Joanna Scutts is a freelance writer and board member of the National Book Critics Circle.

The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham

By Emily Bingham

Farrar Straus Giroux. 369 pp. $28

Like Zelda Fitzgerald, that other Southern belle turned Jazz Age icon, Henrietta Bingham was the daughter of a judge, born in Kentucky to wealth and family instability at the turn of the 20th century. But although she met many influential writers and artists of the 1920s, she never married any of them, nor established herself as a cultural figure in her own right. She was an irresistible object of desire for both men and women but, until now, never a subject.

‘Irrepressible: The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham’ by Emily Bingham (FSG)

In this biography of her great-aunt, Emily Bingham works to restore Henrietta to the center of her “Jazz Age life.” Like a hapless lover, “pursuing . . . and being pushed away,” Emily is forced to re-create an elusive personality in part by reading deeply the body language of old photographs. Tantalizingly little of the subject’s own voice survives: There are letters without reply, diaries full of silences, records lacy with gaps. Even the chance discovery of a cache of love letters in an attic, in a steamer trunk lined with “oranged London newspapers from 1937,” doesn’t give the full story: The only letters that survive are those from men.

Henrietta came of age in a world full of explosive new theories about the way family histories shape adult behavior. Yet it doesn’t take a Freudian to see how her childhood might have turned her into a woman adept at using sex to attract and control other people, beginning with her restless, demanding father, Robert Worth Bingham, whom the author portrays as constantly in need of feminine comfort and reassurance. His wife, known as Babes, “responded generously” to this need, while Henrietta — the only daughter, the middle child, more robust than either of her brothers — showed off her athleticism and daring for him. But when she was 12, she was suddenly forced into her mother’s place: On a summer excursion, Henrietta’s uncle heedlessly drove a car full of his family members into the path of a train. The collision killed Babes in front of her children; her husband was on the fatal train, oblivious. The loss sent Henrietta’s teenage brother Robert “crawling into a bottle” and turned Henrietta into her father’s “mother, admirer, love object and emotional center.”

The only thing Bingham needed as strongly as his daughter’s love was money. In 1916, he wooed and won the richest widow in America, Mary Lily Kenan Flagler, an old flame from North Carolina who had married into eye-popping oil wealth. Suddenly famous, the Binghams were soon notorious: Mary Lily’s secret addiction to booze and morphine killed her after 18 months of marriage. The judge was accused of everything from exerting undue influence to outright poisoning, but he got Mary Lily’s millions and bought a pair of local newspapers, choosing the path of political influence over that of public office. At his Louisville mansion, his children brought in black jazz bands and rivers of alcohol for parties. When Henrietta was admitted to Smith College, she was bound to stand out.

In the 1920s, women’s colleges such as Smith were both celebrated for their academic rigor and darkly suspected of fostering “morbid tendencies” — same-sex attractions — in their students. Henrietta’s young composition teacher, the “onyx eyed” Mina Kirstein, had to be especially careful, and she erased almost all mention of the student she loved from her archives. Yet “Henrietta made Mina desire her,” and the two became lovers and confidantes, setting a pattern that Bingham traces throughout the younger woman’s life. Being wanted made Henrietta feel confident and in control, despite the precarious passivity of the role.

A bright student who struggled with writing — Emily argues that she was probably dyslexic — Henrietta took a leave of absence after her first year at Smith. Mina took time off as well, and the two traveled to Europe, where they found their way to London and to a world that was far more receptive than Northampton or Louisville to unconventional ideas. They met David Garnett at his bookshop and, through him, the whole notorious, intellectual, partner-swapping Bloomsbury Group. At the artist Duncan Grant’s birthday party in 1923, Bingham locates the quintessential Henrietta: mixing “deliciously unfamiliar cocktails” for the British guests and singing “Waterboy,” an earthy “chain-gang tune,” in a performance that “violated cultural, racial, and sexual boundaries.” Among her conquests that night were a young sculptor, Stephen Tomlin, and the painter Dora Carrington, who later sketched Henrietta standing, hand on hip, wearing nothing but a pair of high-heeled pumps.

Mina and Henrietta began psychoanalysis in London with Ernest Jones, a follower of Freud, who set out to help the attractive Americans outgrow their desire for each other and focus instead on men. But although Henrietta came close to marriage more than once, her deepest relationships were always with women, including the American tennis star Helen Hull Jacobs, “the Martina Navratilova of the 1930s.” In the middle of the decade, when the judge served as President Franklin Roosevelt’s ambassador to Britain, Helen was tacitly accepted as a member of their London household, renting a house in the country with Henrietta and treating the judge as a substitute father. Yet Helen’s diary entries are crosshatched with ballpoint erasures. Once Henrietta’s father died in 1937, they lost the protections of his love, money and position. Around them, the world was becoming intolerant of anyone who stepped outside the stifling limits of heterosexual monogamy.

Henrietta Bingham died in 1968, faded into black-sheep obscurity, when her biographer was 3 years old. Against the disapproving silence of her family, Bingham sets a bouquet of lovers’ odes, which struggle to capture the intense blue-violet hue of Henrietta’s eyes and the smooth caramel tone of her voice. Her charisma didn’t blossom into the kind of fame that makes correspondents scrupulous about preserving her infrequent letters. But in this sensitive and emotionally rich biography, she nevertheless flashes unforgettably back into life.