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Sallie Bingham Strikes Back : This Daughter of a Dynasty Has Penned an Excoriating Memoir, One Her Family Vociferously Disputes

Times Staff Writer

When she was growing up on a secluded estate in Louisville, Sallie Bingham felt the presence of “this lurking something” in the Big House, the family name for the grim mansion on the Ohio River that housed her aristocratic tribe.

When she went back last year for the funeral of her father, newspaper publisher Barry Bingham Sr., she felt it again, she said. “It’s still there . . . the hovering presence of something unexplained that has malevolence.”

A Blood Vendetta

Leaning back in an easy chair, surrounded by the sophisticated rusticity of the farmhouse she shares with her third husband here, Bingham’s dark memory clashes with the sunny winter day. Down the road in Louisville there are those--most especially her mother, brother and sister--who would argue that Sallie Bingham’s recollection also clashes with reality and that she is bent on trashing her family name in a blood vendetta.

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At 52, Bingham--a novelist, playwright and now a memoirist--is the maverick of Kentucky’s Bingham clan, until three years ago owners of the state’s major newspapers, a television station, a radio station, a printing firm, a family with direct links to Presidents and influence far beyond the borders of their small state.

The woman who writes, runs a foundation for women in the arts, and raises chickens and sheep on 400 acres of rolling, oak-spotted land often has been cast as the villain in the $434 million sell-off in 1986 of the Bingham media kingdom that included the influential, Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper, the Courier-Journal. After prolonged behind-the-scenes bickering with her brother, Barry Jr., Bingham chose to sell her 15% share of the companies, a decision that often has been portrayed as precipitating her father’s decision to divest the family of its wellsprings of fame and fortune. It was the end of one of the last family-owned media dynasties in this country, a dynasty that exercised liberalism in a conservative state and made progressivism and rectitude its family credo.

Sallie Bingham’s share of the divestiture was $62 million.

And that should have been that.

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But it isn’t.

Sallie Bingham did not retreat behind a wall of money. She just completed a book, “Passion and Prejudice,” about her family, a book that is part memoir, part feminist tract and part angry retaliation against her mother, Mary, her brother, her dead father and her dead grandfather. For her, the book seems to be a necessary walk through the past to cast her own perspective on her family and her role in its sometimes fantastic story.

The book proved “valuable for me . . . because it was me saying this is what I feel and I’m going to write it down. People will have different opinions about it, but I stand behind it, this is what I feel,” Bingham said.

“Passion and Prejudice” also is her attempt to come to terms with her father, whom she did not know well and who contributed, somehow, to the spirit of the Big House.

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“He was a shadowy presence all the time I was growing up, so that it’s very hard to re-create that kind of person,” she said. “I had to depend on what I could remember, which was very mystifying because, of course, he had this enormous charm that everybody responded to. . . . When I tried to go into detail, to say, who is this man, not only in relation to me but in relation to other people and in relation to the world, that strange vagueness kept coming in. Someone who is so charming, everyone loves, wonderful, good-looking, energetic. But who is he?”

But what the 520-page volume seems most likely to do is rekindle public scrutiny of a family that has been the subject of two other recent books and will be the subject of at least one more. It has already triggered family and community scorn.

“Passion and Prejudice” is a tale of a cloistered rich girl’s woe. It details Bingham’s childhood of servants and family secrets. It chronicles her ultimately unsuccessful attempt to escape from her family. It resurrects old scandals and hints at possible involvement by her father with the Central Intelligence Agency. It charges that the family masked private conservatism in matters of race and class behind a facade of public liberalism and benevolence.

It laments a family that chattered constantly but never talked about its feelings toward one another. It recounts the bizarre deaths of her brothers Worth and Jonathan--the first killed by a surfboard laid across the back of a convertible that snapped into the back of his head when it struck a parked car and the second electrocuted while splicing outdoor lights into a power line. It recounts other deaths, too, that form the tapestry of tragedy against which the Binghams won fame, wealth and power. It mourns the women who Bingham contends brought the family riches, strength and position but were always held back from power and glory by domineering, calculating men. It chronicles her own evolution from a sheltered childhood to becoming a writer, a feminist, an activist.

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The book’s driving force is anger, Bingham said. “My anger goes way back to the feeling of being disprized as a child,” she explained. “Any girl growing up in a dysfunctional family, I think, has a great deal of anger. In a sense, I never had parents and that’s something I’ve come to terms with. But the anger that fueled the book is really 50 years of anger.”

Advance copies of the subjective family history, which will be published Friday by Alfred A. Knopf, already have caused a stir in Louisville where longtime Courier-Journal cartoonist Hugh Haynie 10 days ago compared “Passion and Prejudice” to Pinocchio, the children’s character whose wooden nose grows longer each time he tells a lie.

Irene Nolan, the Courier-Journal’s managing editor who worked with Bingham when she was the newspaper’s book page editor, said that the continuing controversy over the Bingham family is beginning to wear thin. “I think a whole lot of people are getting tired of the subject,” she said.

