937), except I think that was still really tricky to live under his roof. But Harmony Landing was the dream, and I think the name and everything just beautifully aligns on that.
IL: But she couldn’t sustain it.
EB: It was unsustainable, and was it unsustainable because he was gone? Or was it unsustainable because of the social and cultural milieu she was trying to exist in? That poignant place where Helen says, “When I went to the hardware store in La Grange, I felt queer.” And her having to rent a house to live in one summer in Oldham County to be near Henrietta but not with Henrietta. All of that I think began to feel really sad. And the war itself had a huge role in the downfall of that dream. Economically, huge. And then just the isolation it forced on her.
IL: It’s hard to imagine now what the effect of a war like that would be.
EB: We can’t imagine it. So much energy of everyone was on that war. If you weren’t helping, you weren’t involved, you were just — if you had the means to help and you weren’t, I think it felt really uncomfortable.
IL: You write about Henrietta’s ability to attract people and to bring people pleasure as being central to her identity. Do you think anybody in her family understood that as her contribution?
EB: I think her father understood it for sure, and I think he saw it as part of her potential and what made her not just so alluring to him, but to have almost a leadership potential. Beyond the sexuality part, just her presence, she knew how to make people have fun, make people be interested, make people pay attention. So I think there’s that ability that was clear. She was captain on her sports teams — she had some of that even as a girl. I just don’t think anyone in my father’s generation got that feeling of her. I think everything was so clouded with the view of her as someone who’d squandered.
IL: It would be very frustrating to be with someone who you felt brought out your most passionate self or your most interesting self, and then to have that end — you’re never going to get back to that.
EB: Yes, to be somehow dropped after that. That’s one reason I think there aren’t more of her letters around. I guess at this, but I think there was the shame about homosexuality and having to be sensitive about that, and then there was her addictions and being sensitive around that. But I think there was also just plain-old “I’ve got to get this woman out of my life,” because it was too painful when it ended.
IL: You documented that process thoroughly. It would end, and then these people would excise her from their lives, probably out of self-preservation.
EB: I think so. One of the things that is so rare in written history, to be able to even sort of convey the different ways people affect others. So it’s not simply by teaching them or being a leader or writing the great book. Actually, we really can affect each other at a physical and emotional level, and she physically and emotionally did that with her body and with her mind — not with a production that she did. That is a power that is just so hard to inscribe on the page of history; it’s usually gone.
IL: Did you feel a lot of pressure trying to conjure her?
EB: It was hard. It was going to be hard. It was a hard sell, to sell somebody that no one had ever heard of. How do you be convincing that she’s worth somebody spending whatever hours reading about, and that was just a huge challenge, period. I wasn’t sure how it was going to be able to work. I just went at it and kept going at it.
IL: You didn’t allow yourself to think too much about what she would think?
EB: I didn’t too much. When I found those letters in the trunk, I was like, “OK girl, you left something there for somebody. You were leaving a signal.” And she didn’t leave much else. Maybe she forgot — I don’t know. But you don’t easily forget love letters. That told me — I’d already started well into the process of research by that point, and I was just sort of dogging after her — but that told me she really would be OK. And that she only felt safe to leave those letters, even at a time when she had had affairs in the interim … that kinda felt like a bit of a permission slip, if you will.
IL: I saw parallels between Mina and Henrietta’s father. They’re motivated by similar things. They’re prideful and react negatively to shame or embarrassment. I’m wondering if you saw the same.
EB: I think it might’ve seemed at first that Mina was more a maternal figure, and certainly Mina liked to think of herself as a maternal figure with her students. But in reality, she was such a hardass — she was so hard on herself, and she was extremely hard on others.
IL: Her entire lifetime, she was hard on Henrietta. She continued to pummel her.
EB: And I think that comes from her own uncomfortableness, which is parallel to the discomfort and striving that Judge Bingham was working with as well. He was trying to overcome this early sense of being poor and an outsider, and never powerful enough. And Mina, with the anti-Semitism that she was so highly conscious of, and her own ambition intellectually, she was really insecure.
IL: Henrietta’s relationship with your grandfather (Barry Bingham Sr.) takes a really dramatic turn. I wonder what you think happened?
EB: They were so close, and they were clearly delighted in each other. I have to say, I think it was the marriage and the influence of Mary, who I was very close to and really, really, really loved, but who was a much more clear-eyed and ambitious person than my grandfather.
I heard that in my own interview with her. I did this oral history with her when I was in grad school just because she was so interesting, and she was in her late 80s, and it just seemed like a smart thing to do. And I’m really glad I did because, not only did I use it for this project, but it gave me an understanding of where she was coming from and the force she had on the family that has helped me all along, ever since. She wouldn’t talk about specifically that relationship so much, just that she was uncomfortable with the relationship. And I know how powerful she was. It’s not exactly two-plus-two, but it’s pretty close.
IL: Do you think Henrietta was trying to, for much of her later adult life, get back to that early to mid-1920s place where she was? Or do you think she was trying to find some kind of other life, a place where she could be happy and be authentically herself and maybe not have that kind of constantly-on lifestyle?
