A Bingham Buys A Newspaper: The Life And Legacy Of Robert Worth Bingham
A century ago this month, Louisvillians picked up a copy of The Courier-Journal and learned the newspaper had been sold. The new owner was Robert Worth Bingham, a 46-year old attorney, former circuit court judge and occasional politician.
His purchase launched a print and broadcast media empire that shaped the commonwealth for nearly 70 years, until the Bingham family sold the newspaper to Gannett in 1986.
Bingham’s story is one of humble roots and international prominence, of heartbreak and scandal. This week, WFPL is broadcasting a three-part documentary looking at Bingham’s life and recognizing the centennial. You can listen to the full piece in the player below, or read some of the highlights.
Bingham’s Early Life
Bingham’s earliest memories were rooted in stories about the Civil War and the fight of Confederates to preserve the Old South.
He wasn’t much more than a toddler in the early 1870s, when a shrouded figure approached the family home in rural North Carolina. The apparition terrified the boy as it seemed to float up the front steps and cross the porch.
When the specter drew close enough to touch, it removed its pointed white hood. The young Robert Worth Bingham realized the ghost was actually his father. The shroud he was wearing was a Ku Klux Klan robe.
“He was the son of a Confederate veteran who wore his Confederate credentials throughout the rest of the 19th century,” said Alex S. Jones. He’s a former New York Times reporter and co-author of “The Patriarch: The Rise and Fall of the Bingham Dynasty.”
Three generations of Bingham men had been educators and schoolmasters. Young Robert Worth was expected to follow in their footsteps.
“He was close to his family always, but he had larger aspirations,” Jones said. “He wanted to be in the larger world and he wanted to be in a position of real power and influence. I think that was very important to him.”
Bingham’s ticket to a better life arrived in the form of a beautiful young socialite named Eleanor Miller.
“She was apparently a really delightful person and she also had money,” said Emily Bingham, a historian and great-granddaughter of Robert Worth Bingham.
Eleanor was from a wealthy Louisville family who spent summers in the cool mountain air of Asheville, North Carolina. She met Bingham in 1894, when he was teaching Latin at the family school just outside of town. Bingham was smitten and broke the news to his father: He planned to move to Kentucky and marry Eleanor.
Bingham’s early years in Kentucky were a whirlwind. He got a law degree and started a practice. He and Eleanor had three children. They built a house overlooking Cherokee Park. And he began to work his way up the Louisville social ladder.
In 1903, the young Democrat was appointed to complete an unexpired term as Jefferson County Attorney. Four years later when the mayor and other local officials were forced from office on charges of election fraud, the governor tapped Bingham to serve as interim mayor. In his brief time on the job, he banned Sunday liquor sales, replaced a corrupt police chief and 50 officers, and ordered a review of the city’s books and public hospital.
“He was seen as a reformer within what had become sort of a boss system, and he wanted it be more responsive,” Emily Bingham said. “He wanted government to be doing more things and cleaning things up and I don't think the Democratic Party was particularly interested in that.”
When Bingham ran for his own term as mayor in 1907, party bosses refused to put his name on the ballot. In 1910, he ran for a seat on the State Court of Appeals — as a Republican — and was again defeated by the Democratic machine. Then in 1911, the Republican governor at the time appointed Bingham to serve on the Jefferson Circuit Court. Although he only spent 10 months on the bench, he would be known as Judge Bingham for the rest of his life.
Tragedy And Scandal
Bingham returned to his law practice after his time in circuit court, but then — tragedy. An interurban trolley struck the car in which Eleanor was riding, and she was killed.
In the months that followed, Bingham would rent a downtown theater near his office and have the projectionist show a home movie of Eleanor dancing at a party. Alone in the silent theater, Bingham watched the flickering images of Eleanor waltzing across the screen, over and over again.
Two years later, Bingham reconnected with an old friend from his college days. Mary Lily Kenan was a widow from a prominent North Carolina family. She had married Henry Flagler, a founder of Standard Oil and a real estate developer in Florida. When he died, Flagler left Mary Lily as much as $100 million
“And Judge Bingham romanced her, he went after her, as did a number of other people, but she seemed to find him more trustworthy than others, perhaps because they had known each other at North Carolina,” Alex S. Jones said.
