The Binghams of Louisville : Family Tragedy and Feuds Bring Down Media Empire

Times Staff Writer

Twenty years ago this summer, Robert Worth Bingham III was going to lead this genteel, pleasantly lazy river city to great heights.

As the first of five children born to Mary and Barry Bingham Sr., owners of the Courier-Journal and Louisville Times newspapers and a clutch of printing and broadcasting companies, Worth was his father's choice to carry on a journalistic empire whose influence stretched far beyond its regional audience.

At 34, Worth was already a prize-winning reporter and associate newspaper publisher. He was strikingly handsome, financially shrewd, given to high-stakes gin rummy, profanity and seedy clothes yet able to move in Louisville's old-money Establishment as well.

"He was the leader of that generation, the unquestioned leader," one of Bingham's former editors said this month.

"His death changed our worlds."

The bizarre accident that claimed Bingham's life in the summer of 1966 now assumes a significance that virtually no one foresaw then. At least indirectly, it triggered a bitter, long-hidden power struggle among his surviving brother and sisters--one that climaxed Jan. 9 when the patriarch of the Bingham clan, 79-year-old Barry Sr., put the family businesses on the auction block.

His announcement astonished Kentucky and loosed an extraordinary public blood-letting within the family. Worth's brother and successor to the leadership mantle, 52-year-old Barry Bingham Jr., resigned from top posts in the family businesses and accused his father of "betraying" the Bingham tradition. His sister Sallie, 49, a writer and a committed feminist, has accused Barry Jr. of mismanaging the companies and has said that her parents practiced "primogeniture," favoritism toward the first-born son.

Beyond the self-destruction of one of Kentucky's richest and most gifted families, the 20 years following Worth's death have also brought the end of a century-long dominance of the state by a handful of home-grown institutions and people--the old Louisville & Nashville Railroad, the coal and tobacco businesses, the venerable Democratic political machine. All seemed invincible in the mid-1960s, but now all of them are gone--bought out, moved or destroyed by economic decline or social change.

Could Net $300 Million

The Binghams' planned sale of the Courier-Journal and Times and other family holdings--the newspapers alone could net $300 million, analysts say--closes the last of those reigns. It will end one of the last and proudest of the family media dynasties in America, one that almost single-handedly dragged heels-in-the-dirt Kentucky into the 20th Century.

At the newspapers, which only last month weathered a traumatic merger of the rival news staffs of the morning Courier-Journal and afternoon Times, this winter has been both terrifying and riveting--part Greek drama, part "Dynasty."

"I feel like we've been in a Mixmaster for the last month," said Dick Kaukas, a Louisville Times writer. "And now they tell us they're selling the Mixmaster."

The fuse that led to the Bingham family explosion this month was lit by simmering animosity between Barry Jr.--editor and publisher of the Courier-Journal and Times and vice-chairman of WHAS Inc. and Standard Gravure Corp., the broadcasting and printing firms--and Sallie, the family gadfly who unsuccessfully fought Barry Jr. to keep a seat on the boards of the Bingham businesses.

Sallie Decided to Sell

Sallie ultimately decided to sell her 15% share of the companies to the highest bidder, and Barry Jr. rejected proposals that might have enabled him to buy Sallie's stock and keep the corporate crown jewels--the two newspapers--under Bingham control at least during his lifetime.

Barry Sr. and his wife, despairing of settling the dispute before their deaths, called a family meeting in early January and ordered the sale.

"Barry (Jr.) once told me: 'We have difficulty enough getting along now, but if you and mother were no longer here, it would be even more difficult,' " Barry Sr. said of his children's dispute in an interview last week. "So you can see why we had all the more reason, Mary and I, to proceed with the sale now . . . while we still had our minds."

That simple account appears, however, to mask deeper grievances within the Bingham clan. For years, Barry Jr. said, "the family position has been basically one of not seeing much of one another." Both he and Sallie deny that the estrangements were bitter until recently.

'Traumatized by Tragedy'

"They're a family that doesn't talk to itself. They send memoranda to each other," an observer said.

"The family has been to some degree traumatized by tragedy," Sallie said, "and I think there's a kind of fragility to the remaining family unit."

The Bingham saga has been one of success shadowed by tragedy since 1918, when the first Robert Worth Bingham bought the Courier-Journal and Times with an inheritance from his wife, Mary Kenan, who was heiress to Florida real estate and Rockefeller oil fortunes.

