Henrietta Bingham’s Jazz Age Life


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Sonny Figueroa/The New York Times

Tall, dark-haired and violet-eyed, with a magnetic presence and seductive voice, Henrietta Worth Bingham bewitched scores of men and women (mostly women) in the 1920s and ’30s in London; New York; Louisville, Ky., Northampton, Mass.; and anywhere else she alighted.

In her heyday, according to her biographer (and great-niece), the historian Emily Bingham, Henrietta was “a lady killer and a heartbreaker.”

The daughter of Robert Worth Bingham, a Kentucky newspaper publisher and politician, and Eleanor Miller Bingham, Henrietta cut a swath through some of the most compelling actresses, athletes, writers and artists of her generation.

Her lover Dora Carrington, the mop-topped Bloomsbury-set artist, drew a portrait of her nude and in high heels. Henrietta’s putative fiancé, Stephen Tomlin, the bisexual Bloomsbury sculptor, wrote that receiving any letter from her “let loose the dogs of longing at my vitals.”

Another suitor, the film producer John Houseman, to whom she was engaged for a year, wrote to her: “you spoil the world for anyone who has been intimate with you. You are far too exciting.”

Emily Bingham’s new biography “Irrepressible: The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), due out later this month, resurrects the life and legend of her ancestor, a woman who was too hot to handle not only in her own times, but for a half-century after.

In Ms. Bingham’s telling, Henrietta, who was born in 1901 and died in 1968, “caught the wave” of a rare moment of tolerance for homosexuality and “unconventional desires” in the 1920s.

When that wave receded, she was stranded and exposed, scorched by rays of condemnatory public scrutiny and abandoned by those whose hearts she had singed. Soon, within the family, her name almost stopped being mentioned.

A decade ago, after pressing her father, Barry Bingham Jr., for information about her mysterious forebear, Emily Bingham ventured at his suggestion into the attic above her childhood bedroom at Melcombe, the family’s estate in Louisville. There she came upon a trunk of Henrietta’s, where she found a lode of love letters.

“As I read them, I thought, ‘O.K., I had a perfectly O.K. romantic experience in my 20s, but nobody was writing me letters like that,’ ” said Ms. Bingham, 50. The letters showed her that, despite her family’s reticence, “some people couldn’t resist talking about Henrietta. The fact that they were that smitten told another story.”

Ms. Bingham explained that, long before she came upon the trunk, an earlier incident had whetted her interest in her great-aunt. In 1998 in Louisville, upon the birth of her first child, Ms. Bingham decided to name her daughter Henrietta because it was a family name with Victorian charm and a “strong-sounding” aura.

“The only thing I knew about Henrietta, growing up, was that she was a terrific rider” who had gone fox hunting in England, she recalled. But when her father came to the hospital, he exclaimed, “How can you burden her with this name?”

It was only then that ugly and sad stories about Henrietta began to emerge: of toxic family dynamics, lesbian love affairs, addiction, depression, reckless caprice and self-destruction. Undaunted and intrigued, Ms. Bingham stuck with her choice, and started asking Louisvilleans about the secret history of her daughter’s namesake.

Early on, a society woman told her of an incident from the 1920s, when Henrietta made a pass at a debutante in the powder room at the Louisville Country Club. Ms. Bingham writes, “The girl tore out of the bathroom and leaned over the grand staircase and shouted, ‘Henrietta Bingham just kissed me on the lips!’ ” Ms. Bingham laughed, retelling the story.

“The vicious gossip was 80 years old at this point,” the author said, “and that’s when I thought, ‘Oh, my God, people are actually remembering their parents’ gossip about her.’ ”

But some of the gossip was admiring. “People started coming out of the woodwork, mostly in a positive way,” she said. “They would say, ‘I am so glad to share with you my Henrietta stuff.’ ”

Getting her hands on her own stuff in the Melcombe attic allowed Ms. Bingham to move her research beyond hearsay. The billets-doux helped, but they included correspondence only from Mr. Tomlin and Mr. Houseman. “Being from men, they were safe to keep,” she wrote.

Eventually Ms. Bingham learned that not a single letter from Henrietta survived in the archives of her first serious love, Mina Kirstein Curtiss (who taught Henrietta freshman composition at Smith College in 1922), or of Mr. Houseman.

An unexpected lead on her great-aunt’s private life came in the form of a tennis outfit that lay atop the letters. Monogrammed HHJ, it belonged to Helen Hull Jacobs, the tennis pro who, as far as Ms. Bingham knew, had merely been her aunt’s friend, not her lover.

Ms. Bingham shipped it off to the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, R.I. An archivist there sent her a note that read: “Thank you for sending me Helen’s famous shorts, that will go nicely with our collection of Helen Jacobs material.”

“Up I went to Newport,” Ms. Bingham said. At the Hall of Fame she found multiple diaries, the “little kind you had when you were a kid, with a wraparound lock, tiny little keys would open them.”

But there were no keys, and the first archivist Ms. Bingham met did not have the authority to permit her to jimmy the locks. Ducking into a drugstore, she picked up “some bobby pins and a nail file.”

Fortunately, another archivist consulted a locksmith, and the long-buried love affair at last came into the open.

From there, Ms. Bingham picked up the paper trail. She tracked down accounts of Henrietta’s psychotherapy treatment in London (Ms. Curtiss, who did not consider herself a lesbian, insisted that Henrietta pursue a “cure” for her homosexuality), and rounded up newspaper articles, oral and written histories and family records to reconstruct Henrietta’s amorous trajectory.

She also investigated the tragedy that scarred the family in 1913, when Henrietta was 12: the car crash that killed her mother. The loss, she suggests, moved Henrietta and her father to place excessive emotional dependence on each other.

Though he never approved of his daughter’s unorthodox lifestyle, Robert Bingham accepted it on some level and created a zone of freedom for her and her lady loves. He indulged her relationships with the actresses Beatrix Lehmann and Hope Williams; in 1933, when he moved to London as the United States ambassador, he invited his daughter’s girlfriend, Ms. Jacobs, to live in the ambassadorial residence. In 1934, he rented the couple a luxurious retreat in the British countryside, and in Kentucky he bought them a house, Harmony Landing.

But in 1937, with World War II brewing and permissive social codes evaporating, Mr. Bingham died. Henrietta lost his protection and the funds he had lavished on her.

She flamed out, succumbing to drug and alcohol abuse. Ashamed of her decline, her family raked the ashes under the rug, where they stayed for decades.

With her book, Emily Bingham said she meant to kindle the phoenix back to life.

“Henrietta has now become a member of my family in a way she never was before,” she said. “She was brave, and flawed, and spectacular.”

Correction: June 8, 2015

An earlier version of this article misspelled the middle name of Henrietta Bingham’s first love. She is Mina Kirstein Curtiss, not Mina Kerstein Curtiss.



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