If marriage to Eleanor Miller made Bingham well-off, marriage to Mary Lily Flagler would make him fantastically wealthy. Her family opposed the union, though, feeling Bingham wasn’t a worthy suitor. So he agreed to renounce any claim to Mary Lily’s fortune. But that didn’t stop the gossip. Their marriage in New York City in late 1916 fueled rumors back in Louisville that Bingham married only for money.
“I think to say that's all he was doing is not fair,” Emily Bingham said. “I think he had real ideals and I think he had goals that he felt were really noble … so yes and no, I think he saw that in order to achieve what he wanted to achieve, wealth was going to make it possible.”
The union started well enough but soon turned sour. Bingham’s children disliked Mary Lily and would have little to do with her. The judge worked long hours, often leaving his new wife alone in a city she didn’t know. The stress drove her to find relief in old habits.
Historian and Robert Worth Bingham biographer William Ellis said Mary Lily was an alcoholic. Emily Bingham said she has strong evidence Mary Lily was addicted to opiates. And Alex S. Jones believes Mary Lily had syphilis, which he thinks she contracted from her first husband.
“And when Judge Bingham found out that, he basically shunned her in a lot of ways,” Jones said.
Emily Bingham disagrees with the syphilis theory, but does think that Mary Lily was eager to win back the affections of her new husband.
She signed over enough oil stocks to generate an annual income of $50,000 for Bingham. And a few months later, Mary Lily executed a hand-written codicil to her will that would give him $5 million from her estate.
Five weeks later, she was dead.
The story in the July 28, 1917, edition of the Courier-Journal said Mary Lily had succumbed to myocarditis — an inflammation of the heart muscle.
When news of the codicil hit the papers, the rumors about Bingham turned from ugly to vicious. Gossipers alleged he and his doctors were, at best, negligent in their care of Mary Lily and, at worst, complicit in her death. The accusations made Mary Lily’s family determined to stop Bingham from getting his bequest.
“They went so far as to effectively accusing him of murdering her, poisoning her… they had her body exhumed,” Jones said.
Emily Bingham said the circumstances of Mary Lily’s death became an enduring source of gossip and innuendo.“There was no way to avoid that and it was going to be a political albatross for [Judge Bingham] for the rest of his life,” she said.
Mary Lily’s family never released the results of her autopsy. After months of fighting, they relented and Bingham got his $5 million. He was now one of the wealthiest men in Kentucky. It would take him only 10 days to make his first big purchase with his new fortune.
A Bingham Buys A Newspaper
On August 7, 1918, the front page of the Courier-Journal announced the news: “The Courier-Journal and The Times Change Ownership.” Robert Worth Bingham had bought controlling interests in the two daily newspapers. He would eventually pay a total of just under $1.5 million.
For the previous fifty years, The Courier-Journal had been owned by the Haldeman family.
“The Courier had a national reputation already as being a fairly progressive paper,” said William Ellis. “The Haldeman family, I think, were tired of newspapering as an old saying goes and wanted to get rid of it... and when the paper got put up for sale, Bingham had just gotten his fortune and he snapped at it.”
For a man who suffered a stalled political career and ugly gossip about the death of his second wife, the papers became a way for Bingham to control the narrative about his own life. But Emily Bingham says there was something more.
“He wanted there to be a more clean government, healthy, well educated, more prosperous state and he just saw a lot of politics getting in the way of that,” she said. “And so, I think the opportunity with the newspaper really was a way for him to project his ideals and his power in a way that he truly saw was going to be beneficial.”
In his first years as owner and publisher, Bingham supported prohibition, women’s suffrage and the League of Nations. He sought to break the grip of horse racing and coal-mining interests on Frankfort. And he successfully fought a proposed state law that would have banned the teaching of evolution in schools.
The papers would also serve to highlight inconsistencies in Bingham's own social views. For example, he opposed the resurgent KKK of the early 20th century, calling it un-American and unpatriotic, yet he embraced the Reconstruction-era Klan that his father joined back in North Carolina, believing it upheld the culture of the Old South. Bingham supported better education for black children, yet his newspapers published overtly racist cartoons.
