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'Ghastly Drama' : Death Spurs Novel Legal Challenge

July 03, 1987|THOMAS B. ROSENSTIEL | Times Staff Writer

The news accounts, now 70 years old, offer only fragments of the "ghastly drama" that surrounded the marriage of Mary Kenan Flagler Bingham, "the richest woman in America."

She was the widow of Standard Oil co-founder Henry Flagler and her estate was worth between $60 million and $100 million. Her bridegroom was Judge Robert Worth Bingham, a Kentucky lawyer without independent means. Their wedding in 1916 made headlines, even in New York. And so did her mysterious death eight months later.

Whispers of foul play spread quickly, fueled by the discovery that, while Bingham initially had renounced any inheritance from his wife's estate, a few weeks before her death Mary had signed a codicil to her will granting him $5 million.

Secret Midnight Exhumation

Mary's family was so suspicious it hired private investigators and conducted a secret midnight exhumation and private autopsy. Bingham's lawyers countered in outrage that "when, if ever, whispered suspicion shall become an audible charge, such charge will be met with facts."

The charge, however, never came. The autopsy results were locked away. Mary's family suddenly dropped its inquiry. And Bingham took his $5 million and bought the Courier-Journal and Times newspapers in Louisville.

Thus was born the Bingham dynasty of Kentucky, for the next 70 years one of America's great journalistic families.

Last month, Macmillan Publishing Co. was to have brought out a book, "The Binghams of Louisville" by David Chandler, which seeks to explain Mary Flagler Bingham's mysterious demise.

Publication Suspended

But now, following receipt of a unique copyright challenge from Barry Bingham Sr., the current family patriarch, Macmillan has suspended publication of the book indefinitely.

After seeing "The Binghams of Louisville" in manuscript, Barry Sr., Judge Robert Bingham's son, copyrighted material he had earlier placed in a Louisville archive open to historians. In an even more unusual step, he also copyrighted the written answers through which he previously had replied to Chandler's questions.

In a letter accompanying the copyright notice he sent to Macmillan, Bingham charged that Chandler's book inaccurately depicts Mary's death.

"My motive is not to suppress this or any other book," Barry Sr. said in an interview, "but to make them as accurate as I can with reference to my father."

Whatever his intention, the squabble not only has renewed interest in Mary Bingham's death, but also aroused concern among First Amendment specialists, who were alerted to the Bingham story when Chandler and a dissident Bingham heir charged that the family is indeed attempting to suppress the book through its novel use of the copyright law.

"What the Binghams seem to be doing is using copyright to suppress speech of which they disapprove, which is especially troubling," attorney Floyd Abrams said. "That is not what the copyright laws were supposed to be about." Abrams' concerns were first voiced by Barry Sr.'s estranged daughter, author Sallie Bingham, who recently wrote letters to book editors and newspaper executives around the country, charging her father with using "legal intimidation . . . to chill" publication of Chandler's book.

Barry Sr.'s attempt to copyright his written answers to Chandler, Sallie Bingham argued, threatens "all authors who depend on interviews for information . . . when the conclusions they draw from interviews are unflattering." Sallie is writing her own book about the family.

This flurry of literary interest in the Bingham dynasty was piqued in 1986, when feuding between the Bingham heirs, including Sallie, over seats on the corporate board led Barry Sr. to sell the publishing empire to Gannett Co.

Book About Flagler

About the same time, Chandler had just completed a book about Mary Lily Kenan's first husband, Henry Flagler, John D. Rockefeller's partner in Standard Oil, owner of the powerful Florida East Coast Railway and founder of both Miami and Palm Beach, Fla. When he finished with Flagler, Chandler moved on to the Binghams, using what he had learned of Mary Flagler's last years as a starting point.

Robert Worth Bingham had courted Mary Lily Kenan back in the 1890s, in their youth, before he had gone on to become a judge, mayor of Louisville and a husband with three children. In 1913, after he and Mary Flagler were widowed within a few weeks of each other, Bingham, whose own financial means were limited, renewed the old courtship. Three years later they were married, though the judge--to prove his intentions honest and under pressure from Mary's family--had to forswear any legal claim on his new wife's fortune.

Within weeks, however, something clearly was wrong. Mary was shuttled off to a Louisville hotel and placed in the care of one of Judge Bingham's friends, a Louisville dermatologist. It was during this period that she revised her will to include a bequest to her new husband.

'Acute Heart Disturbance'

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