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Wracked by Bitter Sibling Rivalry, the Proud, Patrician Binghams Lose the Legacy That Made Them Great

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I have always regarded the newspapers owned by me as a public trust and have endeavored so to conduct them as to render the greatest public service.

—Judge Robert Worth Bingham

Those words, inscribed over the elevators in the downtown Louisville building that is shared by the city’s two newspapers, are taken seriously by the staffs of the morning Courier-Journal and the evening Times: Witness the Courier-Journal’s eight Pulitzer Prizes. No one, however, took the declaration more seriously than the heirs of Judge Bingham. In editorials over the years the Bingham family have never hesitated to take the unpopular stand, championing whatever cause they thought just. When the papers backed a controversial school busing plan in 1975, more than 1,000 protestors rallied outside the building, and bricks were thrown through the windows. As the Binghams saw it, busing was right. So the editorials continued.

Many Kentuckians saw an arrogance in the family’s position. After all, the Bingham children didn’t ride buses. They went to boarding school and then on to schools such as Harvard or Radcliffe. They didn’t live in an integrated neighborhood either. The family had its own neighborhood, a 30-acre hilltop estate overlooking the Ohio River. In the clan’s heyday, the estate, named Melcombe for an ancestral mansion in England, was patrolled by bodyguards and run by servants. Musicians, dancers and singers performed in the outdoor amphitheater and geese honked in the pond. During her childhood, the judge’s granddaughter Sallie would later recall, to be a Bingham was to live “a golden dream.”

Combining bluegrass and blueblood, duty and privilege, the Binghams built their empire: the two newspapers, a TV station, two radio stations and a magazine printing plant. But the qualities that made the Binghams great have also torn them apart. Stubborn in their ideals, the judge’s three surviving grandchildren—Barry Jr., Sallie and Eleanor—have battled to a stalemate in recent years over their roles in directing his legacy. Finally in January, their father, Barry Bingham Sr., then 79, decided there was only one way to end the impasse and provide for his children’s nine children. Asserting his power as chairman, the patriarch put the family businesses, worth an estimated $450 million, up for sale. “It became increasingly clear that there was just no way out of the emotional tangle we’d fallen into,” he explained. “In bringing up my children, I somehow did not get across to them that people have to make compromises.” Last week the newspapers alone were sold to Gannett Co. for about $300 million.

The decision to sell left Barry Sr. with “great sadness.” He had been 12 years old when his father bought the papers in 1918. Robert Worth Bingham, a struggling lawyer, had come to Louisville from North Carolina in 1896. He became mayor, then a circuit court judge. In 1913 his first wife was killed when a streetcar struck the automobile in which she was riding. Seven-year-old Barry survived. Four years later the judge married Mary Lily Flagler, widow of Standard Oil founder Henry Flagler. Bingham signed a prenuptial agreement waiving all claims to her wealth, but after nine months she changed her will in his favor. Barely six weeks later she died of edema of the brain. Her family accused Bingham of poisoning her and had the body exhumed but declined to pursue the matter after receiving the autopsy findings.

Using part of his $5 million inheritance, Judge Bingham bought Kentucky’s two leading newspapers and began to assemble his baronial estate. A staunch Democrat, he was named ambassador to the Court of St. James’s by FDR, preceding in that post another founding father, Joseph P. Kennedy. When the judge died in 1937, Barry Sr., who had worked his way up from police reporter, took over as publisher of both newspapers. If the Binghams ever enjoyed a Camelot, it was under Barry Sr.’s reign. The papers’ liberal crusades may have antagonized readers, but ad revenues soared as the Kentucky economy grew. Barry Sr. and his wife, Mary Clifford Caperton, a Radcliffe graduate whom he had met at Harvard, were Kentucky’s foremost couple, esteemed for their elegance and charm as well as their philanthropy in support of the arts.

Then tragedy struck. In 1964, 21-year-old Jonathan Bingham, the fourth child and youngest son, was electrocuted at Melcombe while trying to connect outdoor lights for a reunion of his Cub Scout troop. Two years later, 34-year-old Worth, eldest of the children, died in an even more freakish accident. He was driving with his wife and young daughter on Nantucket when one end of a surfboard he had positioned between the car’s open windows struck a parked car. The other end of the board snapped forward, breaking Worth’s neck.

Worth had been groomed to take over from his father, and few had doubted he would succeed. Dashing, athletic, extroverted, he had been a roguish, free-spending youth but had matured into a commanding leader. No one admired him more than his younger brother, Barry Jr., then 32. Barry had been overweight and dyslexic as a child but had found his own dogged style on the Harvard crew and in the Marines. When Worth died, Barry Jr. was running WHAS, the family TV station. Five years later when Barry Sr. retired, his son assumed responsibility for the newspapers as well. Barry Jr. was motivated by a profound sense of duty. “Winston Churchill said wars are won by survivors,” he said recently. “That’s true of families too. The survivors have got to move in and got to take over and got to do their damnedest, or one tragedy can wipe out a family tradition.”

But no sooner had Junior, as his employees call him, settled in, than he discovered he had Hodgkin’s disease—the same cancer that had killed his grandfather, the judge. After surgery and chemotherapy, Junior’s cancer went into remission. But he admits the experience changed him, leaving him more determined and somber.

On the job too, Barry Jr. faced pressures his father had never known. When the judge died, Barry Sr. had enjoyed total control and ruled in prosperity. Barry Jr., with his TV background, had to earn acceptance from the newspaper’s print chauvinists. “A lot of people saw me as a broadcaster,” he says. “That’s like a plague around here.” Then in the ’70s, profits began to slip. Barry Jr. found himself working long hours trying to turn the tide. The question of what Worth might have done hung over him always. And his parents, particularly his mother, had no intention of fading away. Mary Bingham often wrote letters to the papers assailing their editorials and political endorsements.