“He was not a modern liberal. He was an old fashioned, early 20th century progressive,” William Ellis said. “He believed black people should have certain civil rights, but he never was an advocate of desegregation.”
Bingham maintained the Democratic leanings of the papers that started under the Haldeman family. His editorial endorsements and hefty campaign contributions helped shape a number of political careers, including those of Democrats A. B. “Happy” Chandler and Alben Barkley. But Bingham also embraced Republican candidates when he thought they better aligned with his progressive views.
Bingham made the Courier into a statewide newspaper, delivering it to readers in the far corners of the commonwealth. Then in 1922, he formed a printing company named Standard Gravure and he launched the state’s first radio station: WHAS.
Between his newspapers and his radio station, Bingham built statewide platforms to share his ideals and promote his agenda.
In the early 1920s, the state’s tobacco farmers were hurting. Overproduction and powerful corporate monopolies combined to drive tobacco prices so low that farmers often had to sell their crops for less than it cost them to produce. So Bingham decided to organize growers into a marketing cooperative that could demand higher prices from tobacco companies. He called it “my great plan.”
“He was all over the state making speeches, trying to persuade farmers to put their tobacco in these pools and store it in the storage facilities he was helping to pay to build,” Emily Bingham said.
Bingham invested more than a million dollars of his own money in the venture. He pushed a cooperative marketing bill that bore his name through the state legislature, and then defended it before the U.S. Supreme Court. Emily Bingham says some 60,000 Kentucky farmers pledged their tobacco to the new cooperative.
Soon Bingham was touring the nation, touting cooperatives for other farm commodities, ranging from wheat in Kansas to potatoes in Maine. His status among farmers rose to where he was considered a candidate for governor, for the U.S. Senate, and even the presidency.
But cooperatives slowly began to crumble as prices moderated and farmers broke ranks to sell outside the pool. By the later 1920s, they had all but disbanded. The administrative framework of Bingham’s Burley Tobacco Coop lingered, though, and it provided the foundation for a new, federally-backed tobacco program that launched in 1941 and lasted more than 60 years.
With the collapse of the cooperatives, Ellis says Bingham dropped his political aspirations and focused on his thriving media businesses.
“I think he realized he would never be elected to anything because he was still kind of an outsider and those old Louisville families I don't think ever fully accepted Bingham — he was looked on as something of an interloper,” Ellis said. “And I think he realized that he could have more influence as a publisher than he ever could as somebody running for office.”
Plus, business was booming. By 1923, the Courier-Journal was turning a profit of nearly $1,000 a day. In the first decade of Bingham ownership, circulation for the daily papers doubled to more than 200,000.
By the early 1930s, as the country languished under the Great Depression, Bingham came to believe that only one man could save the nation: New York Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He wrote FDR in 1931 to pledge every resource he had to support a Roosevelt bid for president.
When the time came, Bingham made good on his pledge. He gave thousands of dollars to FDR’s campaign and he published a string of glowing articles and editorials about the candidate. When the ballots were tallied, FDR carried Kentucky by 185,000 votes and the nation by a landslide.
In gratitude, FDR nominated Bingham to be the U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain.
“[Robert Bingham] loved England… he loved British everything,” Emily Bingham said. “He loved that culture, he read English novels, he was fascinated with British politics.”
But Senate confirmation wasn’t guaranteed. Some in Congress didn’t trust Bingham’s pro-British sentiments. Political enemies also revived the mysterious circumstances of Mary Lily Bingham’s death and the codicil that gave her husband $5 million. Emily Bingham says that even President Roosevelt reportedly called Bingham “my favorite murderer.” But in the end, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee unanimously confirmed the Louisvillian.
Before Bingham could leave for London, he had to decide who among his three children would oversee the newspapers in his absence. His oldest son, Robert Worth Jr., was an alcoholic who often couldn’t hold the jobs his father arranged for him. His daughter, Henrietta, had her own problems with addiction as well as anxiety and depression. She also had romantic relationships with women, which carried with it a significant stigma at the time.
“[Henrietta] was a super strong character,” said Emily Bingham, who is also the author of a biography of her great aunt titled “Irrepressible: The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham.”
