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Excerpt: 'Irrepressible: The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham' by Emily Bingham

An excerpt of Emily Bingham's latest, "Irrepressible: The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham." WFPL's Jonathan Bastian recently interviewed Emily Bingham about this book. You can find that interview here.

The surest way to make a child curious about an ancestor is never to discuss her. And when it came to Henrietta Bingham, my great-aunt with the most great-aunt-like name, there was much to be curious about. Born in 1901, she came of age amid tragedy and enormous wealth, and spent much of her twenties and thirties ripping through the Jazz Age like a character in an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. There were parties, music, great quantities of alcohol, and, on both sides of the Atlantic, lovers — lots of them, men and women, but far more women than men. In Henrietta’s time, that took courage. Later there would be mental breakdowns, scandals, and a decline no one talked about. Within our family, charity meant silence when it came to Henrietta.

Long-ago forebears who defy propriety and cause wringing of hands can feel as thrilling and dramatic as fairy-tale figures, but even for those who knew Henrietta, she was an almost magical physical presence with a muse-like influence, an irresistible way of being with others.

They talked about her eyes. People had never seen “eyes like Henrietta’s,” “purple eyes with tangled lashes.” In the absence of color photographs, their arresting hue would be lost to history were it not for her lovers’ attempts to capture them in language. Th e actor and producer John Houseman, Orson Welles’s collaborator and the winner of an Academy Award, called them “violet- blue.” “Brilliantly blue,” off ered the novelist David Garnett. But it was not just their color. “She looks the memory of her eyes into you,” a poet explained. They were “fascinating” with her “coquettish” lashes — “the eyes of a too- wise little girl.” Henrietta’s hair was jet, her face oval, her skin cream- white, and one companion declared she “should preach, her voice is so divine.” Th e painter Dora Carrington called her a “Giotto Madonna.”

One London night in 1923, at a party in the studio of the artist Duncan Grant, twenty-two-year-old Henrietta mixed deliciously unfamiliar cocktails, played the mandolin, and sang. Her voice, soft, low, “faintly husky,” moved over “Water Boy”— a chain-gang tune later recorded by Paul Robeson and Odetta— exuding extraordinary warmth.

There ain’t no sweat boy
That’s on this mountain
That run like mine boy,
That run like mine.

A lament about exploitation became a seductive performance that helped establish her position as a “Kentucky princess” in the Bloomsbury Group, the high-minded bohemians who coalesced around the novelist Virginia Woolf and her sister, the painter Vanessa Bell. (Henrietta was one of very few Americans to penetrate that elite set, where conventions of marriage, art, and domestic life were often flagrantly disregarded.) Her singing violated cultural, racial, and sexual boundaries, and was just the sort of transgression she delighted in making during the Jazz Age years. But Henrietta did more than assume the accoutrements of 1920s youth culture. The Charleston and the Black Bottom, saxophones, stride piano, whiskey jugs and blues women, all then emerging from marginalized African American communities, were for her points of deep identification, sources of rapture, and proof that genius could overcome discrimination and injustice. This privileged white southern debutante taught herself to play the saxophone and promoted black performers, some of whom became her friends. It is no coincidence that these art forms bristled with eroticized energy, for Henrietta’s greatest connection with the spirit of the 1920s and 1930s was the way her youth blazed with sex. The passage of time usually drains the past of desire and its fulfillment, but if Henrietta had an essence, this was it.

Her provocative acts succeeded because they drew on something deep in her, an emotional sweat that showed in the panic attacks and destructive behavior she spent years untangling in the consulting room of an eminent London psychoanalyst, Ernest Jones. Sigmund Freud’s pioneering and controversial theory of the unconscious mind revolutionized twentieth- century ideas about the individual and society — and, of course, sex — and undergoing psychoanalysis offered hope of self- understanding and acceptance. At the same time, arousing others distracted Henrietta from her problems. It was deeply satisfying — and she was incredibly good at it, too. Th at London night in 1923, she blasted into the hearts of Dora Carrington and a sculptor named Stephen Tomlin. Like many before and many after, they couldn’t drive her from their minds. They were caught, as I would be nearly a century after them, in her irresistibility.

Henrietta began as a curiosity to me, a historian who had moved home to Kentucky to raise a family. She died in 1968 when I was three — I never knew her. But my husband and I appreciated her unconventionality and liked her unfashionable Victorian name, so we gave it to our newborn daughter. Only then did my startled father tell me that to him Henrietta was a mess, an embarrassment, “a three-dollar bill.” His sisters remembered her as fascinating but dangerous. To be like Henrietta, one of them told me, would mean to “never be married, never have children, and be a lesbian.” But her name was again among the living and despite such judgments, relatives, family friends, and people I barely knew wanted to talk about the earlier Henrietta. They came forward with photographs, bejeweled cigarette cases, bits of gossip, a few crumbling letters, and hints about where more Henriettiana might be found.
So began my pursuit of one of the countless outsiders who populate the past. If we try hard enough, can we call them back, give them form beyond mere names and dates and whispers? I found Henrietta listed in the indexes of memoirs and biographies and scholarly volumes. Visits to archives across the United States and in England unearthed discoveries, some marginal, some mother lodes. I mined quite a few of these repositories before heeding the advice my father had off ered in 2006, shortly before he died.

“You might want to look up in the attic. I think there’s an old trunk of Henrietta’s.”

The attic was in my former home, a Georgian mansion overlooking the Ohio River on the outskirts of Louisville. Henrietta was seventeen when her millionaire father acquired the place with a legacy from America’s richest woman, his second wife. An earlier, hasty look in the trunk marked H.W.B. had revealed a hodgepodge of old clothes and shoes. To figure out Henrietta’s magnetism, I needed more — primarily letters and diaries — so I wasn’t in a hurry to comb through the steamer chest. But on a raw January morning in 2009, I went up to the gable storeroom on the southeast side of the house. Lining the trunk were oranged London newspapers from 1937 — she had apparently packed it in E gland during her father’s last months as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s ambassador to Britain. I tried on a pair of woven driving gloves and turned over a hand-tinted photograph of the mother who perished when Henrietta was twelve. Th ere were puzzling items of finely made women’s underwear marked with the initials H.T.C., and, thrillingly, monogrammed tennis clothes belonging to Helen Jacobs, the Martina Navratilova of the 1930s, with whom Henrietta became, in the parlance of the day, “close friends for a number of years.”

Hours passed. The soot was making me cough. I stood up to unscrew the lightbulb hanging overhead. Then, in the garret’s dimmest corner, I saw another trunk, scuffed and dented, with peeling Cunard Line stickers. I pulled out a heavy wooden Dreadnought Driver tennis racket, a slender riding whip, a first edition of Virginia Woolf ’s The Years. I was bent over and up to my armpits when my hand struck stacks of well-preserved letters.

They were love letters to Henrietta, nearly two hundred of them, from Stephen Tomlin and John Houseman. Here she was, seen through their besotted eyes. “Dearest Creature”; “Darling”; “My Angel”; “My Beloved.” They had been there all my life, almost directly above my childhood bed.

Excerpted from IRREPRESSIBLE: The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham by Emily Bingham, published in June 2015 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2015 by Emily Bingham. All rights reserved.