Friday, September 4, 2015

Fatal Fortunes: The Flagler-Kenan-Bingham Triangle

US Ambassador to Great Britain Robert Worth Bingham, center, arrives in England with his third wife Aleen Lithgow Muldoon Hilliard Bingham, left, and his daughter Henrietta Worth Bingham, right. Before Bingham could present his credentials to King George V at St. James Palace in 1933, he faced a contentious nomination hearing held by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee where he was called Robert "Worthless" Bingham when allegations were revived of his suspected role in the death of his second wife Mary Lily Kenan Flagler Bingham. Stressed by these public reprimands, Bingham collapsed and was hospitalized at Johns Hopkins before setting sail for London. Courtesy Bingham Family Collection.
By Augustus Mayhew

Irrepressible: The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham. By Emily Bingham.
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 369 pp, $28.

A new biography Irrepressible: The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham reopens the door on Louisville's Bingham clan whose boardroom squabbles and personal feuds thirty years ago triggered the $425+ million sale of the family's media empire that resulted in banner headlines and best-selling books. Without the constraints, slants, recriminations or threats that apparently inhibited previous tell-alls, Emily Bingham's meticulous archival and literary skills, facilitated by her insider access, make for a convincing account of her great-aunt Henrietta's emotional struggles, same-sex passions and self-destructive conflicts. The website describes the book as "The hidden story of the outcast princess of one of America's most powerful families. Forbears can become fairy-tale figures, especially when they defy tradition and are spoken of only in …"

"Henrietta, variously characterized as radiant, intoxicating, selfish, and shameful, was suppressed for years. Repressed—never," Emily Bingham, Prologue. Having found only two dozen letters from the thousands Henrietta must have posted and with the " … whole Henrietta" out of her reach," Bingham set about telling her great-aunt's story from "a patchwork of interviews, correspondence, memoirs and novels, sheet music, poems, diaries, calling cards, paintings, newspaper clippings, tennis trophies, linen sheets, snapshots, and scrapbooks."

Click to order Irrepressible: The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham.
However fascinating, my original intent was to browse the book for any fresh facts on the closely guarded grassy knoll circumstances surrounding the cryptic fast-track death of Henrietta's stepmother and the nation's then wealthiest widow Mary Lily Kenan Flagler Bingham, the third Mrs. Henry Flagler and the second Mrs. Robert Worth Bingham. While I was captivated by Henrietta's highs-and-lows, the book amply details her father's kept man status, probes his short-lived richly rewarded marriage and introduces new specifics about Mary Lily's shadowy demise, arousing further suspicions about the wills and codicils that serendipitously turned over Flagler's fortune to the North Carolina Kenans and Kentucky Binghams. About her great-grandfather, Emily Bingham tells us, "Roosevelt himself gleefully called his ambassador 'my favorite murderer,' though presumably ne
ver to his face."

Set amid Louisville's country club conformists, London's laissez-faire aesthetes and New York's bold-faced culturati, the Bingham family's latest cobwebs are a compelling page-turner. Henrietta's various milestones and escapades, as well as their consequences, have been carefully researched, whether a Smith College affair with Mina Kirstein, romantic interludes with Stephen Tomlin and John Houseman, or her participation in the London lesbian laboratory operated by Freudian-influenced psychoanalyst Ernest Jones that sought to cure her "psychoneurosis" attraction for skirts and lipstick by reinforcing her dormant heterosexual sentiments. The crippling emotional wounds the pubescent Henrietta must have suffered having witnessed and survived the horrific crash that killed her mother were compounded several years later when her father's alleged involvement in Mary Lilly's surreptitious death left lingering doubts about his candor and scruples.
Henrietta Bingham's photo from her court presentation to King George V, 1933. Courtesy Bingham Family Collection.
Despite these lifelong traumas, Miss Bingham's charismatic allure and carefree air enhanced her father's diplomatic stature at the US ambassador's UK embassy soirees even while she carried on a front-door affair with tennis great Helen Hull Jacobs. Rather than stay focused on a career, for much of her life Henrietta yielded to her impulses for self-gratification with romantic entanglements, midnight-to-dawn dance clubs and weekend house parties never thinking she might ever crack up, or worse, run out of money.
Dubbed "Miss America" by the London papers, Henrietta Bingham was photographed getting directions from a bobby. Courtesy Bingham Family Collection.
Tennis great Helen Hull Jacobs, Alice Walker, and Henrietta Bingham at Madge's, Long Crendon, Buckinghamshire. Bingham and Jacobs' affair that began in 1934 was Henrietta's most sustained relationship. Courtesy Bingham Family Collection.
Following her father's death in 1937 (Hodgkin's disease, syphilis, or ?) Henrietta was left with a horse farm, a quail hunting plantation and limited resources. "In the late 1930s, the world turned crueler toward Helen and Henrietta's kind …," writes Bingham. Having opted out of a stake in the family's newspaper enterprise but seized by a full share of the "Bingham Curse," Henrietta's drinking sprees and drug binges made each successive recovery less likely and intervention more problematic. At one point, a frontal lobotomy was considered as a viable treatment. Emily Bingham surmises, "Henrietta used alcohol and drugs to numb herself against the judgments and disapprovals. Henrietta's sexuality was largely seen as the cause of her addictions — for the more than a dozen breakdowns and at least half dozen hospitalizations between 1940 and the late 1960s."
Henrietta Bingham photographed for a portrait during the 1930s. Courtesy Bingham Family Collection.
Whether fox hunting in the English countryside or behind the wheel of a tractor on her Kentucky farm, Henrietta Bingham's life was a balancing act between seemingly irreconcilable extremes. Courtesy Bingham Family Collection.
Today, Henrietta's manly fashion sense and same-sex preferences would hardly amount to a shocking exposé even for a family as genteel and socially correct as the Binghams. Her benders would be embraced by like-minded step-program members and managed by supportive residential treatment centers rather than electro-shock treatments. At one point, her family considered a frontal lobotomy. "Alcohol abuse and the drugs prescribed by quacks, as well as by doctors sincerely trying to help her, made things much, much worse," writes Emily Bingham. However distant and indifferent Henrietta might have felt about her stepmother Mary Lily's misfortune, they both shared the same powerlessness that consumed many women of their eras when faced with iatrogenic treatments and therapies. A fate similar to the lot faced by Henry Flagler's second wife Ida Alice Flagler who was judged insane and institutionalized, silenced for a lifetime as an empty-headed scatterbrained lunatic. History would like us to believe that Henrietta Bingham, Mary Lily Kenan Flagler Bingham and Ida Alice Flagler were doomed by their own fatal flaws. Could Mary Lily really have been as much a drunk as Alice was crazy?

