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

January 19, 1986|MICHAEL WINES | Times Staff Writer

When she died suddenly of heart disease less than a year after her marriage to Judge Bingham, members of her family charged that her husband had poisoned her for a comparatively puny $5 million of her fortune.

A Brilliant Editorialist

That small slice was $4 million more than he needed to buy the newspapers, then run by "Marse" Henry Watterson, a brilliant editorialist and fiery Democrat who knew the Presidents of his era and ran the papers for half a century, starting in 1868.

Judge Bingham proved to be almost as fiery, more liberal and much more ruthless. He drove Louisville's competing newspapers out of business and began radio station WHAS and Standard Gravure in 1922. For Bingham's avid editorial support, President Franklin D. Roosevelt rewarded him in 1933 with the ambassadorship to Great Britain. Four years later, Bingham died.

The judge's son, Barry Sr., built the regional journalists' pulpit into a national power, assembling reporters who would add three Pulitzer prizes to the two earned by Watterson and the judge, and adding television and FM radio stations to the family holdings. Statewide, the Courier-Journal's activist reporting on social and political troubles had built it into an unparalleled and seemingly unshakable power.

Challenging the Corrupt

"There was always a Courier-Journal reporter around to challenge the timber cutters, the strip miners, the polluters, the corrupt," said John Ed Pearce, a 40-year veteran of the newspapers.

As Barry Sr. neared retirement in the 1960s, there was little question of who would carry on the tradition. Among the daughters, Sallie had secured a book contract and moved to New York after graduation from Radcliffe in the late 1950s; Eleanor Miller appears to have shown little interest in the family businesses.

Jonathan, "the sweet one," was shy, slightly troubled and too young, but might have been destined for the printing business. Barry Jr., hampered by a lifelong reading problem, had struggled through Harvard and enjoyed later success as a producer with NBC and CBS. He would run the broadcast properties. Worth had already been groomed through newspaper jobs in San Francisco, Washington and elsewhere, and he would take over the newspapers.

It was not to be that way.

Jonathan Electrocuted

In 1964, Jonathan, then 21, was electrocuted while trying to splice some outdoor lights into a power line for a reunion of his Scout troop at the family estate.

Two years later, in July, 1966, Worth Bingham flew to Nantucket Island in Massachusetts for a brief vacation. There, as he drove a rented convertible down a Nantucket street, a surfboard protruding from the rear seat brushed a parked car.

One end of the board was whipped around and it struck Worth in the back of the neck, killing him instantly.

The family was devastated by the two deaths and the empire was rocked by the loss of Worth. The Courier-Journal at the time was waging a war against Kentucky's entrenched strip-mining interests that would garner the proudest of the seven Bingham Pulitzers, and both papers were staffed with reporters who would become standouts at other national news media.

Parents Inconsolable

The elder Binghams were said by friends to be inconsolable--and so was Barry Jr., now the sole surviving son.

The two brothers--Worth and Barry Jr.--were vastly different personalities. Worth, 16 months older, was impulsive and outgoing; Barry more thoughtful. "Barry was intensely loyal and devoted to Worth," Barry Sr. said this month. "They spent a great deal of time together."

And when Barry Sr. cast about for a successor to Worth that July, looking first outside the family, Barry Jr. volunteered to pick up the tradition and was allowed to do so. Reporters scoffed at the publisher who had trouble reading and bristled at his frequent observation that traditional newspapers were "dinosaurs" in an electronic age.

Those critics, however, ignored his tenacity--he toiled in speed-reading courses until his pace improved--and his almost obsessive commitment to the family's journalistic legend.

A Bout With Cancer

Barry Jr. overcame a third tragedy, his own bout with cancer in the 1970s, and the newspapers won three more Pulitzers.

Nonetheless, Barry Jr. has won little of the adulation given his predecessors. Instead of expanding, his empire has shrunk along with Louisville's sagging factory economy and with mounting delivery costs.

Moreover, his assiduous elevation of the family ethical standards made him and his papers a sometimes target of laughter from the less upright. He once banned sports writers from mentioning the commercial sponsors of sporting events, forcing them to devise other names for the Marlboro Cup horse race and Kemper Open golf tournament.

"One of Barry's great, great difficulties is his lack of flexibility," one longtime business acquaintance said. "He's dedicated, he's ethical, he has character. But he bends over so far backward that he falls down."

An Unmatchable Standard

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