Emily Bingham begins the biography of her outrageous great-aunt by explaining, “The surest way to make a child curious about an ancestor is never to discuss her.” Born in 1901 into the powerful Louisville family that owned the Courier-Journal, Henrietta Bingham rejected the genteel life of a Southern belle and embraced the new century’s wild and crazy possibilities, spending her twenties and thirties “ripping through the Jazz Age like a character in an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel.”
Her great-niece found this “charming, tantalizing, maddening, and self-destructive force” an irresistible subject, and embarked upon serious biographical research when she discovered two steamer trunks of memorabilia and love letters tucked away in a Bingham attic. Carefully wrapped in ribbon, the love letters were from a remarkable array of 20th-century figures, exactly the fodder Emily Bingham needed to undertake an exploration of Henrietta Bingham’s “irrepressible” life.
A post-suffrage blithe spirit, Henrietta gleefully embraced Cole Porter’s idea that “Anything Goes.” She also had the money to pursue her ever-changing passions on both sides of the Atlantic. She was part of the Bloomsbury Group and had love affairs with several of them, including Dora Carrington and Clive Bell. In New York, she was entranced by the Harlem Renaissance and spent marathon evenings dancing, listening to jazz, and attending Broadway plays. In the mid-’20s she was often accompanied by John Houseman—at the time a struggling young English grain trader, later an iconic figure of the American stage and screen.
Houseman was overwhelmed by Henrietta, who seemed to know everyone, from jazz musicians and poets, to such theatrical stars as Katharine Cornell and Beatrice Lillie. He wrote that “we lived in a whirling state of conspicuous extravagance.” When his family business was demolished by the 1929 crash, Houseman turned to the theatrical world he had been introduced to by Henrietta. In the thirties he became especially famous for his work with Orson Welles on radio’s Mercury Theatre and then, in Hollywood, with Citizen Kane.
When they were dating, Henrietta once brought Houseman home to spend Christmas with her family—surely a sign, the Binghams whispered with relief, that she was going to settle down. Houseman felt drawn to, but daunted by, the family’s enormous wealth: “I was living a dream . . . of riches, glamour, and unlimited opportunity.” Henrietta was clearly her father’s favorite, and as such, “the heiress-apparent to so much splendor.”
What Houseman could not have known was how drastically Henrietta’s father, Robert Worth Bingham, would react to his daughter’s apparently serious intentions toward him. In 1925, her father offered her a deal: If she stayed in Louisville rather than return to New York, he would groom her to succeed him as publisher of the Courier-Journal. But Henrietta was incapable of making long-term personal or professional commitments. She seemed unable to shake the sense of impermanence fostered by an accident she experienced when she was 12, riding with her mother when their car collided with a train. Her mother was killed; Henrietta survived.
In his grief, Robert Worth Bingham came to depend on her as “the precocious companion whose reactivity roused him from grief.” He remarried—this time a Standard Oil heiress—but his dependence on Henrietta’s companionship never ceased. The father-daughter relationship “became a spinning merry-go-round . . . that sustained such a potent centrifugal force that Henrietta never stopped feeling its pull.”
Between an abiding sense of loss over her mother’s tragic death and the unrelenting pressure of her father’s “pull,” Henrietta resorted to constant movement—traveling and partying to break away. By the late 1920s she had turned away from both the Bloomsbury Group and Houseman and taken up with the tennis star Helen Jacobs. But the tide was turning against behavior that roared, and overt same-sex affairs were headlined as scandalous behavior. The 1930 Motion Picture Production Code reflected this cultural shift: Its first section announced that a movie had to depict “the correct standards of life” and traditional values. There were various prohibitions against licentious behavior, “sex perversion or any inference to it,” and “lustful kissing.” The proscription against homosexual behavior was beyond question.