A woman's place, 1901

At the time of Alice Flagler's public hearings that determined her sanity, much was made of her craze for the Ouija board and reincarnation. Yet, in Flagler's Florida (University of Georgia Press,1949) author Sidney Walter Martin states her "glib tongue and nonsensical talk" was first equated with a mental disorder when she told friends that her husband, Florida's patron saint, was "... unfaithful to her." David Leon Chandler and Mary V. Chandler's Henry Flagler: The Astonishing Life and Times of the Visionary Robber Baron who founded Florida (Macmillan, 1986) pinpoints Henry Flagler (age 61) and Mary Lily Kenan's (age 23) first encounter in January 1891, several years before Alice began disparaging her powerful husband.
May 1901. Henry Flagler spared no expense having his second wife institutionalized for life.
While no one was ever known to cross Henry Flagler or taken an interest in reexamining what might have really happened to the second Mrs. Flagler, contemporaneous reports at the time of her death in 1930 speculated her incarceration caused the irreparable father-son split between Henry Flagler and Harry Harkness Flagler that would eventually land the greater part of Flagler's Standard Oil fortune and hotel-railroad monopoly in the hands of Mary Lily's staunch Kenan family. Coincidentally, Harry Flagler was left the same $5 million amount in his father's will that Mary Lily's Kentucky codicil earmarked for her husband.
August 1901. Ten days later, Flagler wed Mary Lily Kenan, his associate W. R. Kenan's sister and his physician Owen Kenan's cousin.
July 1904. Despite most accounts incorrectly stating Alice spent her life in an institution, there were contemporaneous reports placing her in a New Rochelle country house where she was sane enough for shopping and dinner romps. In 1904, New York newspaper stories reported she was "discovered" living in Manhattan, ensconced at 353 Riverside Drive, "surrounded by every luxury." While there she was believed to have met up and dined with "old friends." By then, Florida's Flagler Divorce Law was overturned; Henry Flagler and his bride Mary Lily were in residence at their winter palace Whitehall. Alice Flagler's well-paid guardians, lawyers, doctors, and caretakers never spoke or wrote publicly about her. Alice Flagler died in 1930 having been silenced for thirty years.
A woman's place, 1917

Following their November nuptials in New York and a winter-spring whirlwind in their private railroad car, newlyweds Mary Lily Kenan Flagler and Robert Worth Bingham hosted a housewarming party for 600 guests in June 1917 at Lincliffe, a rented Louisville country house. The blushing bride fell ill; six weeks later, she was dead. Publicly, there was chatter about a heart condition; privately, the onetime Wilmington spinster was said to have an insatiable appetite for alcohol and drugs. Supposedly, Judge Bingham was surprised to learn his once youthful paramour liked to "... lie in a hot tub and drink brandy," chase her laudanum with bourbon, and mix grain alcohol with her fruit juice. Thus, Bingham did what any concerned husband would do for a wealthy wife who had settled all his debts — have her treated by his local dermatologist Dr. Leo Ravitch, who also cared for his eczema. When Mary Lily's condition worsened, Bingham consulted with a former U of Va. school mate, his urologist Dr. Hugh Young, who had also been his best man at the wedding.

