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    Whispered stories about her great-aunt Henrietta always fascinated writer and historian Emily Bingham, daughter of the late Courier-Journal publisher/editor Barry Bingham Jr. She didn’t realize she needed to tell Henrietta’s story until she ventured into the vast attic at the longtime Bingham family estate (called Melcombe, in Glenview) and discovered a dusty steamer trunk containing nearly 200 love letters to Henrietta, who died in 1968. Though her editor was initially skeptical because Bingham didn’t have any actual letters or diaries from Henrietta, an archival find in the personal papers of Henrietta’s psychoanalyst revealed details of a complex and charismatic personality. 

    Irrepressible: The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham is the intimate story of a life, a family and a turbulent period of cultural and political change. “Historians have documented the enforced silences surrounding the lives of men and women whose non-heterosexual behavior and relationships exposed them to censure and sometimes criminal prosecution, and I believe this helps explain Henrietta’s decision to keep almost none of the thousands of letters she received,” says Bingham, 50, who lives in Louisville with her husband, Stephen Reily, and their three children. “When I discovered two packets of correspondence in the bottom of the steamer trunk, it was a tremendous boon — but they were from the two men she almost married in her 20s. So far, I’ve found only one surviving letter from a female lover.” 

    Bingham, who recently has been exploring the cultural and historical legacy of the Stephen Foster song “My Old Kentucky Home,” says, “I expect more stories about Henrietta will come to light once this book is before the public. This is Henrietta’s chance at a second act.

    “I hope her story prompts readers to think — and ask — about people in their own families who are called odd or eccentric or are simply not discussed.”

    At what point did you realize Henrietta was more than the “mess” and “embarrassment” your father described? 

    “Henrietta started tapping me on my shoulder from the time my daughter was born — we named her for her great-great-aunt — and as word got around about this new Henrietta, who came along 30 years after the death of the earlier one, people came to me with stories I’d never heard and tokens I began calling ‘Henriettiana.’ It was intriguing, but for almost a decade I brushed aside any idea of pursuing her as a subject; in my 20s I had decided that far too much had been written about the Binghams of Louisville. Moreover, my family’s vague portrait of her as not really serious, as a problematic lightweight, was hard to dispel. 

    “I changed my mind after receiving a grant to visit the archives at Smith College, her alma mater. I went through the papers of Henrietta’s freshman English professor and lover, Mina Kirstein Curtiss. Tucked in the back of an old diary was an out-of-sequence entry from 1924 in which Kirstein wrote, ‘The keenness and directness of [Henrietta’s] mind carve out infallible opinions. By her alone could any of my decisions be influenced.’ Soon after that, I put together a book proposal.”

    Henrietta might just be the most famous Jazz Age personality we’ve never heard of. 

    “Henrietta, who was born in 1901, knew and deeply loved black music, and she came of age with this great American movement, but her quality of being everywhere and with everyone was a complete surprise to me. As I learned more about her, I recognized the Zelig quality to her life. She rubbed shoulders — and sometimes much more! — with early jazz giants like Will Vodery, James P. Johnson and Florence Mills. There were steamy and wildly popular actresses like her contemporary and fellow Southerner, Tallulah Bankhead; bisexual ‘Bloomsberries’ in London like Duncan Grant and Dora Carrington, who became utterly obsessed with this ‘Kentucky princess’; and the young John Houseman, who wanted to be a writer and first saw Henrietta dressed in purple playing a saxophone on top of a piano at a mixed-race party in London in 1923.

    “Houseman — who worked with Orson Welles through the 1930s and won an Oscar for his role in the film The Paper Chase — caught up with her in Manhattan two years later. She toured him around the theaters and clubs and railroad flats where the Harlem renaissance was exploding. He never forgot driving north from her apartment near Washington Square with her body emanating erotic energy and her enormous silver flask, which I still have, lying on the seat between them. With her hands on the wheel they covered 13 blocks before hitting a stoplight.” 

    What’s a discovery about Henrietta that surprised you? 

    “She accompanied her father, Robert Worth Bingham, to London in 1933 after his appointment as ambassador to Great Britain. He contributed heavily to Franklin Roosevelt’s election and was a lifelong Anglophile, so the post was an ideal capstone to his career. The relationship between Henrietta and her father proved much more complex than I ever imagined, but a very unexpected twist came during this period at the embassy.

    “The ambassador offered shelter to the American tennis champion Helen Hull Jacobs, and, in doing so, provided tacit social protection for the two women’s affair. There was no question of speaking openly about this lesbian relationship, but by having Jacobs living with the Binghams at the embassy, and also sharing the house they rented in the countryside, the ambassador provided a platform for what Jacobs called ‘a joyous and satisfying life.’”

    There’s an interesting mental-health thread throughout Irrepressible. Henrietta begins psychoanalysis while in London with Ernest Jones, Freud’s most significant ambassador to the English-speaking world. Her treatment later in her life includes a devastating regimen of medications and electroshock therapy. A lobotomy was repeatedly recommended, though she never underwent one. 

    “Medicine in general, and psychiatric medicine in particular, underwent enormous changes during Henrietta’s lifetime. Her Smith professor believed she was doing her student a great service by placing her in the care of an important Freudian practitioner. It is impossible to recapture what was said in those many sessions with Dr. Jones, but he clearly expressed his plan to lead her ‘from women to men,’ the same impulse that sadly leads to the ‘conversion therapies’ so much in the news of late. The introduction of prescription medications to her fragile mental state did far more harm than good, and her family’s understandable wish for a solution to her breakdowns pointed them to what would now be considered inhumane therapies.” 

    As a work of history, what does Henrietta’s story have to tell us about ourselves? 

    “I did not set out to write about sexuality, but a story buried in my family launched me onto a journey about the complexity of human sexual experience and the many ways love can course through us. One of the aspects of her life I find intriguing is how Henrietta cannot be pinned down absolutely — she loved women; she had deep connections with men. Her fluidity, along with her privilege, likely shielded her from the worst censure early-20th-century homophobia could deal out, yet the word was that when she returned to Kentucky in the late 1930s, the Jefferson County police made it clear that she was not welcome, and she ended up in Oldham County. I will always wonder how her life would have unfolded if she had lived a hundred years later and were 14 today.”

    An excerpt from Irrepressible:

    “One evening in the powder room at the Louisville Country Club, Henrietta made a pass at a fetching debutante. The girl tore out of the bathroom and leaned over the grand staircase and shouted, ‘Henrietta Bingham just kissed me on the lips!’ Such an exclamation was not forgotten easily, and such behavior (which would scarcely cause a stir in London’s Bloombsury area) could not be overlooked in Louisville.”

    Excerpted from Irrepressible: The Jazz Life of Henrietta Bingham, by Emily Bingham, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2015 by Emily Bingham. All rights reserved.


    This article is courtesy of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazine, click here.

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