Sallie Against the Binghams : PASSION AND PREJUDICE A Family Memoir <i> by Sallie Bingham (Alfred A. Knopf: $22.95; 525 pp.; illustrated; 0-394-55851-0) </i>
“Women have often been silenced in history, our voices discredited or blotted out. We have been silenced to preserve elements in the hierarchy, political or social, public or private, institutional or personal. I chose to speak.”
Sallie Bingham’s feminist voice in the prelude to her memoir, “Passion and Prejudice,” has the crackle of distant Confederate gunfire. The shots get louder as the author settles down to the business at hand, unveiling the secrets and wrongdoing that she believes led to Kentucky’s notorious family feud, the war between the Binghams. By the end of her recollections, even her closest relatives will have been fired upon at close range.
For the record:
12:00 AM, Mar. 19, 1989 FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Sunday March 19, 1989 Home Edition Book Review Page 15 Book Review Desk 2 inches; 48 words Type of Material: Correction
Regarding Riva Berger Tooley’s review of “Passion and Prejudice: A Family Memoir” by Sallie Bingham (Book Review, Feb. 19). In the following sentence, the word “age” was mistakenly substituted for “rage.” The sentence should have read: “Most of the points that the jittery author tries to make about modern society become obscured by her rage.”
Two books have already been published about the downfall of the Binghams, but this is the first by an insider. For all its promise, “Passion and Prejudice” is less a revealing memoir than a scorched earth policy toward the author’s family.
Twelve years ago, Sallie Bingham, the daughter of the owner of the Louisville Courier-Journal, one of the nation’s most respected newspapers, returned to her family after 15 years in Manhattan, two unsuccessful marriages and an erratic writing career. The weary prodigal daughter craved emotional security. “I was tired, and I was afraid,” she recalls. She spells out what happened upon her return. Hoping to nurture herself, two young sons, and her flagging career, she repressed painful memories of fierce sibling rivalries, of the family’s patrician manners that concealed their inability to communicate, and of the absence of intimacy with her parents that used to fill her with frustration when she was a child.
During the preceding decade, while Sallie had lived in Manhattan, she’d been on the board that governed the family’s communications empire. Frightened at the thought of serious involvement in the family business, she’d persuaded her husband to serve in her stead, confining her interest to the regular dividend checks that subsidized their life style. When she returned to Louisville, a single woman, she started taking her directorship seriously, becoming increasingly vocal about company policies. Her challenges stirred the other Bingham women directors to start raising questions, timidly at first.
Sallie describes how participation by shareholders, particularly female shareholders, was resisted by her brother, Barry Bingham Jr., who had been editor and publisher of the Pulitzer prize-winning paper since 1971. Giving her account of a luncheon she and her sister Eleanor had with three of Barry’s managers, Sallie says, “We were told . . . we were talking too much at board meetings. The warning was crisp and clear. Shut up, or face terrible, although undescribed, consequences.” Finally, Barry Jr., implacable in his opposition to interference by Bingham women, issued an ultimatum: His mother, his wife and his sister would leave the board, or he would resign as publisher.
Sallie, alone, balked. She recounts that when her father passed the word that Barry might kill himself if she persisted, she dug in her heels. In March, 1984, she was voted off the board by the family. Sallie retaliated swiftly. She shocked Louisville and the journalistic community by putting her 15% share of the business on the auction block, a move that within two years resulted in the $434-million sale of all the Bingham holdings.
It was a bitter end to the 70-year family ownership of a newspaper that had been the pride of the South. And it was the virtual destruction of a distinguished but fatally flawed family.
“Later, many people would ask me why the family never ‘talked,’ why the disaster--as some saw it--of the sale of the companies was allowed to happen without an attempt to untangle personal motives . . . . The lack of any real basis for communication in the family made such an informal ‘get-together’ unimaginable,” Sallie remembers.
Sallie’s memoir, anxiously awaited by her relatives, is hardly likely to encourage family communication. More Freudian than Faulknerian in her approach, she drags us relentlessly through the family closet, where she picks up each skeleton, turns it this way and that, and leaves the reader with the suggestion, at least, that almost everyone except the author has been guilty of foul play.
Her main quarry is her grandfather, Judge Robert Worth Bingham, whose first wife was supposed to have died in a car accident. Sallie suggests that her grandmother actually leaped to her death and that her father, Barry Sr., developed amnesia to avoid the reality. But, she cautions, “It is only speculation.” The Judge subsequently married Mary Lily Kenan Flagler, the widow of an oil tycoon with a $100-million estate. The author hypothesizes, “Possibly all three were linked by syphilis, acquired by Flagler during the wild young days at Standard Oil . . . . Repeating a much ballyhooed story, Sallie reminds us that the Judge’s second wife died in mysterious circumstances eight months after their wedding and after she bequeathed the judge the $5 million that became the seed money of the Bingham fortune. Dirty money, the heiress assures us.
The author links her relatives to lesbianism, alcoholism, murder, insanity, and complicity with the CIA, basing her interpretations on material that is curious enough to warrant suspicions, but too meager for reasonable conclusions.
The revelations are more florid than fair. Careful research and corroboration are rejected in favor of gossip and innuendo. Sallie Bingham, a Radcliffe magna cum laude and published author, knows better. The kindest interpretation is that in her exuberance to do in the family, she’s willing to scuttle the basic principles of scholarship.
Most of the points that the jittery author tries to make about modern society become obscured by her age. What a shame. This talented writer has a depth of experience she might have brought to the serious issue of prejudice and provincialism in the South. Real insight into her tragic family struggles could have helped the rest of us understand the potential destructiveness of inherited money, and the difficulties faced by third- and fourth-generation family-business owners. The one theme that does emerge intact is the struggle that women face in asserting themselves in male-dominated enterprises. Any woman who has ever prefaced her remark with, “I know this is a stupid question, but . . . " will find a kindred spirit in Sallie Bingham.
This loveless book reads partly as an expiation, partly as an eruption of jealously linked to early frustrations with mother, and partly as a defiant self-vindication. Sallie’s immediate relatives have banded together in an attempt to refute her account by sending major publications throughout the country, a detailed analysis of the memoir’s factual inaccuracies. Apart from setting the record straight in the Kentucky archives, the Bingham counterattack wasn’t really necessary. “Passion and Prejudice” stands alone as clear and convincing proof that facts are sometimes the enemy of truth. The nugget, here, lies not in the history of the author’s family, but in the portrayal of her own psyche.
In her quest for self, Sallie poses two soul searching questions that are unlikely to endear her to a large audience: “How does a woman who inherits wealth and position justify herself?” And, “What is the role of glamour, magic, and excitement in privileged white upper-class life?” My guess is that the one most likely to rejoice in the publication of “Passion and Prejudice"--which ought to be retitled “Sallie’s Revenge"--is the author herself, the powerless, female middle-child who is on top of her family at last. This time she’s gotten their attention.