When Dr. Ravitch's antidote of atropine and mercury injections followed by hot baths proved futile, he began injecting Mary Lily with alcohol and water shortly before she died. Years later, according to Emily Bingham, Ravitch would demand money from Bingham, writing his now thankless friend, "I am really sorry that I ever consented to do for you what I did." No sooner had Mary Lily taken her last breath surrounded by a battery of doctors and nurses who had moved into Lincliffe during her final days than the Kenan-Bingham mud fight began over what killed Mary Lily at age 50. According to Emily Bingham's revelations about the second previously unverified Kenan family autopsy, Mary Lily may have died from Salvarsan, an arsenical compound used to treat syphilis known as the "Magic Bullet." Dr. Ravitch was known to treat syphilis. At the time, the Kenans refused to disclose the second autopsy's contents as it might "… inflame passions between the two families." Thus, Mary Lily's cause of death has remained a complicated issue.

"The Ghastly Drama"
Headlines, 1917-1918
27 July 1917. Mary Lily Kenan Flagler Bingham (1867-1917)
The Kenan-Bingham dispute became a daily national serial.
20 September 1917.
21 September 1917.
21 September 1917. Dr. Ravitch's office was broken into and Mary Lily Flagler's treatment records were missing. Kenan family members had hired the Burns Detective Agency.
22 September 1917.
23 September 1917.
24 September 1917.
24 September 1917.
25 September 1917. The Kenans filed Mary Lily's will in Florida. Judge Bingham's lawyers filed the codicil in Kentucky. There was also a residence in New York State. In all, there were twenty states that wanted a share of the estate taxes on Mary Lily's estimated $60+ million fortune.
26 September 1917.
8 April 1918.
27 July 1918. One month after Bingham received his legacy, he paid $1 million for the majority interest in the Louisville Courier-Journal and the Louisville Times.
In her controversial book Passion & Prejudice: A Family Memoir (Alfred A. Knopf, 1989), Sallie Bingham shared her perception of Mary Lily:

“Her money started the empire; the scandal of her death formed its battlements. The newspapers were bought to ferret out other people’s secrets while closely guarding our own … She died, like so many other women, rich and poor, of a combination of causes that included depression, neglect and medical incompetence, the failure of love, isolation, and a heart probably weakened by the syphilis she had contracted from the Judge in North Carolina or Virginia. She also died because she would not, for a longtime, give the man his money.”

A woman’s place, 1980s

Ambassador Robert Worth Bingham. Courtesy Library of Congress. Pictured above in August 1937, four months before he died, at the US State Department, waiting to enter the office of Secretary of State Cordell Hull.
Henrietta Bingham did not live to see her female family members removed from the Bingham corporation’s board of directors in the run-up to the January 1986 announcement of the media conglomerate’s sale.  Nor did she witness the family’s wrath at the inferences of foul play in her niece Sallie Bingham’s book. The Bingham family wrote a letter to book reviewers claiming Sallie Bingham made '' … unsupported assertions, erroneous suppositions, leaps of logic, and in some cases, outright fabrications. About her family, Sallie Bingham wrote: “While other rich families sometimes found ways to justify their accumulated money, relying on the American myth of hard work, native talent, and moral success to explain their success, the Binghams could make use of no such explanations.”

With the publication of Irrepressible, Sallie Bingham recently expressed her sense of vindication by the second autopsy at her website:

This cost me my relationship with my mother (Mary Bingham); she never spoke to me during the final decade of her life, and I was disinherited to the extent legally possible. Mother announced this to me before I had begun to write Passion and Prejudice, telling me, with rage, that if I mentioned Mary Lily (and this was the first time I heard anyone in the family mention her) she would never speak to me again. She was a woman of her word, and I believed her. After crying and praying and trying to imagine the consequences, I realized that if I gave in to the family habit of secrecy and dissimulation, I might never be able to write again … Mother is long dead, and so the revelation of the second autopsy, in this book, has meaning only for me. But it has a great deal of meaning, reminding me, forcibly, to rely on my intuition, not matter what the cost.

The Bingham family’s annoyance with claims of intentional foul play was not reserved solely for family members. Before Passion and Prejudice was published, David Leon Chandler and Mary V. Chandler made many of the same contentions about Mary Lily’s death in their book The Binghams of Louisville: The Dark History behind one of America’s Great Fortunes (Macmillan, 1987). After lawyers for the Bingham family formulated a lengthy detailed legal complaint challenging the book's contents, Macmillan canceled the contract for the Chandlers’ book.  After making minor editorial changes, Crown Publishers published the book with the murder theory intact.

