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Book Review: ‘Irrepressible: The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham,’ by Emily Bingham

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When author Emily Bingham was choosing a name for her daughter, she decided on “Henrietta,” which seemed delightfully old-fashioned and was a name that ran in her distinguished Kentucky newspaper publishing family. It was the name of her grandfather’s sister.

So she was surprised at the reaction the choice stirred up: decidedly ambivalent.

It turns out that Great-Aunt Henrietta was remembered as a “black sheep,” and yet, there was very little real information to be found about her. This set Emily’s reporter’s instincts on edge and the result is a fascinating new biography: “Irrepressible: The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).  

Henrietta Bingham’s Louisville relatives had kept silent for decades about her, but Emily began nosing around and found many sources—though not all that easily. It turned out that Henrietta was gay, so even the trove of love letters and correspondence that Emily found in the attic of her own parents’ home, while passionate, was edited.

Henrietta, it seems, was a great beauty with black hair and violet eyes, (“purple eyes with tangled lashes”) who was famously alluring to women (and men too) across two continents. During the 1920s and ’30s she mixed with a sophisticated crowd that included some of the most forward-thinking and interesting people of the day, including Bloomsbury intellectuals, jazz age celebrities, and psychoanalytic pioneers.

There’s no doubt that Henrietta’s natural character was vibrant, self-assured, and fearless, but her early life was dominated by a tragedy that influenced her ever after. When she was 12, Henrietta, her younger brother and her mother were in a car accident that killed her mother. From then on her father was unusually (and some suggested neurotically) dependent on Henrietta, though he remarried twice, once to the “richest woman in America,” Mary Lily Flagler.

Henrietta grew into a woman who was able to behave in an unusually bold, devil-may-care fashion, but she was also plagued by depression and later substance abuse. It’s not possible to know in retrospect what specific issues may have troubled her, but the early loss of a parent almost always leads to problems with depression. Henrietta’s loss was complicated by the fact that she witnessed her mother’s death and that her father seems to have reacted with less fortitude than his children (though her older brother Robert suffered from alcoholism throughout his life, one of the reasons he was never seriously considered to take over as publisher of the newspaper).

Henrietta Bingham’s story is a fascinating case study of a person whose circumstances of character, birth, and timing allowed her to live a surprisingly open life as a homosexual. Her bold character, sense of humor, and lack of self-consciousness made her less ambivalent about her sexual orientation than she might have been. One of her first lovers, Mina Kirstein, who had been her teacher at Smith College, never admitted her own bisexually, and when they lived in London (so they could be together), she insisted Henrietta enter treatment with Ernest Jones, a pioneering psychoanalyst, who was an intimate of Freud’s and ultimately his biographer. (Mina also became Jones’ patient.) Psychoanalysts in those days held open-minded views, believing that everyone was essentially “bisexual,” but they also believed that living a bisexual lifestyle was neurotic and indicated an unsatisfactory resolution to the Oedipal conflict. Dr. Jones was excited to have these two new cases of female “inverts” (as they were sometimes called) and he wrote to Freud about them. His goal was to convert Henrietta to heterosexuality. Although he didn’t succeed, he was not judgmental and remained a warm and caring figure in her life for many decades.

Mina did “convert” and married, and Henrietta went on to conquer a string of British beauties, including the Bloomsbury painter Dora Carrington and actresses Beatrix Lehmann and Hope Williams. She flirted with heterosexuality, and was briefly engaged to the bisexual painter Stephen Tomlin at some point in her London years. She was engaged to producer/actor John Houseman, who never got over her. The most significant relationship, however, was between Henrietta and the tennis star Helen Hull Jacobs, who essentially became a member of the family and lived with them in England when Henrietta’s father was ambassador to the Court of St. James, from 1933 to 1937. (He was succeeded upon his death by Joseph P. Kennedy). Eventually, the ambassador bought Henrietta and Helen a house of their own, where, as far as can be discerned, they lived happily and openly as a couple.

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