EB: I would love to ask her that question. My sense is that, like Mina, she had a deep instinct to home. And that she made the best stab to date in Long Crendon, the country retreat she and Helen shared. I’ve heard from people who went to Harmony Landing — and unfortunately I don’t have images of it — that her home was beautiful and she loved it. Even Mary credits her with these beautiful dinners. Having people at her home clearly made her glad. She had guests all the time there, John Houseman among them, and all these tennis stars were coming through. I do think she had a gift for home, and she wasn’t just seeking the limelight.
Whether she could’ve ever settled with one person, I just don’t know. She clearly tried it with Helen (Jacobs), and it lasted a long time. I don’t know if the war and the medications is what killed it, or if she was just too restless — even by her forties. She was with the same person for the last 15, 20 years of her life, Virginia. I just don’t know very much about her. It’s really hard to get anything on that person.
IL: How much do you think being in Louisville played a role in that?
EB: There are people who actually look back at this period and say it was free, or people just accepted people like Henrietta, that they didn’t talk about it but they were allowed to be who they were and everyone sort of knew. I believe that there were people who felt that way, who understood it and saw it and didn’t talk about it and were protective. But I think that’s a deep misunderstanding of what it would feel like to an actual human being in her shoes.
We’ve gone so far to the other extreme in 2015, where we’re all supposed to be declared — what we are — and we need to make sure we don’t get our rights trampled on. But we’re so almost obsessively talking about sexuality that — you know, there are other things we do in life. We do think and go to work and have families.
I do think Kentucky was toxic to her, and I really wish it hadn’t been, and I’m sure she did, too. She kept poking at it — by kissing girls in elevators at the Pendennis Club or the country club shows that she was really angry at some level at it, and felt empowered enough to stick her finger in the eye, which of course hardly anyone else could do. It would be so dangerous. I’m proud that she made people realize that she had this kind of orientation, I’m proud of her for that. But ultimately I think it was a really unsustainable place.
IL: It’s folly to mistake quiet tolerance for openness. Compared with what she was living in London or New York City, this was probably a pretty far cry.
EB: I really think so. And even in those places, you still had to be aware that you could only go so far.
IL: How much do you think your father was actually exposed to Henrietta as herself?
EB: I don’t think he was. I think he saw her as this problem, which is how his parents experienced her by the ’50s. She was just a problem. She was embarrassing. There’s one story, I think I cut it (from the book), where he was in New York working for NBC, and he took her to dinner one night because he was trying to be dutiful. And they ate out at a nice restaurant, and the check came and he was like 24, or 25, or 26, and he expects her to pay, because he was on a budget and wasn’t being paid very much. She was expecting him to pay, and he didn’t have any money. He was mortified. He was unmanned. It was embarrassing, obviously because he had disappointed her, but it was way more embarrassing that they couldn’t pay the bill. It really affected him. She did that kind of thing — I heard other stories about her doing that kind of thing.
IL: Do you think she was resentful in some ways because she had been excised (from the family businesses and much of the family’s fortune)?
EB: She really didn’t get that much money — at all. You look at what that trust did for her, it was not “no money,” but compared to what she had been (getting), the way her father had treated her, it was a huge blow. And it pretty much ensured that she was going to either be dependent or live a meager life. My grandmother — or maybe Eleanor or Sallie — talked about how my grandfather would buy dresses from the Sears catalog and send them to her. That’s just really depressing for her. She loved beautiful things. She valued that, and she’d grown up to expect it, and she’d been really spoiled. And so she wasn’t spoiled anymore.
And then when she tried to maintain that dignity, it was only through getting handouts from (Barry Sr.) and asking for special distributions and things like that. Every time she had to do that, it was another humiliation. I think it was deeply humiliating for her.
IL: Was this process enlightening for you in understanding the way women were treated in your family? You’ve said your grandmother (Mary) was the one who was in control, and Judge Bingham has Henrietta in the succession, which would’ve been revolutionary.
EB: Revolutionary. It would’ve been incredible. Imagine Kay Graham 50 years before. There are so many ways of looking at this. My grandmother’s power was something she did not hesitate to use, but she was very careful to cloak it, and to instruct her offspring daughters to cloak it in gentility and femininity. That doesn’t mean her mind worked that way. But Henrietta didn’t play that game. She was not going to try to be feminine and pretty. More power to her. You work with what you can, and I don’t begrudge the women who have had to navigate a very sexist environment, and that’s what they were. And she wanted, I think, for her daughters to be able to navigate a very sexist environment. She couldn’t see it any other way. So you didn’t want to be lesbians and you didn’t want to be a powerless female. So you had to be a really smart woman cloaked in the garb of a charming woman who just wants to make your husband happy.
IL: Do you think Henrietta would want this story out?
EB: I do, I really do. I probably could talk myself into that (laughs). I just do. First of all, she loved celebration. And I think this is a moment where this book can be part of a celebration of where we are as a culture. I firmly believe that. She would’ve loved the ability to celebrate this freedom that people have more of today. I think she cared about social justice, she cared about racial justice, she cared about people being treated with dignity. And so I think this fits into that for her. I think it would be a happy, happy time.
IL: Do you think she found peace?
EB: No. Anyone who is taking drugs to wake up and drugs to go to sleep is not at peace in my mind. So I’m afraid she didn’t. I’m going to go to her grave tomorrow. I go there pretty often, and it is pretty emotional for me. I think if someone can be given another chance, both at life and at an end, closing the book and seeing the whole arc of her life in this way that one can now is a kind of peace, I hope. I don’t think she found it in her life. It was a real struggle.