Book review: Irrepressible: The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham, by Emily Bingham

Bingham IrrepressibleBingham, Emily. Irrepressible: The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham.
New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015. Hardcover. 369p. $20.97. ISBN-:
978-0-8090-9464-6.

The Bingham family of Kentucky were great movers and shakers in their home state, the national arena and Europe. One member of the family, Henrietta Worth Bingham, (1901-1968) proved to be a unique player in the freewheeling Jazz Age, both in the US and Europe, and though she had a few men in her life, most of her sexual partners were women. This biography provides an interesting view of a lesbian of wealth and privilege during an era of relative freedom followed by a time of increasing conservatism. Written by her great niece, historian Emily Bingham, it follows her efforts to live a free life while struggling with the attitudes of her times. Drawn to her great Aunt’s story, in part because of her family’s discomfort with speaking about her, the author constructs this biography.

This book provides interesting insight into the pressures and opportunities that existed for a queer woman of that time and class. She entered into the new, developing world of Freudian Psychology, specifically to address her lesbianism. Her efforts over many years never succeeded in turning her away from her Sapphic inclinations, nor could it curtail her excessive use of alcohol. In her many travels to England and the continent (her father, Robert Worth Bingham, served as ambassador to Great Britain from 1933 until 1937) she connected with the famed Bloomsbury group, sleeping with some (Dora Carrington) and flirting with others. She had a lengthy relationship with an early female tennis star, Helen Hull Jacobs, setting tongues to wagging long before Billie Jean King or Martina Navratalova entered the scene. She was an avid horsewoman, surrounded by estates, and family stables. She belonged to several hunts and bred and trained thoroughbreds in her later years. Ultimately Bingham had little impact on the world around her save through her friendships and romances. But this biography adds another volume to the effort to preserve the stories of queer women and will be of interest to those who study that history.

–Morgan Gwenwald, Head of Special Collections, Sojourner Truth Library, SUNY New Paltz

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