The Binghams of Louisville, Ky., came by their fortune the old-fashioned way: They inherited it. Exactly why the rise, decline, and fall of the owners of the Louisville Courier-Journal have attracted such outsize attention, however — this being the fifth book on the family in four years — remains a bit of a mystery. As media dynasties go, theirs was a relatively modest one, almost entirely contained within the state of Kentucky. Of course, nothing interests the press more than the press. But the Binghams aren’t exactly journalism’s house of Atreus. Rather than high tragedy, the much-publicized family feud that led to the sale of the company reeks of petty acrimony.
Maybe that’s the secret. Readers who derive comfort from the sins and follies of the outlandishly rich will find much to reward them in this brilliantly reported, if overly detailed, chronicle by an up-and-coming journalism family (Susan Tifft is an associate editor at TIME; Alex Jones, her husband, is a New York Times reporter). The Patriarch begins by debunking the myth about how Judge Robert Worth Bingham came into the money he used to buy the Courier-Journal. The charming scapegrace was widely suspected of having poisoned his second wife, Mary Lily Flagler, who was, not coincidentally, the richest woman in the U.S. at the time of her death.
Although the alleged murder lies at the center of at least two other recent Bingham books, no crime may have occurred. The less scandalous but no less interesting truth, according to Tifft and Jones, seems to be that Mary Lily Flagler Bingham’s death in 1917 was probably due to cardiovascular syphilis contracted from her first husband, Henry Flagler, a carousing oilman and partner of John D. Rockefeller.
As its title implies, The Patriarch tells the story from the point of view of Barry Bingham Sr., the old Judge’s heir and the publisher responsible for making the Courier-Journal into one of the South’s best — and most liberal — newspapers from his ascendancy in 1937 until his death in 1988. During that time the Binghams endured enough tragedy, sorrow, and family vendettas to convince anybody this side of William F. Buckley that what America really needs are stern regulations against nepotism in private corporations and an ironclad 100 percent inheritance tax.
The gradual decline began when Barry senior handed over his daily responsibilities (but not his power) to Barry junior, who was temperamentally unsuited to the job and allowed himself to drift into a financial war with his sisters, Sallie and Eleanor. All three were eventually willing to use every weapon available against one another, including having it out in ugly detail on 60 Minutes.
By the time Barry senior decided he had no recourse but to sell the company — he and his wife having changed sides among the battling siblings numerous times — the fate of the empire hinged upon Sallie’s zeal to get every cent of $32 million for her 15 percent of the stock, against her brother’s determination to pay her $26.3 million and not a penny more. So they sold to the Gannett Co. for $305 million, and now there’s a different name on the masthead. Exactly why this constitutes an epic tragedy the authors never do make entirely clear. Even so, a fascinating account. A