Robert Worth Bingham

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Robert Worth Bingham
A man with dark hair wearing glasses, a high-collared white shirt, polka-dotted tie, and black jacket
United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom
In office
May 23, 1933 – November 19, 1937[a]
President Franklin D. Roosevelt
Preceded by Andrew W. Mellon
Succeeded by Joseph P. Kennedy
Mayor of Louisville
In office
July 1907 – December 1907
Preceded by Paul C. Barth
Succeeded by James F. Grinstead
Personal details
Born November 8, 1871
Orange County, North Carolina
Died December 18, 1937(1937-12-18) (aged 66)
Baltimore, Maryland
Cause of death Complications from surgery to treat Hodgkin's lymphoma
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Eleanor Miller
Children Barry Bingham, Sr., Robert, Henrietta
Residence Glenview, Kentucky
Education University of Louisville School of Law
Occupation Politician, diplomat

Robert Worth Bingham (November 8, 1871 – December 18, 1937) was a politician, judge, newspaper publisher and the United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom from 1933 to 1937.


Bingham attended the University of North Carolina and University of Virginia but did not graduate. He moved to Louisville in the 1890s and received a law degree from the University of Louisville in 1897. He formed his own practice with W.W. Davies.

Bingham married into a wealthy family in 1896. He became involved in Louisville politics as a registered Democrat, and was appointed interim mayor of the city in 1907 after election fraud invalidated the 1905 election.[8] His corruption-busting tactics in his 6-month term alienated him from the local political machine and the Democratic Party in general, and he chose not to run in the general election.

He ran unsuccessfully for the Kentucky Court of Appeals in 1910 as a Republican, and as a Democrat for Fiscal Court in 1917. He was appointed to the Jefferson Circuit Court in 1911,[5] and was known as "Judge Bingham" for the rest of his life.

Controversial inheritance

Bingham's first wife Eleanor Miller died in 1913. She was a passenger with her children in a car driven by her brother. Accounts vary, but either the car was crossing railroad tracks and was hit by a speeding commuter train[9] or Eleanor jumped out of the car as it crossed the tracks. Her father Samuel Miller had committed suicide in this manner nineteen years earlier.[9] Her son Barry later said he could remember Eleanor pushing him out of her lap and jumping from the car.[10] She was survived by three children: Robert Norwood Bingham (his middle name was later changed to Worth, making him Robert Worth Bingham Jr), George Barry Bingham, and Henrietta Worth Bingham.[11]

In 1916 Bingham married Mary Lily Flagler, reputedly the wealthiest woman in America at the time and widow of Henry Morrison Flagler.[12] She died within a year,[13] and although there was never any evidence of it, Bingham's enemies and some of his relatives would long claim he was somehow to blame for her death. As the family business crumbled publicly in the 1980s, several biographers, most notably David Leon Chandler and Mary Lily's step-granddaughter Sallie Bingham[10] claimed Bingham had killed his wife for the money, either by overdose or withholding medical care. Immediately before falling ill, Mary Lily had added a codicil to her will, giving Bingham five million dollars outright (rather than the investment fund for him she had originally planned).[10] Allegations of murder haunted Bingham for many years.[14][15] While acknowledging these theories were at least plausible, more mainstream sources, from the Filson Club's respected quarterly publication to The New York Times, dismissed the allegations as impossible to prove beyond a reasonable doubt.[16][17]

Nevertheless, as Bingham inherited $5 million after her death, enabling him to purchase The Courier-Journal and The Louisville Times, which became critical in establishing his later national prominence, it made an attractive conspiracy theory. Bingham's son, Barry Bingham, Sr., argued that Flagler was an alcoholic who drank herself to death, a theory supported by an affidavit from her family doctor given in 1933.[16]

Later career

Using the bequest from Flagler, Bingham purchased the Courier-Journal and Times in 1918.[18] He immediately clashed with long-time editor Henry Watterson, who soon retired. In the 1920s Bingham used the paper to push for farm cooperatives, improve education and support of the rural poor, and to challenge the state's Democratic Party bosses. In the latter endeavor he became an ally of U.S. Sen. J. C. W. Beckham, who had been governor in 1900-07. Bingham himself was, earlier in his career, discouraged from running for mayor due to the likelihood of heavy opposition from the likes of Democratic party boss John Whallen, and had bitterly described the unfairness of machine tactics he witnessed used against other candidates.[citation needed] He was among reform-minded Democrats who successfully backed Republican Augustus E. Willson of Louisville for governor in 1907.[citation needed]

