Naming a child after a family member is a well-practiced tradition, but Emily Bingham’s father was not crazy about the one she picked.
“When we named our daughter Henrietta, the look on my father’s face was not a happy one,” says Emily Bingham. “He said, ‘Why are you doing this? I don’t understand.’ That’s when I really realized that there were a lot of things about Henrietta that no one had bothered to tell me.”
Henrietta Bingham was independent—radically independent—at a time when the rest of the country was still debating whether women should be voting in elections. She was young and stylish and forward and sexual at a time when none of those adjectives were in the playbook for the last generation of Victorian women. She dated movie stars and tennis pros, and she ran with Virginia Woolf’s Bloomsbury Group in London.
“The zeitgeist today is very much concerned with some of the issues that bedeviled Henrietta’s life—sexuality, the way culture shapes the freedom around self-expression, emotional health,” Bingham says. “These are things we’re now really trying to deal with.”
Irrepressible: The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham, Emily Bingham’s new biography of her great-aunt, is a cultural history of American in the early 20th century from the eyes of an observer who took in as much of it as she could. Before Bingham started researching the book, she knew that her great-aunt had been a bigger-than-life character—a bohemian aristocrat, a publishing scion, an adventurer who had lived in Louisville, London, and New York during a long and interesting life.
What Bingham didn’t know—the things that made her father so uneasy—was that her great-aunt was a bisexual with a long trail of broken hearts.
Bingham interviewed her father about Henrietta several years ago as his health was declining. She spoke to him as she was about to leave on a trip, which would prove to be the last time she would talk to her father before he died. He told her to look for some old trunks in the attic. She looked and didn’t find much. Years later, a more thorough search turned up some of Henrietta’s letters that would become a foundation for Irrepressible.
“The trunk gave up a lot,” Bingham says. “There were these tennis clothes belonging to Helen Hull Jacobs, who was at the top of the female tennis circuit in the 1930s. I knew that she and Henrietta had been acquainted, but then I found these scrapbooks and diaries that had Henrietta’s name all through them.”
Henrietta had been having an affair with the tennis star.
Henrietta met David Garnett, an author and bookstore owner, in 1922 while she was spending the academic year in London. She bought some books including a novella that he had recommended and she returned to the store after reading it and figuring out that he had written it. Garnett became her conduit to the now famous group of intellectuals and writers.
“Garnett had a party in 1923 and introduced his new American friends to his circle, and Henrietta just knocked their socks off,” Bingham says. “She was this young, fabulously beautiful, unusual girl. She mesmerized them by singing chain-gang songs.”
The trunk was packed with London newspapers from 1937 and appeared to have been untouched since Henrietta had moved back to the United States. Henrietta had lived in London as a student in the 1920s and then again later when her father was FDR’s ambassador to Britain. The trunk was stored in the attic of the house in Louisville where Henrietta had lived in her teens and where Emily had also grown up.
The biography is a trove of original research—based almost entirely on family letters, correspondence among Henrietta’s friends and lovers, and various memoirs of the Bloomsbury Group in London. Bingham assembled so much original material during her research from Smith College, UCLA, the Bloomsbury archive, and elsewhere that she had to use a database program to keep it all straight.
“John Houseman’s papers at UCLA were very revealing,” Bingham says. “He had left drafts of his memoir that included pages he had cut about how he would never love anyone like he did this Kentuckian. He described being in Kentucky in 1925 for the Christmas holiday and being in a shack in a cornfield in the middle of the night where Henrietta had ordered a jug band to do a concert for them. She had this capacity to produce some incredible moments for people.”
Bingham says her great-aunt’s story is one that she hopes will resonate with a generation that is experiencing the individual liberty that her great-aunt would certainly have appreciated but likely could not have foreseen.
“I had a gut feeling that there was a market for a book about someone who is not necessarily well-known but whose life story illuminates something much larger.”
Scott Porch is an attorney and contributes to Kirkus Reviews and The Daily Beast. He is writing a book about social upheaval in the 1960s and '70s.