Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Irrepressible: The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham


I first came across the name of Southern heiress Henrietta Bingham in my reading about the Bloomsbury Group, and I became curious about this woman who had become friends with many in Bloomsbury and also a heart breaker of men and women. I was excited to find Emily Bingham's biography of her great aunt, Irrepressible: The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham (2015).

Henrietta Bingham (1901-1968), the daughter of a judge in the wealthy and powerful family that once owned the newspapers in Louisville, Kentucky, had a tragic childhood. Her mother died in a horrific car accident involving a train, and young Henrietta was in the car. It was a tragedy from which Henrietta, her father, and two brothers would never recover. Henrietta then found herself in the unenviable position of being the emotional support of a domineering father (despite his remarrying twice), a role that Henrietta struggled with for most of her life to balance with her fierce independence.

Henrietta began studying at Smith College, but she most likely had dyslexia which prevented her college career from progressing. She became friends and more with a young professor, Mina Kirstein, who traveled with Henrietta to London. Mina introduced Henrietta to David Garnett, who became Henrietta's introduction to the Bloomsbury Group.

Soon Henrietta divided her time between Louisville, New York City, and England. Although she was no intellectual, Henrietta had more than her share of charm and glamour. She dazzled men and women, leaving them intoxicated by her presence or in despair when she wasn't there. Henrietta loved the adoration of both sexes although she preferred women. 

Her violet eyes were stunning, and she had a long southern drawl that captivated everyone. Henrietta knew how to mix drinks and she loved to drink. She also loved to dance. She adored jazz and liked to sing jazz songs, and she even played the saxophone. Henrietta also liked speed in her cars and in her horses. Fox hunting appealed to her, not for the hunting, but for going fast on horseback, crossing ravines and jumping over fences.

Henrietta was someone that everyone wanted to know. She broke Dora Carrington's heart, and was in a relationship with sculptor Stephen Tomlin. For a time, she was engaged to actor and director John Houseman (a.k.a. Professor Kingsfield in The Paper Chase). She had an affair with Beatrix Lehmann, the noted British actress and sister of writer Rosamund Lehmann. Henrietta's most long term relationship of three years was with the tennis player Helen Hull Jacobs, but Henrietta needed the adoration of more than just one person.

While living a freewheeling existence was fine for Henrietta in the 1920s and 1930s, she faced struggles with the changing mores in society in which being a lesbian was frowned upon, especially with the advent of World War II. Henrietta returned to Louisville and raised thoroughbreds. World War II saw many of her friends, especially women, in important posts. Meanwhile, Henrietta had moved into farming and raised hemp for the war effort. 

Henrietta's life turned into a cycle of depression, nervous breakdowns, doctors, stays in sanatoriums, and a greater dependence on prescription drugs (lots of them, including narcotics) as well as alcohol. The medical community failed Henrietta. Instead of trying to find a way to treat her depression, there was more of an emphasis on controlling her behavior. Henrietta became the family outcast, not welcome at family events because of her unpredictable behavior, and was never to be spoken of. What a sad end for someone who had been so vibrant. 

The story of how Emily Bingham came to write Irrepressible is fascinating. Having found two old trunks in the attic of the family home which contained Henrietta's clothes, mementos, and letters, Emily Bingham began collecting information in what is a well-researched and passionate biography. Henrietta was a troubled woman but never boring. At times, I felt like I was reading a novel and kept thinking what a great movie Henietta's life would make. 

I highly recommend Irrepressible. I started reading the book and couldn't put it down.

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