Bingham blessings trump curses

Jun 25, 2014 at 5:00 am

For the first time in nearly a century, the mansion high atop Glenview is for sale. With nine acres, eight bedrooms and eight bathrooms, Melcombe, a subset of the Bingham family compound, spans three generations. I consider the asking price of $3.3 million a bargain, because it’s the site of a classic network news psycho-drama too twisted to be scripted.

In 1986, Diane Sawyer, the first woman correspondent for “60 Minutes,” interviewed the embattled Binghams in the living room at the climax of the family feud that prompted the sale of the multi-media dynasty. Sawyer, a former Louisvillian whose mother still lives here, was uniquely qualified to referee the fray that transfixed the city. First, some background:

In 1977, Sallie Bingham returned to Louisville after two divorces. Her father, media magnate Barry Sr., wanted Sallie and her sister to join the board of directors. Barry Jr. described his vexation to “House of Dreams” author Marie Brenner. “I said to my father, ‘This is typical of this family. Sallie has failed as a writer and she has failed in her marriages and now you are trying to wave a magic wand and make it all right. You are using this newspaper company as a vehicle instead of showing her any other kind of love.’”

Amid a push to professionalize the board, Barry Jr. maneuvered to purge women who allegedly did needlepoint, wrote Christmas cards and asked inane questions. Though a staffer likened Sallie to Madame Defarge, she cast herself as a gadfly who asked hard questions.

In 1984, Sallie aimed a wrecking ball at the patriarchal monolith. She vowed to sell her stock. An impasse over price induced Barry Sr. in 1986 to exercise the nuclear option for peace: total divestment. True to form, the conflict ended not in a shouting match but rather dueling father-son memos posted inside The C-J.

This is a simplistic summary of a complex, perfect storm inside an amazingly transparent, dysfunctional family. The mystery that looms as large as its legacy is the tendency to communicate via detailed memo. “If you talk, someone may get upset, and that’s very hard to deal with,” Sallie told Diane Sawyer. “If you write, you don’t have to see the agonized expression as they read your words.”

But Barry Jr. revealed the heightened risks of spontaneous speech versus a measured memo when Sawyer asked him of Sallie, “Do you think she’s a little crazy?”

“Well, I’m not gonna say that on camera.”

As the meltdown continued, Sawyer queried, “Do you love Sallie?”

“She’s hard to love, uh, she is a very damaging person.”

In recounting her mother’s rationale for voting her off the board, Sallie said, “She was angry at me then because she wanted me to understand that Barry needed this special protection, this special compassion … She said something like I was trying to destroy him.”

When Mary decried that as delusional, Sallie sputtered, “I think for anybody to be told that she lives in a fantasy world, that’s pretty hard to take.”

Nevertheless, Sallie claimed victory and minimized the tragedy, because “there’s no loss of life involved.”

By contrast, the elder Binghams lamented the imminent transfer of precious, locally owned assets to unknown but presumably less vested owners. “I don’t think there are any winners,” said the deflated matriarch. “I think we’re all pretty battered.”

Junior told Sawyer, “I think my father has bought peace in the family at a very high price, and he’s gonna discover that it’s a peace that he’s not gonna enjoy very much.” Junior, whose holy reverence for ethics defined integrity, was 72 years young when he died in 2006.

Senior reportedly confided to a friend, “You’re looking at a man who has lived too long.” He died in 1988 at the age of 82 — long before Gannett convulsed The C-J with layoffs, furloughs, buyouts and lavished bonuses on executive predators.

Sallie used a portion of her $30 million fortune to endow worthy feminist causes. But her published 1989 rant against sexism at The C-J made Irene Nolan, a managing editor, wonder whether they worked in the same place. In 1974, The C-J hired Carol Sutton as the first woman managing editor of a major U.S. daily.

At 90, Mary died mid-speech in 1995, moments after she fantasized “for a big pink cloud to come down and take me away.” She championed civic duty, celebrated the library, then fell before admirers the Binghams inspired.