Several years later, Sallie Bingham’s father Barry Bingham Sr.’s oral history A Man of His Word (University Press of Kentucky, 1993) referred to the Chandlers’ book as a “slipshod kind of job” with “factual errors. Barry Bingham believed Mary Lily died an alcoholic: “ It was undoubtedly the cause of her death. And neither he nor the Kenan family wanted to see that exposed to public view. He didn’t know of her alcoholic problem until after they were married …” Urologist Hugh Young’s autobiography published in 1940 makes no mention of Mary Lily Flagler Bingham’s death although he is the one who reassured family members that the autopsy indicated alcoholism caused her death.  Also, Young excluded any mention of his role as Robert Worth Bingham’s physician although Bingham’s  autopsy was directed by Young at Johns Hopkins in 1937.

Henrietta Bingham. Photograph by Dorothy Wilding, 1936. Courtesy Bingham Family Collection. "By not having the brilliant life expected of her, she disappointed her father, her brother, her lovers. Henrietta's charm and best efforts could not dissolve the pain she spent years to escape, but in her return to us again she may, even briefly, find acceptance." – Emily Bingham.
In contrast to the various Bingham tomes, author  Walter Campbell found it “ … hard to imagine Mary Lily turning to alcohol” in his book titled  Across Fortune's Tracks: A Biography of William Rand Kenan, Jr. (University of North Carolina, 1996).  Campbell quotes from Mary Lily’s letters to her family in Wilmington in the weeks before her death. Mrs. Flagler Bingham wrote ” … “I have been so sad that Bob has said I should go see a doctor. Now I go twice a week and he has been giving me a shot of something …”

In his book Robert Worth Bingham and the Southern Mystique: From the Old South to the New South and Beyond (Kent State University Press, 1997), author-historian William Elliott Ellis, “immune to tabloid fever” according to his dustjacket, decries previous books about the family as “much of this has been of the Bingham-bashing variety.” David and Mary Chandler’s book is dismissed as “an imaginative, jejune concoction by investigative reporters.” Sallie Bingham’s book is “bitter, rumor-filled and self-centered.”Ellis is “put-off” by some of  Marie Brenner’sobservations in House of Dreams: The Bingham Family of Louisville (Random House, 1988) and expresses much the same indifference toward Susan Tifft and Alex Jones’ Patriarch: The Rise and Fall of the Bingham Dynasty (Simon & Schuster, 1991).

The other night  a friend living in Palm Beach’s North End said he was at a cocktail party last week where PB’s cognoscenti, who have some experience and insight into how and why wealthy prominent families fall apart, were talking about Irrepressible with most everyone probably knowing one of Henrietta’s relatives and having an opine on the nearly century-old Kenan-Bingham puzzle.  Behind Ocean Boulevard’s walls and hedges, there are countless stories of tangled lives, however unaccountable, framed by every generation to best fit their picture of the past and position in the present. The Binghams probably wanted nothing more than no one ever mentioning Mary Lily much like Henrietta, the “Black Sheep,” the “invert,” who “was virtually expunged from the Robert Worth Bingham archive that Barry (Bingham) donated to the Library of Congress in the 1970s.”

That is, until Emily Bingham.

Postscript: Last Will & Testament
Mary Lily Kenan Flagler Bingham

According to various reports, on Tuesday afternoon June 19 1917, when her husband was out of town, Mrs. Flagler Bingham, accompanied by her chauffeur and housekeeper, arrived at Dr. Ravitch's office where she signed a codicil handwritten on Dr. Ravitch's stationery prepared by one of her husband's former law partners that amended her will, " … bequeath to my husband R. W. Bingham five million ($5,000,000) Dollars to be absolutely his, and he shall the option at my death of taking this from my estate in money …" Eight months earlier, the Kenans had considered Judge Bingham an unworthy suitor for Mary Lily because of his shaky finances. The family was said to have withheld their objections to the marriage because Bingham had not demanded Mary Lily change her will that left the bulk of the Flagler $60 million fortune to the Kenans. The Kenans did not elude the vilifying newspaper reports that Mocked Bingham. They were sometimes characterized as criminals: " … an unknown family from North Carolina dragged from obscurity to a kingdom of unimagined power by a marriage which could be made legal, by packing, if not debauching a Legislature of Florida, a province annexed to the domain of Standard Oil by Henry Flagler."
While most newspaper reports stated Mary Lily's niece was her principal heir, her brother William R. Kenan and sisters Jessie Kenan Wise and Sarah Graham Kenan received the majority of the proceeds.
25 March 1918
The Miami Metropolis
Estate of Mary Lily Kenan Flagler Bingham
Personal Property Inventory: Value $65,322,004.19/Est. tax = $3 million
Jefferson County, Kentucky

Augustus Mayhew is the author of Lost in Wonderland – Reflections on Palm Beach.