The somewhat tense if genteel status quo began to unravel soon after Barry Jr.’s sisters returned to Louisville. Sallie, the third of the children, was a published novelist and playwright who had married and moved to New York after graduating from Radcliffe. But after her second marriage broke up she came home in 1977 in a state of what she calls “complete demoralization.” The next year Eleanor, the youngest child, returned after a decade spent working on free-lance television documentaries, including an award-winning study of the inner workings of the Ku Klux Klan. Back in Louisville, she took a short-lived administrative job with the family television station.

Hoping to involve his daughters in preserving the family holdings, Barry Sr. named them, as well as his own wife, Mary, Barry Jr.’s wife, Edith, and Worth’s widow, Joan, to seats on the board of directors. Barry Sr. says he didn’t offer his daughters management jobs because they had never expressed any interest. Sallie disagrees. Because of “the rampant sexism of Bingham males,” she contends, she and Eleanor were never groomed or considered for such positions. All about her she saw a pattern of sexism. “At board meetings,” she says, “we’d have to listen to bra jokes. It was like going back to the ’50s. Barry couldn’t handle women at his level. He was completely silent at board meetings. He attended as a formality, then did what he wanted. We needn’t worry our heads about such things.”

Sallie, Eleanor and their mother dispatched frequent memos questioning Barry Jr. on major management issues, such as a strict conflict-of-interest policy that forbade board members from fraternizing with politicians, day-to-day matters including hirings and firings, and even routine decisions concerning how stories were played. Barry Jr. responded with polite memos, but says it irked him to be nit-picked by people who didn’t have to pull their weight. In 1980 Barry Jr. insisted that each board member sign a “buy back” agreement giving the Binghams the right to match any outside offer the members might receive for their stock. “It was intended to ward off unfriendly offers and takeover,” he explains. “Every other member of the family signed.” The exception was Sallie, who treated Barry Jr.’s demand as a slap in the face. “I told him,” she says, “that since he didn’t trust me, a piece of paper wouldn’t make it any better.”

Sallie, who owned 13.4 percent of the newspapers, never signed. “As far as I’m concerned, that’s where the problem began,” says Barry Jr. The situation deteriorated after he hired a Cleveland business consultant named Leon Danco to deal with declining circulation and advertising. “Danco said, ‘You need a professional board of directors, and that generally doesn’t include family members with no business experience,’ ” Barry Jr. remembers. “I thought it was good advice.” Finally in 1983 Barry Jr. delivered an ultimatum: If the women of the family didn’t resign from the board, he would step down as chief executive officer. The family pleaded with him to reconsider, but he refused. “There were board meetings when my wife was doing needlepoint, one sister was addressing Christmas cards and one sister didn’t bother to attend,” he explained later.

At the next shareholders meeting, the women resigned. All except Sallie, whose mother had accused her of trying to destroy her brother. “But I wasn’t about to back down,” Sallie says. “They made me feel guilty. They shunned me, but finally at the age of 47 I was able to stand my ground.” It was, in one sense, a hollow victory. Before resigning, the other Bingham women joined with the rest of the board to vote Sallie off. Afterward, Sallie recalls, “[My mother] called two or three times to say let’s go to a movie or have lunch. But I told her I just couldn’t see my way to do it.”

The final round in the great sibling showdown began in July 1984, when Sallie announced she wanted to sell her shares in the businesses back to the family. But backed by different appraisers, Barry Jr. and Sallie could not agree on a price. In February 1985, Eleanor, who had remained neutral, informed her brother that she was not interested in staying in any company under his control.

Like locked scorpions, the three maneuvered for almost a year. At length, Barry Jr. agreed to swap his stock in the TV station for Eleanor’s stock in the newspapers, giving her control of WHAS and him control of the Courier-Journal and the Times. The agreement hinged on whether Barry Jr. could settle with Sallie on a buy-out price. The closest they got after much haggling was his offer of $26.3 million to Sallie’s demand of $32 million. Barry Sr. urged his son to compromise at $28 million, but Barry Jr. refused, arguing that the companies could not handle the additional long-term debt—an opinion his own staff did not share. “I think he felt anything more [than $26.3 million] would be a victory for Sallie and a defeat for him,” Barry Sr. told the New York Times. Sallie herself believed her brother had become irrational. “How do you explain Barry kicking all the women off the board because they were inept,” she says, “then saying a year later, ‘I think one of them ought to run the broadcast properties?’ ”

Finally, after a night of soul-searching with his wife, Barry Sr. made his fateful decision to sell. Furious, Barry Jr. at first resigned his positions as editor and publisher, then reluctantly agreed to return pending a sale. In a memo posted on the news office wall, he branded his father’s move “a betrayal.” He doesn’t feel the word was too strong. “At some point in life,” he says, “you got to say what you think. I don’t understand the justification for [the sale] still.”

Sallie may be the only Bingham with no apparent regrets. She plans to use her anticipated $65 million share of the sale for the benefit of her Kentucky Foundation for Women and to endow a scholarship fund, which she plans to name after the judge’s second wife, Mary Lily Bingham. It is, after all, Mary Lily whose untimely death after changing her will that has titillated Louisville gossips for nearly 70 years. “She’s barely mentioned in the family histories,” Sallie points out. “But her money is what started it all.” The fund, her determined grandchild believes, will be an appropriate way of paying her back.