Challenging Bingham

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After reading “Passion and Prejudice,” Nolan said she “wondered if we (herself and Bingham) had been working in the same building.” She challenged Bingham’s version of her hiring as the Courier-Journal’s book editor, saying that Bingham got the job because of family influence, and that the previous editor “was not removed because she was not doing a good job.” Nolan, the first woman managing editor of a major metropolitan newspaper, also said she disagreed with Sallie’s allegations that the Binghams had not done enough to hire and promote minorities and women at their businesses.

Perhaps most notably, the family itself has issued a dossier disputing nearly every major point--and many minor ones--made by Bingham. The bound file containing nearly 300 separate points of dispute, supporting documents and a 29-page summary has been sent to every major publication in the country that might review “Passion and Prejudice.” In a cover letter signed by Mary, sister Eleanor, Barry Jr. and his wife Edith, the family declares, “For whatever reasons, Sallie’s view of the family history is maliciously skewed. Her claims rest on unsupported assertions, erroneous suppositions, leaps of logic, and in some cases, outright fabrications.”

Referring to Sallie Bingham’s dark suspicions about her family, the Binghams note elsewhere in the file that the book “seems less ‘a family memoir’ than a flight into fantasy supported by mystical conjectures and assertions that, more often than not, bear no relation whatever to fact.”

Unlike a previous book that the Binghams challenged before publication, the cover letter also says, “We would like to make clear at the outset that we have in no way attempted nor will we attempt any type of restraint of publication of this book. . . .”

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Dropped Publication

In the previous instance, McMillan Publishing Co. dropped publication of David Chandler’s “The Binghams of Louisville: The Dark History Behind One of America’s Great Fortunes” after Barry Bingham Sr. rebutted the book’s allegations with documents weighing a total of 8 pounds. Chandler’s theory was that Judge Robert Worth Bingham founded the family fortune in 1917 when he “murdered his second wife for money.” Mary Flagler Bingham, at the time the richest woman in America, bequeathed the judge $5 million. Chandler’s book was later published by Crown.

“Passion and Prejudice,” for which Bingham said a second printing is already planned, has been chosen as an alternate selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club. Bingham herself will be traveling all over the country this month to publicize it.

During an interview last Friday in the front room of her farmhouse, Sallie Bingham seemed more hurt by what she called the “vicious” and “devastating” broad strokes of the newspaper cartoon than by her family’s counterattack, or by other critics who want to deal in fine details. She said she unsuccessfully has demanded a retraction of the cartoon and had written a letter to the editor protesting the drawing “that perfectly clearly implied that I was a liar and the book was nothing but lies.”

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In contrast, she seems unfazed by her family’s ire, at least initially. When she learned of the dossier, “Well, frankly, I laughed,” she said. “I thought, here they go again . . . and I thought how do they have the time and the energy. . . . And when you think of mailing that all over the country, every magazine, every newspaper. I asked them to let me see the list. I haven’t seen it yet but that must be a formidable list. Why do that? Why not use the money another way? Why not give it to the homeless? Because this is not going to have the desired effect of making people doubt the book. People usually in my experience want to form their own opinions.”

Later in the interview though, Bingham’s attitude of jaunty defiance toward her family cracked a bit. Asked if she would re-establish contact with her family, she said, “No, I really wouldn’t want to see them. I’ve had a couple of very, very painful encounters which have reduced me to tears.” A catch in her voice made her pause. “As you can see, it’s causing me some feeling now,” she continued, displaying the only flustered moment during a long interview.

She added that she had talked to her publisher’s lawyers and they had found in all, “one adjective in my book and part of one sentence that they felt needed to be changed for the next edition.”

Needs to Be Rewritten

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On the other hand, the family contends that most of the book needs to be rewritten. The document rebuts, with long lists of editorials published in the Courier-Journal, Bingham’s charges that her family hid biases about race, sex and other social issues, and disputes that Barry Sr. had any ties with the American intelligence community. The brief--which also alludes to the theory advanced by Chandler--says that, among other things, Sallie got the cooling system in the Big House wrong, that it was not “metal fans suspended over pans of water” as she writes but actually “an ammonia compressor in the basement.” More importantly, the family says medical tests prove that Judge Bingham “did not have syphilis as Sallie Bingham would have the reader believe.”

The family quotes medical testimony that the judge’s wife, Mary Lily, was not poisoned, adding that the notion is an old, discredited contention that has been repeatedly raised over the decades, as well as by Chandler and by Sallie Bingham. (Members of the Bingham family declined to be interviewed personally, saying that their written response to the book is sufficient. However, in a statement issued through her attorneys, Mary Bingham said, “Our response to this work is an appeal to the conscience of institutions we respect and admire, and our purpose stems only from what we see as a responsibility to provide a true and accurate historical record of the Bingham family.”)

In its challenge to Bingham’s book, the family says that the pattern of big and small errors “can only suggest the need for careful evaluation of the author’s credibility and her lack of supporting documentation.” “Passion and Prejudice” contains a bibliography but no footnotes.

