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Love and Death in a Newspaper Dynasty : HOUSE OF DREAMS The Bingham Family of Louisville by Marie Brenner (Random House: $19.95; 452 pp., illustrated) : THE BINGHAMS OF LOUISVILLE The Dark History Behind One of America's Great Fortunes by David Leon Chandler with Mary Voelz Chandler (Crown Publishers: $17.95, 292 pp., illustrated)

March 20, 1988|Digby Diehl | Diehl is the president of the Los Angeles Center of P.E.N. International.

The Binghams of Louisville have been referred to as "the Kennedys of the South," but their money, power, philanthropy, political influence, and struggles were not well known outside Kentucky until 1985 when Sallie Bingham announced that she intended to sell her shares in the family-owned Louisville Courier-Journal and Louisville Times. That announcement set off a family feud which erupted in national headlines and ended with the sale of the entire Bingham media empire, including newspapers, radio, and television stations, for about $450 million.

As the empire began to crumble, the fascinating and tragic story of the Bingham family began to emerge, resulting in these two books--the earliest of five book-length studies of the Binghams that have been announced.

David Leon Chandler, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, has focused his investigative searchlights on the scandal-clouded origins of the Bingham fortune when Robert Worth Bingham married Standard Oil heiress Mary Lily Kenan Flagler in 1916. The $5 million Bingham inherited after Mary Lily's death less than a year later was used to buy the newspapers. Chandler makes a tough assessment of the facts and comes up with the conclusion that a murder had been committed.

Marie Brenner's book is very different. She has written the story of a love affair--glamorous, passionate, and as filled with drama as a TV soap opera, yet significant because of who the lovers are. "The true fascination of the Bingham story," she writes, "was the strange power of the marriage of Mary and Barry Bingham (Robert Bingham's son and his wife, also named Mary), a union so tight, so closed, that nobody could so much as approach it, not even the Binghams' own children."

Brenner tells this love story brilliantly with an immediacy and intimacy made possible only by exhaustive research and extraordinary cooperation from the family. She takes us behind the closed doors of the Courier-Journal's executive suites, into the family meetings, through the houses at Melcombe (the family's 40-acre country compound), and, most wonderfully, into the awe-inspiring relationship between Barry Bingham and his wife.

"House of Dreams" provides historical background, too, including the murky circumstances of Mary Lily's death. But Brenner is more interested in the effect of this scandal upon 11-year-old Barry (and its psychological consequences decades later), than she is in the allegations of murder. Concluding that "what really happened to Mary Lily Bingham on this June day in Louisville will always be a mystery," she moves on to 1931, where her story begins in earnest with the marriage of Barry and Mary.

Their fairy tale life together at the pinnacle of Kentucky society was enriched almost immediately by the arrival of two sons, Robert Worth Bingham III and Barry Bingham Jr. Staunch supporters of Franklin Roosevelt and believers that America had to intervene in World War II, they used the newspapers to support liberal causes. When Pearl Harbor was attacked, Barry went to Washington and was assigned war duty as public relations officer for the U.S. Navy in London. Mary remained in Louisville with their family--now enlarged by the additions of Sallie and Jonathan--to oversee the newspapers.

In a narrative rich with details-- as often painful as they are moving --Brenner provides a novelistic vision of the Bingham family. Events in their lives are revived as vivid scenes in a saga: the Binghams in Paris in 1949 where Barry administrates the Marshall Plan for France; a family reunion in Louisville for Christmas, 1959; the bizarre death by electrocution of Jonathan in 1964; followed with tragic speed by Worth's death in 1966; and the subsequent sudden rise to power of his brother, Barry Jr., at the Courier-Journal where he instituted sweeping changes, including a stringent ethics policy.

In the final chapters of "House of Dreams," Brenner examines the breakdown of relationships among the Bingham children and their parents that went on behind the scenes for nearly a decade before the public fall of this dynasty. Despite some episodes that approach the bathos of a "Dallas" script, the real-life tragedy of Barry and Mary Bingham is deeply moving. Having struggled to lead exemplary public lives of strong moral principles and having devoted themselves (with however much misguided rigor) to the welfare of their five children, they find themselves alone, removed from the newspapers they worked to build, alienated in various degrees from their three surviving children, and sadly, ironically, victimized by media exploitation of their downfall.

Brenner has done a superb job with this fascinating tale. She is a perceptive reporter and a skillful, sensitive writer. Because her book is written on a larger scale than Chandler's, it is unfair to compare them directly.

But taken on its own terms, Chandler's solid job of investigative reporting does not support his damning conclusion that Robert Worth Bingham murdered Mary Lily Kenan Flagler for her money. As Chandler clearly demonstrates in his chapter "Did He or Didn't He?," there are too many unanswered questions in this case. There is a great deal of circumstantial material; but too little physical evidence, in my opinion, to convict Bingham of murder.

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