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Tom Chaney No. R718: Robert Worth Bingham

Of Writers and Their Books No. R718. A review of Wm. Ellis' Robert Worth Bingham First printed 9 July 2006.
The next earlier Tom Chaney Of Writers and Their Books column,Tom Chaney: R717: Wm. Ellis, The Kentucky River, a review

By Tom Chaney

Robert Worth Bingham

What a relief it is!

After the Bingham media empire began to unravel in the mid-1980's, we were treated to a series of sensational, tabloid like books about the Binghams -- their rise, power, control, family squabbles, and the eventual sale and breakup of the newspaper, radio, and television holdings in Louisville.

Tales of tragic deaths, hints of evil complicity, and accusations of family favoritism were bandied about by a variety of writers in at least four books appearing between 1987 and 1991.

As a reprieve from the sensationalism of these books, William E. Ellis published a scholarly biography of the founder of the Louisville Bingham dynasty in 1997.

Last week I examined Bill Ellis' highly readable history of the Kentucky River. Then came this careful biography into my ken.Ellis' book Robert Worth Bingham and the Southern Mystique: From the Old South to the New South and Beyond is a study of the Louisville patriarch of the Courier-Journal and The Louisville Times.

Robert Worth Bingham (1871-1937) was the father of Barry Bingham, Senior, and the first Bingham to own the Louisville newspapers. He was born in the Reconstruction Era in North Carolina where his father and two previous generations had owned the Bingham School from its founding in the 1790's until it was closed in the 1920's.

Very much a product of the old South, attorney Bingham moved into and became a participant in the new progressivism upon his arrival in Louisville. For a short time in 1907 he was a progressive mayor of Louisville. During his career he was active in opposition to the liquor and gambling interests. His efforts against bossism in the Louisville police and fire departments began a continuing reform movement in the river city.

The Courier and the Times had been owned by the Haldeman family and by Henry Watterson since their purchase and consolidation during the Civil War. After the death of Walter N. Haldeman, his three children gained control along with Watterson. By 1914 there was an increasingly serious split within the Haldeman ranks with Watterson allied with brother W. B. and sister Isabel against brother Bruce. The dispute was fought in the courts as well as in the newspapers. Bingham was attorney for W.B. Haldeman. Along with Arthur Krock, Bingham discussed the sale of the papers as the only possible way to resolve the Haldeman difficulties.

Bingham had just received a major bequest from the death of his second wife, Mary Flagler Bingham. With a portion of that bequest he purchased the newspapers taking control of them on August 7, 1918.

According to Ellis, "In his first public announcement Bingham pledged that the Courier and Times, 'will continue to espouse the principles of the Democratic party, and, above that -- as always -- the principles of human freedom and public weal.'"

The papers with Robert Worth Bingham in control became active in progressive issues at the local, state, and national level.

After the election of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Bingham was named Ambassador to the Court of St. James, serving for four years through declining health as war clouds gathered over Europe. He died in office in 1937.

Ellis has written a highly readable account of the life of Bingham, putting in perspective most of the sensational issues raised by the others who wrote of the Bingham years at the papers.

Ellis had access to the Bingham papers lodged at the Filson Club in Louisville as well as the Bingham collection at the Library of Congress. His work is greatly enriched by oral history interviews with Barry and Mary Bingham, John Herchenroeder, A. B. Chandler, and Wilson Wyatt, Sr., among others.

Robert Worth Bingham and the Southern Mystique is a delightfully readable biography of an adopted Kentuckian whose ideas have shaped much of the way we think about Kentucky for the past century.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at

Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749. Phone (270) 786-3084. email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2011-07-10 09:24:53
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