Bingham married his third wife, Aleen Lithgow Hilliard, in 1924. A strong financial backer of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Bingham was awarded with ambassadorship to Great Britain in 1933, and took up his post in May.[19] As ambassador, Bingham pushed for stronger ties between the United States and Great Britain,[20][21] and vocally opposed the rise of fascism and Nazism in the 1930s,[3] a time when Roosevelt would not because of political concerns at home.[22] He was succeeded in the post by Joseph P. Kennedy.

He was a member of the Society of the Cincinnati, Society of Colonial Wars and the Sons of the American Revolution.[citation needed]

His daughter Henrietta Bingham was involved with the Bloomsbury Group, having affairs with the painter Dora Carrington and later with the sculptor Stephen Tomlin, who went on to marry Julia Strachey, niece of Lytton Strachey, the love of Carrington's life.[23]

Seriously ill, Bingham sailed back to the United States on November 19, 1937.[24] He died a month later, on December 19, 1937, from Hodgkin's lymphoma, at Johns Hopkins Hospital, where he had been operated on a few days before his death;[2][5] and was buried in Cave Hill Cemetery.[6]

His family continued to dominate Louisville media for another half-century, mostly through his son, Barry Bingham, Sr.

The SS Robert W. Bingham, a cargo ship in service from 1944 to 1959, was named for him.[1]

See also

St Mary's Church, Wilton


  1. ^ Sources differ as to the date that Bingham's service as Ambassador ended. William E. Ellis, in his biography of Bingham, states that Bingham resigned on December 8, but President Roosevelt took no action, and Bingham died '"still American Ambassador to Great Britain"'.[1] Likewise, Susan Tifft and Alex S. Jones also state that Bingham sent his resignation to President Roosevelt on December 8, but they do not mention whether the President accepted his resignation.[2] On the other hand, Walter E. Campbell, in his biography of William R. Kenan Jr., says that Bingham resigned on December 10, eight days before his death.[3] The New York Times reported, ten days before Bingham's death, that he had "tendered his resignation some weeks ago" due to ill health,[4] but the newspaper's obituary and later coverage still refer to Bingham as Ambassador to the United Kingdom.[5][6] Perhaps the best arbiter is the State Department, which reports that Bingham's mission terminated on November 19, 1937, with his departure from England.[7]
    This article uses the date supplied by the State Department, November 19, 1937, as his last day in office.