“[She was] someone who herself made a deep impression on people around her and was pegged by her father as a potential leader,” she added.
That left the youngest child: Barry was a Harvard graduate who was working his way up the family businesses.
“[Barry] felt a great duty to his father,” said Alex S. Jones. “And he was also a very idealistic man who had a significant work ethic, was very handsome, was very smart and was quite lovable.”
So Bingham asked 27-year old Barry to be president and co-publisher of the newspapers. Then in May, 1933, the new ambassador set sail for England with his daughter and his third wife, Aleen Hilliard, at his side.
“He arrives in London ready to work hard and really be not just a figurehead and I think there are different ways to go about being ambassador,” said Emily Bingham “One of them is to be pretty passive and ceremonial and one is to really have a role in shaping policy, and I definitely think he had ambitions to be more of the latter.”
That included calling attention to the rising threat of Fascism in Europe. In his first public address in London, Bingham warned that another conflict on the scale of World War I would destroy civilization. “There is no time for any other thought,” Bingham said, “except what shall we do to be saved.”
Even as political tensions in Europe escalated, Bingham’s mind was never far from home. He communicated regularly with Barry about the newspapers and Kentucky politics. He also returned to Louisville as often as his diplomatic duties would allow. In early 1937 he sought special dispensation to come monitor relief efforts during the epic Ohio River flood that January. Bingham’s newspaper continued to publish even though its downtown offices were inundated. And his radio announcers at WHAS remained on the air for 187 straight hours broadcasting flood bulletins.
A ‘Public Trust’
As 1937 wore on, Bingham’s health deteriorated. Throughout his life, he had suffered headaches, high blood pressure, eczema and other ailments that doctors could never attribute to any specific cause. Now he was experiencing pain throughout his body. Sapped of energy, Bingham was unable to fulfill his role as ambassador and requested a leave of absence to seek treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Exploratory surgery in mid-December found his body riddled with cancer. Three days later he was dead.
Robert Worth Bingham was 66 years old.
FDR sent his special train car to transport the ambassador’s body back to Louisville. He was buried with military honors at Cave Hill Cemetery beside his first wife, Eleanor Miller. A few days later in London, 700 British dignitaries attended a memorial service for Bingham at Westminster Abbey.
In time, Bingham's name largely faded from public memory.
Then, following the sale of the Bingham newspaper and broadcast properties in 1986, Robert Worth Bingham's name returned to the news. Several books about the Bingham family reignited the controversy surrounding the death of his second wife. But they also affirmed Bingham’s role in starting an influential media empire.
“He laid the foundation by making the Courier-Journal and the Louisville Times and the Bingham ownership of media in Louisville into something that could be built upon and I think that that was a great contribution,” Alex Jones said. “What they became could not have happened without Judge Bingham.
Under the leadership of Bingham’s son, Barry Sr., and his grandson, Barry Jr., Time Magazine ranked the Courier-Journal a top-10 American newspaper in the 1950, 60s and 70s alongside outlets in New York, Chicago and other much larger cities. The Courier won six Pulitzer Prizes for journalism excellence under Bingham ownership. And the paper would inspire and infuriate readers with its editorial views on racial issues, education, politics, foreign affairs and the environment – views that were often more liberal than those of many Kentuckians.
In his will, Robert Worth Bingham said the newspapers were a “public trust” that he believed must be operated so as to provide “the greatest public service.”
“I think that he set a standard with the Courier-Journal and the people who worked with him of a newspaper … that was going to try to put in one publication a lot of information that was important for citizens to know to be good citizens,” said Emily Bingham. “I think he really wanted that populace to have that opportunity to engage more with their community, their state, and the globe... That is a great ideal.”
Whether readers agreed or disagreed with the Binghams, during their ownership the Courier-Journal and Louisville Times connected Kentuckians to each other and to the greater world in a way that no other civic institution could.
John Gregory is a writer and media producer in Louisville.
Special thanks to:
Berea College Special Collections and Archives
University of Kentucky Special Collections Research Center
The Oral History Center at University of Louisville Archives and Records Center
Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum
The studios of the Radio Foundation in New York