Thoroughly Modern Henrietta -- "Irrepressible: The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham"

Jun 23, 2015

On this edition of ST, we speak with the Kentucky-based writer and historian, Emily Bingham, who is the author of "Mordecai: An Early American Family" (2003) and co-editor of "The Southern Agrarians and the New Deal." Bingham tells us about her newest book, which is actually a biography of her own great-aunt: "Irrepressible: The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham." As was noted of this volume in a starred review in Kirkus: "A colorful portrait of a daring woman.... Scott Fitzgerald never invented a Jazz-Age seductress as bold, brash, and devastating as Henrietta Bingham (1901-1968), the author's great-aunt. A biographer and historian, Bingham...discovered a cache of love letters sent to Henrietta by two ardent suitors. One was John Houseman, not yet a noted director and producer. Most of Henrietta's lovers, though, were women: Mina Kirstein (sister of ballet impresario Lincoln and lover of Clive Bell), who had been her teacher at Smith College; Bloomsbury artist Dora Carrington, who experienced 'ecstasy' in Henrietta's arms; Wimbledon tennis champion Helen Jacobs, with whom Henrietta had an affair lasting several years; actress Beatrix Lehmann, sister of novelist Rosamund and Hogarth Press editor John; and many others. Henrietta was, apparently, irresistible; she 'could beguile brilliant and creative people,' the author notes, but her affairs, which 'began passionately…rarely held her attention.... With one lover after another Henrietta acted skittish and immature, ambivalent and distant.' Her behavior was likely shaped by her relationship with her wealthy and powerful father, emotionally but not physically incestuous, characterized by 'mutual obsession and dependency.' He repeatedly offered her careers that would have ensconced her in her native Kentucky, and she repeatedly refused. Yet when he was made Franklin Roosevelt's ambassador to England, Henrietta reveled in aristocratic life and often served as his hostess. The 'seductiveness and ambivalence' Henrietta felt toward her father contributed to a lifetime of neuroses, which she sought to alleviate through treatment with Freudian psychoanalyst Ernest Jones, who became her mentor and confidant.... As she aged, Henrietta succumbed to drink and assorted pharmaceuticals, suffering more than a dozen breakdowns in the decades before her death. Throughout, the author ably illuminates the character of her great-aunt, who 'took freedom as far as she could'.... Deeply researched, Bingham's engrossing biography brings her glamorous, tormented ancestor vividly to life."