When she died suddenly of heart disease less than a year after her marriage to Judge Bingham, members of her family charged that her husband had poisoned her for a comparatively puny $5 million of her fortune.

A Brilliant Editorialist

That small slice was $4 million more than he needed to buy the newspapers, then run by "Marse" Henry Watterson, a brilliant editorialist and fiery Democrat who knew the Presidents of his era and ran the papers for half a century, starting in 1868.

Judge Bingham proved to be almost as fiery, more liberal and much more ruthless. He drove Louisville's competing newspapers out of business and began radio station WHAS and Standard Gravure in 1922. For Bingham's avid editorial support, President Franklin D. Roosevelt rewarded him in 1933 with the ambassadorship to Great Britain. Four years later, Bingham died.

The judge's son, Barry Sr., built the regional journalists' pulpit into a national power, assembling reporters who would add three Pulitzer prizes to the two earned by Watterson and the judge, and adding television and FM radio stations to the family holdings. Statewide, the Courier-Journal's activist reporting on social and political troubles had built it into an unparalleled and seemingly unshakable power.

Challenging the Corrupt

"There was always a Courier-Journal reporter around to challenge the timber cutters, the strip miners, the polluters, the corrupt," said John Ed Pearce, a 40-year veteran of the newspapers.

As Barry Sr. neared retirement in the 1960s, there was little question of who would carry on the tradition. Among the daughters, Sallie had secured a book contract and moved to New York after graduation from Radcliffe in the late 1950s; Eleanor Miller appears to have shown little interest in the family businesses.

Jonathan, "the sweet one," was shy, slightly troubled and too young, but might have been destined for the printing business. Barry Jr., hampered by a lifelong reading problem, had struggled through Harvard and enjoyed later success as a producer with NBC and CBS. He would run the broadcast properties. Worth had already been groomed through newspaper jobs in San Francisco, Washington and elsewhere, and he would take over the newspapers.

It was not to be that way.

Jonathan Electrocuted

In 1964, Jonathan, then 21, was electrocuted while trying to splice some outdoor lights into a power line for a reunion of his Scout troop at the family estate.

Two years later, in July, 1966, Worth Bingham flew to Nantucket Island in Massachusetts for a brief vacation. There, as he drove a rented convertible down a Nantucket street, a surfboard protruding from the rear seat brushed a parked car.

One end of the board was whipped around and it struck Worth in the back of the neck, killing him instantly.

The family was devastated by the two deaths and the empire was rocked by the loss of Worth. The Courier-Journal at the time was waging a war against Kentucky's entrenched strip-mining interests that would garner the proudest of the seven Bingham Pulitzers, and both papers were staffed with reporters who would become standouts at other national news media.

Parents Inconsolable

The elder Binghams were said by friends to be inconsolable--and so was Barry Jr., now the sole surviving son.

The two brothers--Worth and Barry Jr.--were vastly different personalities. Worth, 16 months older, was impulsive and outgoing; Barry more thoughtful. "Barry was intensely loyal and devoted to Worth," Barry Sr. said this month. "They spent a great deal of time together."

And when Barry Sr. cast about for a successor to Worth that July, looking first outside the family, Barry Jr. volunteered to pick up the tradition and was allowed to do so. Reporters scoffed at the publisher who had trouble reading and bristled at his frequent observation that traditional newspapers were "dinosaurs" in an electronic age.

Those critics, however, ignored his tenacity--he toiled in speed-reading courses until his pace improved--and his almost obsessive commitment to the family's journalistic legend.

A Bout With Cancer

Barry Jr. overcame a third tragedy, his own bout with cancer in the 1970s, and the newspapers won three more Pulitzers.

Nonetheless, Barry Jr. has won little of the adulation given his predecessors. Instead of expanding, his empire has shrunk along with Louisville's sagging factory economy and with mounting delivery costs.

Moreover, his assiduous elevation of the family ethical standards made him and his papers a sometimes target of laughter from the less upright. He once banned sports writers from mentioning the commercial sponsors of sporting events, forcing them to devise other names for the Marlboro Cup horse race and Kemper Open golf tournament.

"One of Barry's great, great difficulties is his lack of flexibility," one longtime business acquaintance said. "He's dedicated, he's ethical, he has character. But he bends over so far backward that he falls down."

An Unmatchable Standard

The senior Barry Bingham, who credits his son with "superb" management of the family businesses, noted last week that Barry Jr. has had to meet an unmatchable standard of stewardship.

