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Louisville's Emily Bingham Explores the Remarkable Life of a Jazz Age Ancestor

The Bingham family's legacy looms large over Louisville. The family purchased the Courier-Journal in 1918 and built a media empire in the city. They eventually sold a number of their holdings—including the newspaper—to the Gannett Co. for $300 million in 1986.

Emily Bingham is a writer and historian in Louisville. For years, she vowed never to write about her family. But when Emily decided to name her daughter Henrietta—the name of Emily’s great-aunt—wild stories were unexpectedly revealed by others.

Born in 1901, Henrietta Bingham lived a life of extreme wealth. She traveled widely, drank heavily, and had legendary affairs with both men and women. Henrietta even made a name for herself in the Bloomsbury Group of London. But her lifestyle meant she was rarely discussed in the Bingham household. This prompted Emily Bingham to write the book, “Irrepressible: The Jazz Age life of Henrietta Bingham," which was released this week.

(You can read an excerpt here.)

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When did you get a clue that Henrietta led a remarkable life?

I began to get those clues pretty much within months of starting to scratch around, and they came mostly from the footnotes or the indexes of book about the Bloomsbury group. That was the group into which Henrietta fell in her early 20s, as a very young person …[this was in] in the 1920s when she went to London and started establishing a name for herself.”
What were some of the challenges of researching this book?

The book was a huge challenge because I had no letters by Henrietta. I had no diaries that she wrote. So it meant that I had to find her in the lives of others…It was like stitching little shards of mirror together.

What made her so desirable in the eyes of her numerous suitors?

Almost anyone can think about someone who just has incredible allure; someone who just had the dynamism and appeal that just sort of oozes from them. That’s who I just think she was. I don’t think any picture comes close to capturing it. It wasn’t something that could be stopped on film. It was something in her eyes, it was in her voice—this deep low caressing voice of the South. But where did it come from? Where does it ever come from in a person? That was a question I spent a lot of time thinking about.

Jonathan Bastian is the midday host for WFPL News.