Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Eno, Bull City), it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literature, publishing and the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.
Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect a current title or maybe an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world.
House of Dreams: The Bingham Family of Louisville
By Marie Brenner
Random House, 1988, pgs. 452
Mr. Daughtry, who started our downtown bookstore, used to pencil notes inside some of the wares he took in to sell. For instance, “Wilmington people Kenan family!” would appear on the front page of copies of “House of Dreams: The Bingham Family of Louisville” by Marie Brenner. So for years I have been moving a copy of “House of Dreams” through my various “to read” piles. Finally, I settled down with it.
What have I been missing?
“House of Dreams” chronicles the rise and fall of the Bingham family media empire in Kentucky. The patriarch of the family, Judge Bingham, married three times, with his final being to Mary Lily Kenan, who was the widow of Henry Flagler, the standard oil magnate and resort developer in Florida. She died under very mysterious circumstances shortly after her Bingham marriage and left a hand-written codicil to her will so that the family would receive $5 million in 1917. Bingham used the money to purchase the Louisville’s Courier-Journal and the Louisville Times. Utilizing the power of the press they now controlled, the Binghams launched themselves into society with Judge getting appointed US Ambassador to the Court of St. James (he was succeeded by Joseph Kennedy).
The beginning of the book focuses on a lot of North Carolina connections: Wilmington, Asheville, Orange County, the Kenans. The picture is painted of life at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. The tragedy of Mary Lily is heartbreaking: first as Flagler’s mistress for upward of a decade, then as his widow, and then as a much unliked stepmother to the Bingham children. At every turn, she plucks the heartstrings; she was a means to an end for the men in her life.
But the empire the Binghams built is fascinating. Under Barry Sr., the third child of Judge Bingham, the newspaper empire expanded to include television and radio. Throughout the 20th century the Bingham family steered the course of media in Kentucky. “House of Dreams” traces that course up until the unbelievable moment when Barry Sr. sells the newspaper and media properties in the late 1980s.
I have been absolutely fascinated by this book and it has taken me while to articulate why: Unlike many other celebrity biographies, this is not just rich people behaving badly. There are a couple of people in each generation that fit the description, but by and large the Binghams have an overwhelming sense of responsibility. They call it a “sacred trust” with the public—that they have set an expectation for themselves they strive constantly to meet. Yes, they are extraordinarily wealthy in a state with a fairly famous vast disparity between the rich and the poor. But the Binghams are wealthier than the average rich people of the state. The sense of obligation to use that wealth and position responsibly permeates every decision. Yet, it does not make them immune to tragedy. They still lose two adult sons and watch their remaining children feud and tear apart their collective dreams.
The second reason I find myself drawn back to the book again and again is how it contains within it a microcosm of the newspaper in the 20th century. We watch the Courier-Journal grow from a scandal sheet to one of the most respected newspapers in the South. The Binghams decide during the paper rationing of WWII to cut advertising space so they don’t have to reduce news coverage—a move that is only possible because of their personal wealth. They become kingmakers on a regional level and major players nationally, lunching at the White House and on a first-name basis with presidents. The internal family discussions about how the newspaper should grow and what the responsibility it has is endlessly compelling.
Watching the various personalities develop and bring their points of view to the fray is equally intriguing. They are each strong personalities who are all basically incapable of communicating with each other, even though they own a communications empire. The irony is not lost on them; though, they are clueless to address it. They communicate largely as adults, through lengthy typed memos to each other, lawyer’s letters or perhaps, worse, through published editorials in the paper. It creates a document trail for everyone else to read, but it doesn’t create familiar bonds. Who isn’t curious about intrigue?
“House of Dreams” captured my imagination in a way that very few nonfiction books have. Partly it is Brenner’s access to the family and her conversational style of writing that makes the story unfold so realistically. It is equally as much her subjects and their connections to North Carolina and the times that have shaped our modern world.