"Worth has become a kind of icon," he said. "He was a remarkable young man, and, of course, his reputation has grown over the years since his death. I do feel that Barry has undergone a certain amount of personal strain in trying to live up to his brother's image."

It was a clash with an equally strong will that finally brought the empire down.

In 1977, 11 years after Worth's accident, Sallie Bingham unexpectedly returned to Louisville from New York, a broken second marriage and a stalled writing career. Her purpose, she said, was "to come back to Louisville so that my children could grow up around their grandparents."

Nurses and Nannies

That still surprises readers of her novels and short stories, which often involve miserable, rich daughters who were mentally scarred by absent mothers and too-pliable fathers. The editor of one 1977 collection of feminist stories called Sallie's entry the tale of "an attractive young woman who has missed the attention and security of her parents." And Sallie has often complained that her parents left much of her upbringing to nurses and nannies.

Her parents welcomed her back, but her reception on the board of the Bingham companies was frosty. One Louisville observer said that she "nattered the board to death" with uninformed questions. Another said flatly: "Barry (Jr.) couldn't stand to be in the same room with her," an observation he vigorously denies.

Sallie agrees that she prolonged board meetings with questions, and others say that she has made life difficult for her brother by continually and incorrectly charging the Bingham companies with race and sex bias. She also loudly complained, perhaps more accurately, of creeping political and fiscal conservatism at the newspapers.

Sometimes Abrasive

An acquaintance, while readily agreeing that Sallie was sometimes abrasive, added: "If you asked me on a witness stand, 'Did you see anything in the conduct of Eleanor and Sallie to warrant removing them from the board?' I'd say: 'No.' "

Remove them, however, is exactly what Barry Jr. did in March, 1984. Arguing that the ruling boards of the three family companies needed more professionals, he asked all four women directors--Sallie, Eleanor, his wife Edie and his mother--to resign. Three of them did. Sallie refused and was ousted by the remaining directors.

Those close to the emerging feud said Barry Jr. was bluntly advised that a feminist who had accused her brother's companies of sex discrimination might take offense at the ousting of all the women from the corporate boards.

"It certainly wasn't a red-letter day in my life," Barry Jr. said this month. However, he said, he was merely following the advice of a consultant on family businesses.

Damage Beyond Repair

Whatever the rationale behind his action, the damage done to family relations proved beyond repair.

Although Barry Jr. later placed two women and two blacks on the boards, Sallie decided in December, 1984, to sell her share of the family enterprises. Last March, Barry Jr. said in an interview that his parents secretly summoned their children to their home and ordered them to settle their differences or face the end of the family media empire.

Frantic work by company advisers produced a sheaf of plans to solve the stock dispute. All failed, the last when Eleanor Miller rejected a stock swap with Barry Jr. that would have given him effective control of the newspapers and her the broadcast properties. She refused to seal the pact unless Sallie's $32-million asking price for her stock was met; the other Binghams' last offer was $26.3 million.

"I would have sold for $30 million," Sallie said this month. "This was an attempt to get a fair value for my 15%--and even at $30 million to $32 million, that's a 70% discount" from her own estimate of the stock's value.

Barry Jr. to Leave

Sallie has said that she intends to place two-thirds of her proceeds from the sale of the companies into the Kentucky Foundation for Women, the trust she established to aid arts endeavors by women. Barry Jr. said he will probably leave Louisville to purchase or start a communications venture elsewhere.

"While my father has had kind words to say for my stewardship," he said in a statement released earlier this month, "his decision to sell all the companies I have managed clearly indicates that he holds other family members' personal interests and priorities at a higher value than my service to the companies.

"It is difficult not to view this action as a betrayal of the traditions and principles which I have sought to perpetuate."

Barry Sr., clearly distressed by his son's remarks, said last week that he counseled his children not to look on anyone as a winner in the family dispute. Sallie secured the sale she sought, he said, "but she lost a great deal in the unfortunate breach with her family."

Barry Jr., on the other hand, appears to have ended his sister's sometimes-eccentric meddling in the empire's affairs, but at the cost of the empire itself.

'A Martyr Complex'

"There's always been a theory, which I don't subscribe to, that there was some sort of a death wish here--a martyr complex," one family friend said of Barry Jr. "I guess you'd have to say there's more evidence for it now."

Replied Barry Jr.: "I refuse to look at this family in Oedipus terms. I'm just not that kind of fatalistic person. I don't consult Ouija boards, and I don't read horoscopes, and I just don't believe that stars cross in the sky and suddenly, family ownership falls to the ground."

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