  1. ^ a b Ellis, William E. (1997). Robert Worth Bingham and the Southern mystique: from the Old South to the New South and beyond. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press. pp. 193–195. ISBN 0873385780. OCLC 36543342.
  2. ^ a b Tifft, Susan; Jones, Alex S. (February 1993). The Patriarch: The Rise and Fall of the Bingham Dynasty. Simon and Schuster. pp. 151–. ISBN 978-0-671-79707-2.
  3. ^ a b Campbell, Walter E. (2010). Across fortune's tracks: a biography of William Rand Kenan Jr. The University Of North Carolina Press. p. 257. ISBN 0807865176. OCLC 949985349.
  4. ^ "PRESIDENT CHOOSES JOSEPH P. KENNEDY AS ENVOY TO BRITAIN; Bingham, Now at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Forced by Illness to Resign as Ambassador". The New York Times. December 9, 1937. Retrieved June 14, 2018.
  5. ^ a b c "ROBERT W. BINGHAM, AMBASSADOR, DIES; U. S. Envoy to Great Britain, 66, Succumbs to a Tumor of Rare Occurrence". The New York Times. December 19, 1937. Retrieved June 14, 2018.
  6. ^ a b "BINGHAM IS BURIED WITH SIMPLE RITES; Bishop EmeritusWoodcock and Envoy's Pastor Officiate in Notables' Presence". The New York Times. December 21, 1937. Retrieved June 14, 2018.
  7. ^ "Robert Worth Bingham". Retrieved 2018-06-15.
  8. ^ Campbell, Tracy (June 2006). "How to Steal an Election" (PDF). Kentucky Humanities. Archived from the original (– Scholar search) on March 30, 2007.
  9. ^ a b Marie Brenner, House of Dreams: The Bingham Family of Louisville. Random House, 1988.
  10. ^ a b c Sallie Bingham, Passion and Prejudice. Knopf, 1989.
  11. ^ William Elliot Ellis, Robert Worth Bingham and the Southern Mystique, The Kent State University Press, 1997, pg. 53.
  12. ^ "MRS. FLAGLER WEDS EX-JUDGE BINGHAM; Oil Millionaire's Widow Marries Ex-Mayor of Louisville, a Friend of Her Youth". New York Times. November 16, 1911. Retrieved June 14, 2018.
  13. ^ "MRS. BINGHAM DIES; WORTH $60,000,000; Fortune of Former Widow of H. M. Flagler to Go to Her Niece, Mrs. Louise Wise Lewis. WED EX-JUDGE NOV. 16 LAST Husband, an Ex-Mayor of Louisville, and Other Relatives to Receive Only $3,000,000 of Estate". The New York Times. July 28, 1917. Retrieved June 14, 2018.
  14. ^ Augustus Mayhew, Fatal Fortunes: The Flagler-Kenan-Bingham Triangle. Review of Irrepressible: The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham, in New York Social Diary, September 4, 2015.
  15. ^ Emily Bingham's Irrepressible: The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham (Farrar Straus Giroux 2015), cites more documentation about Mary Lily's death, including evidence on both sides, although she believes Robert was innocent. According to her research, many people at the time -- including Theodore Roosevelt -- assumed Robert had murdered his wife and gotten away with it.
  16. ^ a b Duffy, James (1988-01-10). "The Early Empire". The New York Times.
  17. ^ Thomas, Samuel W. (July 1989). "Let the Documents Speak: An Analysis of David Leon Chandler's Assessment of Robert Worth Bingham". Filson Club History Quarterly. 63.
  18. ^ "WATTERSON'S HOT SHOT AS PAPER IS SOLD;". The New York Times. August 7, 1918. Retrieved 2018-06-14.
  19. ^ "BINGHAM TO CALL ON KING; With Other Diplomats He Will Present Credentials to New Ruler". The New York Times. May 5, 1936. Retrieved June 14, 2018.
  20. ^ "BINGHAM INVITES BRITISH-U.S. UNITY; Offers Assurance Roosevelt Can Make 'Binding, Lasting' Understandings Now. HE SEES A 'NEW SITUATION' Ambassador Believes That the Two Nations, Cooperating, Could Bring Security. BINGHAM INVITES BRITISH-U.S. UNITY". The New York Times. December 2, 1934. Retrieved June 14, 2018.
  21. ^ Selden, Charles A. (July 5, 1936). "ANGLO-U.S. ACCORD FOR PEACE IS URGED; Bingham Warns of Woe to Any Who Consider Two Peoples 'Mere Supine Pacifists.' IGNORANCE IS DEPLORED Prof. Mims Asks Why British Fail to Study Literature and History of United States". The New York Times. Retrieved June 14, 2018.
  22. ^ Kleber, John E., ed. (2001). The encyclopedia of Louisville. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky. pp. 91–92. ISBN 9780813149745. OCLC 900344482.
  23. ^ Extended Review: The Letters of Lytton Strachey
  24. ^ "BINGHAM, ILL, SAILS FOR U. S. SUDDENLY; Ambassador Will Remain Here for Medical Treatment--His Resignation Is Denied". The New York Times. November 20, 1937. Retrieved June 14, 2018.

Further reading

  • Chandler, David Leon (1989). Binghams of Louisville : The Dark History Behind One of America's Great Fortunes. New York: Crown. ISBN 0-517-56895-0.
  • Ellis, William E. (1997). Robert Worth Bingham and the Southern Mystique: From the Old South to the New South and Beyond.
  • Thomas, Samuel W. (1993). Barry Bingham: A Man of his Word.
  • Ellis, William E. (January 1982). "Robert Worth Bingham and the Crisis of Cooperative Marketing in the Twenties". Agricultural History. 56: 99–116.

External links

Political offices
Preceded by
Paul C. Barth
Mayor of Louisville, Kentucky
July 1907 – December 1907
Succeeded by
James F. Grinstead
Diplomatic posts
Preceded by
Andrew W. Mellon
U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom
1933 – 1937
Succeeded by
Joseph P. Kennedy
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