The Bingham Family of Louisville

By Marie Brenner

Random House. 425 pp. $19.95?

THE MELODRAMA of a great family that rises to power, then disintegrates in earthly, public doom is a comforting staple of American storytelling because it satisfies so many of our mean-spirited impulses in a high-minded way.

We are allowed to indulge in an un-American fantasy -- feudal dreams of immense wealth and privilege and dominion over other mortals. We imagine ourselves entertaining in the great hall of the mansion, ordering servants about, traveling in high style, receiving important visitors. What is it like to be so rich and special?

The tragic ending then confirms our democratic pretensions. With ill-concealed relish, we will declaim righteously on how the mighty have fallen -- as mortal as the rest of us. This storyline becomes irresistible when, as in this book, the people are real, not fictional, and the drama plays out bitchily, not on some television soap opera, but in the news columns.

For that reason and others, I approached this book defensively, I admit. I was prepared to resist the blatant melodrama of its story, the rise and fall of the Binghams of Louisville. I expected slick, titillating details from an already familiar tragedy. Besides, I know something about this family, at least distantly, because I had once worked as a young reporter for one of their newspapers. I felt a lingering, protective dread for the Binghams and their bloody family secrets.

Good books, however, always have the capacity to surprise and this good book astonishes. Whatever reluctance I felt initially was overwhelmed by the richness of the reporting and Marie Brenner's serious intentions. After a few chapters, I found myself enthralled -- and completely confident of the reality that Brenner portrays in startlingly intimate detail.

Indeed, I was also educated. House of Dreams is a family melodrama on the grand scale but, strangely enough, the book also becomes an engrossing slice of American social history -- a gothic story about how the past burdens the present. Southerners have always understood this theme better than the rest of us and the story of the Binghams is really about where the new South came from -- the historic wounds and personal illusions that are buried beneath proud appearances.

Surely, everyone knows the outline of this story. It was told on Sixty Minutes and in all the important newspapers. The Binghams, gracious and self-confident owners of the local newspapers, the Courier-Journal and Louisville Times, were southern nobility, for real. Their refined taste and progressive attitudes dominated the public life of that pleasant small city on the Ohio River. Their sense of noblesse oblige was like a passionate third force in the rough and rollicking politics of Kentucky at large.

Until . . . until. Barry Bingham, the elderly patriarch, and his wife Mary, who together had made the Courier-Journal stand for excellence in newspapering and liberal values in southern politics, watched in stunned horror as all of life's grace and virtue disappeared. Two sons died young in freakish accidents. Their surviving children fell upon each other and their parents and the family enterprise and all were torn apart.

It was very ugly, extraordinarily vicious and public, and if you enjoy this sort of thing, very satisfying. Children and parents were caught in "minor stinking squabbles," as one daughter-in-law put it, saying unspeakable things about each other, but they were really fighting for control of the family enterprise, its dream of self-importance. The children were really fighting, desperately and self-destructively, for the attention and affection of their perfectly noble but distant parents.

Finally, in early 1986, Barry Bingham announced that, in order to end the family combat, he would sell the family jewels. His family was disgraced, stripped of its own grandiose pretensions. His famous newspaper was reduced to another minor franchise of the Gannett chain, the blandly profitable publishing conglomerate. The dream died and now Barry Bingham, gravely ill, is evidently dying too.

People would ask, with mock solemnity, how could it happen to such fine people as the Binghams? I think that Brenner has found the answers and she has framed them so sensitively, so convincingly, that a reader is allowed to share in the sorrow of this family's tragedy and also to despise them, parents and children, for being so petty and self-absorbed and trapped in their own mythological illusions. At the climax, our sympathy mixes powerfuly with anger. Angry that the fabled rich are not larger than life, as we secretly supposed. And yet forgiving too because their great wealth has merely made them victims, intensely vulnerable to human folly.

THE BOOK begins, appropriately, with portraiture of a great love in its twilight -- the fiercely enduring romantic bond between Barry and Mary Bingham, an idyllic relationship, it seems, that is now engulfed by the bitterness of thankless children. I felt irritated at first by this approach because it seemed choppy and ill-considered. Brenner swiftly gives away all the climactic details of her story -- outlining the grisly decline of the Binghams even before she has fully sketched out why they are. What is left to tell if the bloody ending is revealed in the opening pages?

By the third or fourth chapter, however, the method pays off spectacularly. Brenner takes us into the deeper story -- the emotional center of the book and the family's unraveling -- which is the dream-like romance of the parents. Mary and Barry were the blond and beautiful children of southern gentility, Richmond and Louisville, Harvard and Radcliffe, touched by their own high sensibilities and elegant sense of destiny. Their intensely-imagined love becomes, in time, an immovable rock, a shadow and impediment, the self that suffocates and defeats their own children.

Brenner is able to convey the idyll mostly in Mary and Barry's own words because she has assembled an extraordinary treasure of reporting -- thousands of love letters, family exchanges and personal recollections spanning from the 1920s to the recent past. Mary and Barry write to one another -- and, indeed, talk to biographer Brenner -- with a descriptive precision and florid romanticism that sounds peculiarly old-fashioned, like private letters from the 19th century. Clearly, they are in love with the grace of their own words.

