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Sallie Bingham Strikes Back : This Daughter of a Dynasty Has Penned an Excoriating Memoir, One Her Family Vociferously Disputes

February 01, 1989|GARRY ABRAMS | Times Staff Writer

PROSPECT, Ky. — When she was growing up on a secluded estate in Louisville, Sallie Bingham felt the presence of "this lurking something" in the Big House, the family name for the grim mansion on the Ohio River that housed her aristocratic tribe.

When she went back last year for the funeral of her father, newspaper publisher Barry Bingham Sr., she felt it again, she said. "It's still there . . . the hovering presence of something unexplained that has malevolence."

A Blood Vendetta

Leaning back in an easy chair, surrounded by the sophisticated rusticity of the farmhouse she shares with her third husband here, Bingham's dark memory clashes with the sunny winter day. Down the road in Louisville there are those--most especially her mother, brother and sister--who would argue that Sallie Bingham's recollection also clashes with reality and that she is bent on trashing her family name in a blood vendetta.

At 52, Bingham--a novelist, playwright and now a memoirist--is the maverick of Kentucky's Bingham clan, until three years ago owners of the state's major newspapers, a television station, a radio station, a printing firm, a family with direct links to Presidents and influence far beyond the borders of their small state.

The woman who writes, runs a foundation for women in the arts, and raises chickens and sheep on 400 acres of rolling, oak-spotted land often has been cast as the villain in the $434 million sell-off in 1986 of the Bingham media kingdom that included the influential, Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper, the Courier-Journal. After prolonged behind-the-scenes bickering with her brother, Barry Jr., Bingham chose to sell her 15% share of the companies, a decision that often has been portrayed as precipitating her father's decision to divest the family of its wellsprings of fame and fortune. It was the end of one of the last family-owned media dynasties in this country, a dynasty that exercised liberalism in a conservative state and made progressivism and rectitude its family credo.

Sallie Bingham's share of the divestiture was $62 million.

And that should have been that.

But it isn't.

Sallie Bingham did not retreat behind a wall of money. She just completed a book, "Passion and Prejudice," about her family, a book that is part memoir, part feminist tract and part angry retaliation against her mother, Mary, her brother, her dead father and her dead grandfather. For her, the book seems to be a necessary walk through the past to cast her own perspective on her family and her role in its sometimes fantastic story.

The book proved "valuable for me . . . because it was me saying this is what I feel and I'm going to write it down. People will have different opinions about it, but I stand behind it, this is what I feel," Bingham said.

"Passion and Prejudice" also is her attempt to come to terms with her father, whom she did not know well and who contributed, somehow, to the spirit of the Big House.

"He was a shadowy presence all the time I was growing up, so that it's very hard to re-create that kind of person," she said. "I had to depend on what I could remember, which was very mystifying because, of course, he had this enormous charm that everybody responded to. . . . When I tried to go into detail, to say, who is this man, not only in relation to me but in relation to other people and in relation to the world, that strange vagueness kept coming in. Someone who is so charming, everyone loves, wonderful, good-looking, energetic. But who is he?"

But what the 520-page volume seems most likely to do is rekindle public scrutiny of a family that has been the subject of two other recent books and will be the subject of at least one more. It has already triggered family and community scorn.

"Passion and Prejudice" is a tale of a cloistered rich girl's woe. It details Bingham's childhood of servants and family secrets. It chronicles her ultimately unsuccessful attempt to escape from her family. It resurrects old scandals and hints at possible involvement by her father with the Central Intelligence Agency. It charges that the family masked private conservatism in matters of race and class behind a facade of public liberalism and benevolence.

It laments a family that chattered constantly but never talked about its feelings toward one another. It recounts the bizarre deaths of her brothers Worth and Jonathan--the first killed by a surfboard laid across the back of a convertible that snapped into the back of his head when it struck a parked car and the second electrocuted while splicing outdoor lights into a power line. It recounts other deaths, too, that form the tapestry of tragedy against which the Binghams won fame, wealth and power. It mourns the women who Bingham contends brought the family riches, strength and position but were always held back from power and glory by domineering, calculating men. It chronicles her own evolution from a sheltered childhood to becoming a writer, a feminist, an activist.

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