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The Binghams of Louisville : Family Tragedy and Feuds Bring Down Media Empire

January 19, 1986|MICHAEL WINES | Times Staff Writer

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Twenty years ago this summer, Robert Worth Bingham III was going to lead this genteel, pleasantly lazy river city to great heights.

As the first of five children born to Mary and Barry Bingham Sr., owners of the Courier-Journal and Louisville Times newspapers and a clutch of printing and broadcasting companies, Worth was his father's choice to carry on a journalistic empire whose influence stretched far beyond its regional audience.

At 34, Worth was already a prize-winning reporter and associate newspaper publisher. He was strikingly handsome, financially shrewd, given to high-stakes gin rummy, profanity and seedy clothes yet able to move in Louisville's old-money Establishment as well.

"He was the leader of that generation, the unquestioned leader," one of Bingham's former editors said this month.

"His death changed our worlds."

The bizarre accident that claimed Bingham's life in the summer of 1966 now assumes a significance that virtually no one foresaw then. At least indirectly, it triggered a bitter, long-hidden power struggle among his surviving brother and sisters--one that climaxed Jan. 9 when the patriarch of the Bingham clan, 79-year-old Barry Sr., put the family businesses on the auction block.

His announcement astonished Kentucky and loosed an extraordinary public blood-letting within the family. Worth's brother and successor to the leadership mantle, 52-year-old Barry Bingham Jr., resigned from top posts in the family businesses and accused his father of "betraying" the Bingham tradition. His sister Sallie, 49, a writer and a committed feminist, has accused Barry Jr. of mismanaging the companies and has said that her parents practiced "primogeniture," favoritism toward the first-born son.

Beyond the self-destruction of one of Kentucky's richest and most gifted families, the 20 years following Worth's death have also brought the end of a century-long dominance of the state by a handful of home-grown institutions and people--the old Louisville & Nashville Railroad, the coal and tobacco businesses, the venerable Democratic political machine. All seemed invincible in the mid-1960s, but now all of them are gone--bought out, moved or destroyed by economic decline or social change.

Could Net $300 Million

The Binghams' planned sale of the Courier-Journal and Times and other family holdings--the newspapers alone could net $300 million, analysts say--closes the last of those reigns. It will end one of the last and proudest of the family media dynasties in America, one that almost single-handedly dragged heels-in-the-dirt Kentucky into the 20th Century.

At the newspapers, which only last month weathered a traumatic merger of the rival news staffs of the morning Courier-Journal and afternoon Times, this winter has been both terrifying and riveting--part Greek drama, part "Dynasty."

"I feel like we've been in a Mixmaster for the last month," said Dick Kaukas, a Louisville Times writer. "And now they tell us they're selling the Mixmaster."

The fuse that led to the Bingham family explosion this month was lit by simmering animosity between Barry Jr.--editor and publisher of the Courier-Journal and Times and vice-chairman of WHAS Inc. and Standard Gravure Corp., the broadcasting and printing firms--and Sallie, the family gadfly who unsuccessfully fought Barry Jr. to keep a seat on the boards of the Bingham businesses.

Sallie Decided to Sell

Sallie ultimately decided to sell her 15% share of the companies to the highest bidder, and Barry Jr. rejected proposals that might have enabled him to buy Sallie's stock and keep the corporate crown jewels--the two newspapers--under Bingham control at least during his lifetime.

Barry Sr. and his wife, despairing of settling the dispute before their deaths, called a family meeting in early January and ordered the sale.

"Barry (Jr.) once told me: 'We have difficulty enough getting along now, but if you and mother were no longer here, it would be even more difficult,' " Barry Sr. said of his children's dispute in an interview last week. "So you can see why we had all the more reason, Mary and I, to proceed with the sale now . . . while we still had our minds."

That simple account appears, however, to mask deeper grievances within the Bingham clan. For years, Barry Jr. said, "the family position has been basically one of not seeing much of one another." Both he and Sallie deny that the estrangements were bitter until recently.

'Traumatized by Tragedy'

"They're a family that doesn't talk to itself. They send memoranda to each other," an observer said.

"The family has been to some degree traumatized by tragedy," Sallie said, "and I think there's a kind of fragility to the remaining family unit."

The Bingham saga has been one of success shadowed by tragedy since 1918, when the first Robert Worth Bingham bought the Courier-Journal and Times with an inheritance from his wife, Mary Kenan, who was heiress to Florida real estate and Rockefeller oil fortunes.

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