Despite the brutal frankness in the letters, Mary Bingham consigned this material to an archive at Radcliffe where Brenner discovered it and the Binghams did not object to its use. In fact, the letters often sound as though the writers are consciously performing for posterity -- two people so pleased with their own elegance that they are anxious to preserve a full record of it.

Their preoccupation with historical legacy becomes clearer as Brenner leads us still deeper into the story of who these people are. Mary and Barry Bingham are descended, in different ways, from the "lost cause" of the white South, the defeated region of America that lost everything. Barry Bingham's forebears were North Carolina gentry -- anti-slavery before the Civil War, yet also proud that grandfather was a Confederate colonel who surrendered his troops at Appomattox but kept his tattered battle flags. Mary Bingham grew up in well-mannered poverty in Richmond, a family whose daughters wore hand-me-down clothes and yet were taught the glorious genealogy of patrician forebears.

As Brenner shifts backward and forward through the lenses of Bingham family memories, the most compelling story, for me at least, is about their rise from the post-Civil War ruin. Barry Bingham's father Robert was driven to exploit the main chance, in politics and business and in marriage to a wealthy heiress who died mysteriously a few months later and left him -- suprise! -- a special bequest of $5 million. He is a genteel hustler, in other words, very American.

But Robert Bingham needs more than wealth. He is also anxious to construct something of noble spirit out of nothingness -- a myth of family dignity that will resonate with the white South's high-sounding myth about itself. The connection is made most vividly in Robert Bingham's own words -- a letter he wrote to Margaret Mitchell congratulating her on Gone With the Wind. It is the story of his own family, he avers. Movie-goers need only recall the fierceness of Scarlett O'Hara -- "I'll never be poor again, so help me God! -- "to visualize Robert Bingham's motivation.

With his windfall inheritance, Bingham buys the two Louisville newspapers and launches himself as a progressive public figure, confidante of presidents and kings, benefactor of struggling Kentucky farmers, friend to education and oppressed black citizens. What is so wonderfully American about this story is that he succeeded. Thus was born the mantle of noblesse oblige that the Bingham family wore proudly for so many decades.

PERHAPS, as it is said, all great fortunes were founded on ancestral crimes, but what Brenner deftly suggests is that they probably also depended on great wounds -- deep wounds -- deep personal pain that great families have buried in their pasts and struggle to obliterate from memory. Barry Bingham suffered his own excruciating wounds in childhood -- witnessing his own mother's violent death in an accident, the subsequent scandal of his father's sudden inheritance from his second wife -- and so too did Mary Bingham. Perhaps, wordlessly, they agreed between themselves that, like Scarlett O'Hara, they would never be shamed again, never wounded again by life, as they and their families had been.

So they protected one another against harm and created a shared mythology and insulated themselves within it. In the end, it crushed their own family. The last third of the story is like a claustrophic nightmare in which their grown-up children struggle alternately to break free or to recapture their infantile roles in the fantasy of the perfect family. For many readers, this will probably be the most compelling stuff -- the harsh, cruel exchanges that are transmitted back and forth, not face to face, but through stiffly written letters or even via interviews with Brenner and other reporters. It is ghastly material that is only believeable because it is nonfiction.

I have only one complaint against this book but I think it is substantial. Brenner has not attempted to reconstruct the public personas of the Binghams with the thoroughness she applied to their personal lives. Their newspapers were -- probably still are -- a powerful and positive force in their world. Yes, the Binghams had quirky sacred cows and forbidden subjects (as most publishers do). But, on the whole, they raised the vision of Kentuckians. Of course, their public posture included certain hypocrisies and self-inflated claims -- on the issue of racial equality, among others -- and those public pretensions resembled those Brenner found in their private lives.

Nevertheless, compared with the complacent, narrow-minded people who own and operate most of America's newspapers, the Binghams were giants. The community of Louisville and the wonderfully diverse state of Kentucky not only aspired to greater things because of the Binghams' grander vision, the city and state actually became better places to live because of the Bingham's noblesse oblige. Most Kentuckians, I feel sure, would agree with that assessment, even many of those who intensely hated the Binghams.

That seems quite a lot for one family to achieve, whatever misbegotten dreams were driving it. That part of the Bingham legacy is mentioned but, I'm afraid, slighted in this book. As a result, the family seens merely like spoiled dilettantes, much softer characters than they actually were. Many Kentucky politicians know well that the Binghams could be tough and stubborn people, year after year, in pursuit of a cause that mattered to them, whether civil rights or protecting the environment. They were self-absorbed, tragically so. But one should also say that, on many of the great divisive issues of their time, they had guts -- the guts to stand up for the right thing, regardless of public passions and political risks. How many of today's newspapers can make that claim? Or, for that matter, how many of today's wealthy families? :: William Greider, author of "Secrets of the Temple: How the Federal Reserve Runs the Country," writes regularly for Rolling Stone.