Meanwhile, Alex S. Jones--winner of a Pulitzer Prize in 1987 for his reporting for the New York Times on the dissolution of the Bingham enterprises and now at work on a book about the subject with his wife, Time magazine associate editor Susan E. Tifft--said in a telephone interview that “Passion and Prejudice” is “a fascinating blueprint to her (Sallie Bingham’s) psyche but as history it is worthless.”

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Speculation or Documentation?

Based on his reading of “Passion and Prejudice,” Jones said that Bingham seemed to have done little research and sometimes relied on her own speculation rather than documentation.

For example, Jones said that Bingham apparently did not check the voluminous documentation of the death of Judge Robert Bingham’s first wife, Eleanor, killed in 1912 when the car in which she was riding was struck by a trolley. Others previously had been killed at the site where Eleanor died and the hazard of the crossing was a scandal of the time, Jones said, asserting that the death was clearly an accident. But Bingham, he said, plays up the potential for mystery.

In the book, at the conclusion of the section in which she wonders if Eleanor committed suicide by jumping on the tracks, Bingham writes, “It is only speculation. No one alive today can or will explain why Eleanor Miller Bingham vanished so completely.”

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Bingham admitted that some of the issues she raises in the book are unproven. She said her speculation that her father had longstanding ties to U.S. intelligence is “an educated hunch and I try to express it as that.”

She explained: “As I tried to re-create him (her father) in my mind I couldn’t explain certain things to myself. What was he doing in England in World War II? Was he really part of the D-Day invasion, because he told it so many different ways. What was he doing in Guam when mother was so desperate to have him home?. . . It is another book. There’s not much here but it is another book. And I felt I owed it to myself to say there is a question. . . . I was fascinated to find out about six months ago that the woman who had been doing research with me in Washington said the Navy Department had no record that he had ever served. . . . That’s the kind of thing that makes you wonder. It doesn’t prove anything except that I think there’s something unexplained about his career.”

Writing “Passion and Prejudice” was a cathartic experience that devoured “many sleepless nights,” Bingham said. “Often I would just sit there and cry. . . . I would sit down and write a ‘graph and think, ‘Oh God, obviously I’m avoiding everything,’ and start over. I had to admit how upset I was, how hurt I was.”

Her estrangement from her family dates back practically to her birth, Bingham said. She remembers a “beloved” governess telling her when she was 3 or 4 “that mother felt that I somehow didn’t look like a Bingham. . . . I was so puzzled because we’re all blonds, shall we say, Hitler’s favorite color. So it wasn’t that I suddenly had turned out to be black. I never did understand really what that meant but it gave me the feeling that somehow I was different.”

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And in her circle, Bingham was different, she said, looking back at her youth from a secure middle age.

“It’s been such a relief to me to be 52, to like being 52, not to fuss about whether I’ve got wrinkles or I’ve got gray hair, or people think my teeth are ugly,” she said. ". . . Looking back on it, remembering what it was like for young women that I knew in the ‘50s to be considered beauties, that was quite a sizable burden. You had to make your debut. You had to spend a lot of time going out to parties, talking about clothes. And I saved a lot of time and energy. I spent a lot of time and energy then learning how to be a writer.”

When she returned to Kentucky in 1977 after two failed marriages, Bingham said she had second thoughts almost immediately. “I remember my feelings of both pleasure and dismay when I would ride in the back seat of the car--I was in my early 40s--with my parents going to parties. I would think, ‘My God, I didn’t do this when I was 17. What am I doing? Why am I here?’ ”

Continuity and Stability

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She stayed mainly because she wanted continuity and stability in the life of her sons, Bingham said, as well as remaining in the region that inspires her writing.

And she intends to stay, Bingham said, no matter how tough the opposition becomes. “I am sure there are many committees (to run her out of town) but they won’t succeed,” she said with a laugh.

As for her family, Bingham believes that writing the book gave her a valuable insight into other members’ behavior. “Well, I understand their lack of free will,” she said. “Here they apparently had everything, as so many people say. But what I think--and I just speak now of them in a conglomerate because they all signed that cover letter--they really ultimately lacked the ability to act as individuals and that’s tragic.”

But Bingham said there are some things she may never understand, such as the deaths of her two brothers.

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“I take a leaf out of my mother-in-law’s life. . . . She lost one of her sons at an early age to a brain tumor and she said it was the will of God,” Bingham said. “Now that’s a faith that I don’t have but it’s what I try to reach toward because I think it’s really the only light at the end of the tunnel. . . . To us it seems such an unmitigated tragedy, for such young men particularly. But there was a reason for that, which we’ll probably never know. That’s what I try to hang on to.”

Then she added that occasionally she has a glimmer of an explanation as to why her brothers died.

“I sometimes think that the suffering that both Worth and Jonathan were going through, or would have gone through in order to keep up the myth, would have made life intolerable for them. I feel so strongly that this myth is so cruel to the people that have to uphold it.”

Lately, too, she said, she has started going to church again. “I’m trying to find my way back. I need it,” she said.

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