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The Bingham dynasty

By Laurie Bennett

May 9, 2007 at 8:39pm

As dynasties go, it was short-lived. Just 68 years elapsed from the time Robert Worth Bingham bought the Louisville Courier-Journal and Times for $1.5 million in 1918 until the newspapers and other family holdings were sold for $448 million in 1986.

But it’s the back story that creates the Bingham fascination. As James Boylan wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review in 1991, the family is “a mingled yarn of sudden or mysterious death, with each generation mixing glittering success and dereliction, and finally an irresolvable struggle for dominance.”

That’s why four major books about the Louisville clan were published between 1987 and 1991.

The family traces its history in America to 1789. But the dynasty didn’t begin until almost 130 years later when Mary Lily Kenan Flagler died, leaving $5 million to her second husband, Robert Worth Bingham.

Flagler’s first husband was Henry Flagler, a ruthless partner with John D. Rockefeller in Standard Oil. In a second career, Henry pioneered the development of Florida. Miami would be named Flagler today if Henry hadn’t said no.

When Flagler fell down the stairs of his Palm Beach estate in 1913 and later died, Mary Lily, his third wife, became the richest woman in America and perhaps the world. At the time of her death in 1917, Mary Lily left an estate valued up to $100 million, the equivalent of more than $1.8 billion today.

However, Flagler apparently left Mary Lily more than money. She also had a serious form of syphilis. The mystery surrounding her death, just eight months after her marriage to Bingham, would haunt the dynasty to the end. Did Bingham, an old college acquaintance, facilitate Mary Lily’s death in order to collect his inheritance?

A Bingham son, Barry Bingham Sr., took over the media empire in 1937 and built the Louisville papers into national prominence. He was the title character in the 1991 book about the family called, The Patriarch. Two of Barry Sr.’s sons died in accidents. The remaining son, Barry Jr., took over the company in 1971. Family infighting, especially between Barry Jr.’s sister, Sallie, and the rest of the family, sometimes about the old rumors involving Mary Lily, was rampant. At one point, Barry Jr. kicked his sisters off the board of directors.

Seeing no other solution, Barry Sr. put the empire on the auction block. Gannett bought the newspapers for $305 million. Television, radio, printing and other operations sold for $143 million.

The media dynasty was over. But the mystery remains.

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