June Bingham Birge; Writer, Politician's Wife

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 25, 2007

June Rossbach Bingham Birge, 88, an author, playwright and medical writer who also published articles about her experiences as a congressional spouse, died of complications of cancer Aug. 21 at her home in New York.

Ms. Bingham wrote two biographies and two medical books with psychiatrists. Her plays, some of which became musicals, addressed such Washington topics as the life of Mary Todd Lincoln and the rivalry between Eleanor Roosevelt and Alice Roosevelt Longworth.

A vivacious woman who did not shy from controversy, Ms. Bingham in 1983 wrote an article for The Washington Post called "Home Free: The Joys of Leaving Washington at Last." The article, written at the request of then-publisher Katharine Graham, prompted a flurry of irritation from Capitol Hill denizens.

The "longest 18 years of my life," she once wrote, were spent in Washington. Despite the friends she and her husband made, the free airport parking and the opportunity to meet people from all over the world, she said, there were many things she would not miss, including shaking hands at diplomatic receptions with dictators, voting that interrupted dinner, begging for political contributions, being hugged and kissed by strangers, awakening for midnight phone calls from drunk constituents and wearing "Hello, My Name Is . . ." stickers. She also reveled in not having to share her husband, Jonathan Brewster Bingham (D-N.Y.), with his various staffs.

Her sense of humor, and the piquant observations that would resonate with political spouses today, saved the piece from becoming a litany of privileged complaints.

After nursing her first husband through his final illness in 1986, and noticing that most terminal patients had no visitors, Ms. Bingham founded the Trained Liaison Comforters program at New York's Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. Its volunteers explain medical procedures, run errands, provide a sympathetic ear and comfort the families and friends of the critically ill.

"Visitors come into the intensive care unit, and it is a rude shock when, instead of the patient's face, they see only blue tubes or they hear the rasping sound of a respirator," she said.

She wrote in 2003 for a women's health supplement in the New York Times of how a Pap smear when she was 82 years old saved her life. Unbeknownst to her, she had cancer, and the doctor immediately scheduled a hysterectomy. She persuaded him to delay it until her play debuted. When the operation was performed, the nodes around her uterus had to be removed; she suggested that her next musical be named "No Nodes, Nanette."

She met her second husband at the memorial service for her first. Robert B. Birge, who had been her husband's classmate at Yale University, also had been widowed after 46 years of marriage. The widow and widower married within a year and constantly compared notes on what their exes would have thought of new acquaintances.

The former June Rossbach, a native of White Plains, N.Y., attended Vassar College, graduated from Barnard College and began writing pamphlets on such mental health topics as "Do Cows Have Neuroses?" and "Do Babies Have Worries?"

After marrying and moving to Washington in 1939, she worked as a writer-editor for the Treasury Department and later as a part-time editor of the letters column at The Washington Post. She became friends with Graham and attended the first dinner party she gave.

Ms. Bingham wrote, with Jacob Levin and Dr. Fritz Redlich, "The Inside Story: Psychiatry and Everyday Life" (1952), "Courage to Change: An Introduction to the Life and Thought of Reinhold Niebuhr" (1961), "U Thant, the Search for Peace" (1966) and, with Dr. Norman Tamarkin, "The Pursuit of Health" (1985).

While researching a book in India, she and her first husband, who was then on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, were summoned to an audience with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Gandhi made it clear that she wanted to improve relations with the United States, but it wasn't until Ms. Bingham began asking her about the equality of the sexes in India that the prime minister loosened up.

"It was like taking the cork out of a champagne bottle," she told Post reporter Donnie Radcliffe in 1982. Gandhi went on at length about the prominent role that Indian women played in politics but admitted some sexism still lingered. "If a man has 10 daughters," Gandhi told them, "he will still try for a son."

After moving back to New York in the 1980s, Ms. Bingham began writing plays. "Triangles," which played off-Broadway, later became the musical "Young Roosevelts" and was produced in Dallas, Washington and New York. In 1992, "Squanto and Love" was staged in Plymouth, Mass., and in New York City. Ms. Bingham later wrote "Eleanor and Alice" and "Asylum: The Strange Case of Mary Lincoln" with Carmel Owen, and both were produced in New York. Her plays attracted mixed reviews, but a single staged reading of "Triangles," performed by actress Kitty Carlisle Hart and former New York mayor John V. Lindsay, was a hit.

Ms. Bingham also contributed to a family memoir, "Lots of Lehmans," and finished her memoir, "Braided Lives," which will be published next year.

A daughter from her first marriage, June Mitchell, died in 1999.

In addition to her husband, of New York, survivors include three children from her first marriage, Sherry Downes of Boston, Timothy Bingham of Emmaus, Pa., and Claudia Meyers of Santa Fe, N.M.; a stepson, Robert Birge of Storrs, Conn.; 12 grandchildren; and 14 great-grandchildren.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company