The second child and only daughter of Louisville politician, judge, and publishing magnate Robert Worth Bingham, Henrietta was born in 1901 into a Kentucky of thoroughbreds, cotillions, and country clubs. Her Louisville was a world most of us have only experienced in myth -- her grandmother Henrietta Long Miller owned an imposing mansion in Old Louisville and an equally impressive summer home in Peewee Valley -- but which was often too rigid for her tastes. Upon graduation from Louisville Collegiate School, Henrietta sought refuge first at Smith College (where she began an affair with magnetic young composition professor and heiress Mina Kirstein, whose family co-founded Filene's Department Stores), then abroad, where her gracious disposition and violet eyes captivated the free-spirited intellectuals of the Bloomsbury group. Among her confidantes and lovers were Wimbledon champion Helen Hull Jacobs and actor John Houseman; her complex and co-dependent relationship with her larger-than-life father cast a decidedly Southern Gothic shadow over her life of privilege.
Ultimately, the societal norms of Henrietta's era -- it's heartbreaking to remember that, less than a century ago, gay Americans were forced into the closet by the imminent threat of criminal charges and physical violence -- along with a lifelong history of mental health and substance abuse issues ultimately dulled Henrietta's flame. The outré flapper and muse became known as a sad and embarrassing branch of the Bingham family tree. When Henrietta's great-niece, the writer and historian Emily Bingham, announced her plans to name her daughter for this relative whom she'd never known, the story goes, her family blanched. Henrietta's name was considered an unwelcome burden to saddle upon a new generation of Binghams, so Emily started reconstructing her great-aunt's story. In a twist so fortuitous that it seems torn from the pages of a Hollywood script, Emily Bingham found two perfectly preserved trunks in the attic of her family's estate. Henrietta's story unfolded through the trunks' contents -- a glamorous story of love, heartbreak, and adventure. Emily graciously answered some questions about Irrepressible for HerKentucky readers.
HK: What was going through your mind when you discovered Henrietta’s trunk of memories?
EB: That day in 2009 was probably one of the greatest experiences I'll ever have as a historian. I went to that attic in my childhood home very reluctantly. I had peeked into the trunk some time before and seen a lot of very old shoes, hats, that sort of thing, and it was pure duty to spend hours on a frigid January day in the uninsulated space full of soot and lit by a single dangling bulb. The house itself was empty and did not contain my happiest childhood memories (though I did love exploring the vast attic where servants had once lived and where my father and his siblings had a lot of toys and books and old saddles stored).
The first amazing find was a massive silver flask with Henrietta's initials. It holds about two fifths of bourbon. Nothing like the discreet flapper flasks you might imagine.
Then I came across the tennis outfit that turned out to have belonged to Helen Hull Jacobs, the 1930s lesbian tennis champion. Her monogrammed shirt suggested a more intimate relationship than I knew had existed between her and my great aunt, and the clothes, which I sent to the Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, RI led me to her diaries and scrapbooks and the "joyous and satisfying life" she shared with Henrietta in the 30s and 40s.
There were some little tiny folded papers containing white powder. I thought I'd come across some illicit drug but on closer inspection they proved to be "dog powders" for Henrietta's beloved border terriers and Pekingese!
And then, as I was about to leave for the day to relieve my babysitter, I saw that another trunk was hidden in the shadows in a corner of the garret room. At the very bottom is where I found the carefully tied up and almost perfectly-preserved collection of love letters from the sculptor Stephen Tomlin and the actor/producer John Houseman. Seeing Henrietta through their besotted eyes was one of the utter thrills of my experience with this book.
HK: Was there ever a time when you thought of turning back and keeping Henrietta’s story in the past?
EB: Absolutely. My editor didn't think the book was even possible given that I had no diaries and almost no letters from Henrietta herself. So it was almost DOA. But I pushed past that with some of the discoveries in the attic and elsewhere. There was a point when her depression and addiction melded with a sad and confusing time in my life and I wondered if the project might not make me ill.
HK: I’m a Jazz Age buff, and a Kentucky native, so as I read, I was thinking both of the timeline of some of my favorite authors and historical figures (thinking, e.g., “OK, Scott and Zelda would have been here, or Gerald and Sara Murphy would have been here”) and of a very local timeline (saying things like “the Miller house was a block down from the Woman’s Club” or “of course they all thought Henrietta was a gracious hostess; she was a Louisville girl!”) It almost felt like Henrietta lived two completely separate lives –freedom in London and duty in Louisville. When you were working on the book, how did you feel that place played into Henrietta’s story?
EB: Henrietta felt very connected to her Kentucky and southern roots. There is a remarkable passage in the pages John Houseman cut from his memoir: see page 180-181. He was drawn in by the romance of Kentucky but later he came to see things in a more nuanced way. Here's a bit more of it: "I discovered that Louisville was, in reality, a typical middle-Western American city, indistinguishable from Indianapolis or Cincinnati, and that its main claim to national fame -- Churchill Downs, scene of the Kentucky Derby -- was ringed with factories and power plants that made it, without question, one of the most squalid hippodromes in the United States. Yet, for close to a century, from Foster to Fitzgerald, the legend of Louisville's romantic fascination had persisted--and not without reason. For in its own mysterious way the spell worked -- not only on public occasions such as the long Derby weekend, when the entire population, swollen by streams of visitors, lived in a state of collective alcoholic hallucination, but also, in a more intimate way, each time the natives came together and succeeded, through sheer emotional energy, in generating and sustaining an atmosphere of glamour and gaity that was no less magical for being achieved almost entirely with Bourbon and mirrors."
Henrietta loved her Miller grandmother. She also loved having a mansion to throw parties in. She dared to make passes at girls at the Louisville Country Club and kiss her lover in the elevator at the Pendennis. She went sledding in Cherokee Park and was pushed in a stroller in Central Park in Old Louisville. I was stunned when I figured out that for at least a year she and her father and elder brother occupied an apartment 5 doors away from me on Cherokee Road! London and Manhattan were much freer places for her, for sure, but I think she always wanted to come back and her thoroughbred breeding farm at Harmony Landing was the way she hoped to find her way in -- brave as a woman, a lesbian, and someone without direct experience in bloodstock (though her great uncle Dennis Long had two Derby winners in her childhood and that may have set her ambitions early).
HK: You do an amazing job of, as you say in the preface, not presuming to speak for Henrietta. Yet, you’re very fair with your assessments of her mental health and her likely dyslexia. Was this a hard line to walk?
It's always hard to walk the line between empathizing with your subject and wanting to protect them and being frank about their weaknesses and shortcomings. I believe that readers don't just want "models" and can appreciate lives that are as complicated and imperfect as their own.
HK: If you had the chance to talk to Henrietta, what would you say to her?
EB: Sing for me. Play the sax. Tell me the stories of the musicians you loved and who, doubtless, found you pretty interesting, too. What was your favorite bar, show, concert, player? Where did you feel most free? Who did you really love? Finally, "You are in the world again and people still find you lovable and irresistible and are so glad not to have lost you altogether."
Thanks so much to Emily for the amazing interview, and for writing the summer's best book. Check back later this week as HerKentucky takes you on a photo tour of Henrietta's Louisville.