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The life of Henrietta Bingham, as recounted by her great-niece Emily in Irrepressible, is so engrossing that readers will finish the book astonished at not having heard of her before. Some people’s lives are noteworthy mainly due to the celebrated circles they ran in, and it is certainly true that the dazzling roster of Henrietta Bingham’s relatives, friends, and male and female lovers might earn her a detailed biography. But she was hardly just an also-ran. In the 1920s and 30s she spent time in England, becoming a kind of muse to the Bloomsbury Group, “one of very few Americans to penetrate that elite set.” She was an alluring violet-eyed beauty, pursued by both men and women, among them the sculptor Stephen Tomlin, actor-producer John Houseman, novelist David Garnett, painter Dora Carrington, Proust translator Mina Kirstein, actress Peggy Lehmann and the tennis star Helen Jacobs.
Famous friends notwithstanding, Henrietta’s story is riveting, inspiring and saddening on its own terms. Born in 1901 to a prominent Louisville family, she was the middle child between brothers, an athlete and a tomboy who loved riding horses. When she was twelve years old, she and her mother Babes were riding in a car en route to the summer house of Henrietta’s grandmother. Nearing a railroad crossing, her uncle who was driving paused to wipe his eyeglasses and somehow didn’t see the approaching train. Henrietta’s mother was killed in the accident. Her father, Judge Robert Worth Bingham, was on his way to hear a case in Cincinnati and so escaped the wreck. The family, it is fair to say, never recovered fully afterwards. Henrietta, already the Judge’s favorite, became an emotional surrogate for his adored dead wife, a sometimes suffocating role she continued playing until his death in 1937. Their relationship was a tangle of interdependence that would have gratified Sophocles. When Henrietta was fifteen, her father married Mary Lily Flagler, then the richest woman in the United States. She would die within a year, leaving her husband five million dollars he used to purchase The Louisville Times and The Courier-Journal. Seven years later Henrietta reacted to the news of her father’s third and final marriage by vomiting “for five straight hours.” Enough said.
As a student at Smith College Henrietta captured the heart of her young English professor, Mina Kirstein, whose brother Lincoln would later found the New York City Ballet. Henrietta never graduated from Smith, cited by their Administrative Board as a “Detriment to Community,” but her love affair with Mina continued after Kirstein was granted a leave of absence from teaching to study in Europe. The couple toured France and Italy, settling in London in the autumn of 1922 where they both became psychoanalysis patients of Dr. Ernest Jones, a disciple and later biographer of Sigmund Freud. Mina and Henrietta hoped the doctor could cure their homosexuality, then believed to be a result of arrested childhood development.
Bingham’s book provides a fascinating if dispiriting record of the 20th century’s oscillating acceptance of homosexuality in England and America. Progress in this area was anything but steady. In the 1920s it was far easier to be a lesbian than it would be during the 1940s and 50s. “Many of Henrietta’s friends and lovers–Peggy Lehmann, Tallulah Bankhead, Hope Williams, Bea Lillie, and Katharine ‘Kit’ Cornell–belonged to a transatlantic lesbian and bisexual theater set whose roots reached back to Isadora Duncan and Eva LeGallienne. During the twenties, when a ‘riotously promiscuous lesbian chic’ flourished in select crowds, the theater–and later film–going public could be teased with the possibility of same-sex female relationships as long as no one named it outright.”
In 1928 Radclyffe Hall published her groundbreaking lesbian novel, The Well of Loneliness, positing ‘inversion’ as a congenital trait, a refutation of Freudian theory. This “serious novel on a forbidden theme” was banned in Britain. The legality of its publication was upheld in the US by a celebrated 1929 court case in New York. Henrietta certainly read the novel as well as Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, also published in 1928.
Judge Bingham was appointed by FDR in 1933 as Ambassador to the Court of St. James, serving in London until 1937, while his daughter conducted a long, mostly happy romance with the tennis champion Helen Jacobs. But all of Henrietta’s love affairs eventually withered under the heat of restlessness: “Not only did Henrietta’s desires range widely, but her history suggests that the more tightly she was held the more restless she became.” Thousands of letters to her survived, but sadly only two dozen that she wrote herself, so that, as Bingham notes in her Postscript, “we have flickering images of Henrietta, mostly through longing gazes” of the men and women who loved her.
After her father died, a major emotional and financial prop was missing. He left the bulk of his estate to her younger brother Barry and his children. Henrietta had bought a 200-acre horse farm in Kentucky, Harmony Landing, but it wasn’t possible for her to live openly there with Helen Jacobs. Times had changed following the Depression, and “after a decade of relative visibility, lesbians and gay men faced a widespread backlash that painted them as suspect and degenerate.” Female athletes were especially open to suspicion. Henrietta, always an enthusiastic drinker, began getting drunk at the wrong time and place, and in 1941 she was hospitalized with the first in a series of breakdowns. A lobotomy was first proposed by her doctor in 1948 and rejected more than once. Two years later the New York Times announced, with a sad little error in the name of the property, “Miss Henrietta Bingham has sold Hominy Landing Farm.” The same year she underwent electroconvulsive therapy to relieve her depression, according to her doctor, “a difficult and arduous process because her reactions necessitated continuous sedation with intravenous and [forced] tube feedings until response to the therapy could be obtained.” The final decades of her life, from the 1950’s until her death in June 1968, only a year before the Stonewall Riots, follow the grim trajectory described in The Celluloid Closet, Vito Russo’s treatise on cinematic portrayals of homosexuality. Before Stonewall gay characters in film were doomed to sticky endings, generally murder or suicide, the unmistakable message being, “Don’t try this at home, kids.” Little wonder that Henrietta suffered from depression. Beginning in the 1940’s, she “grew estranged from a number of key figures in her life, and felt sidelined, rejected and abandoned.” Perhaps fortunately for the reader, the trail of biographical evidence grows fainter during the 50s and 60s, when “she was less remembered, less recorded, certainly no longer on the cultural cusp.” She died in New York at 67 of a gastric hemorrhage after years of alcohol and drug dependence.
Emily Bingham has given us a faithful unretouched portrait of a bewitching, courageous, sometimes maddening woman. Her story leaves the reader wondering what might have happened if the accident that killed her mother hadn’t occurred, or if she were born several decades later. The biography makes clear that Henrietta paid a price for her father’s enmeshed dependence, and an equally heavy one for having lesbian relationships during an era when gay people were reviled as unnatural and degenerate. My advice is don’t wait for the movie–get a copy of this engaging book and read it now.
Irrepressible: The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham
By Emily Bingham
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Hardcover, 9780809094646, 384 pp.