The fall of the house of Bingham

House of Dreams: The Bingham Family of Louisville, by Marie Brenner. New York: Random House. 452 pp. $19.95. Fans of television soap operas are sometimes struck by how the writers keep a plot moving by simply not letting family members talk to one another.

The viewer wants to say: ``That's not realistic. Put them together for five minutes and they'll straighten this out. Real families talk to each other.''

Give credit to the soap opera writers. There really are families that refuse to communicate and will put their relations with one another, and their empires if they have them, at risk because of it.

Under the ownership of the Bingham family, the Louisville Courier-Journal earned a well-deserved reputation as one of the best newspapers in the country. The paper's Pulitzer Prizes, liberal editorial stands, and standing in Louisville gave the Binghams enormous social and political clout.

The Courier-Journal no longer belongs to the Binghams, of course. It's another link in Allen Neuharth's Gannett chain, while a family-owned television station, two radio stations, and a printing company have new owners as well. How the Binghams lost this communications empire, partly through bad business decisions, but mostly through a stubborn refusal to communicate and compromise, is the tale of this excellent book.

In a well-crafted narrative, Marie Brenner begins by telling how the Binghams gained their empire. In 1916 Robert Bingham, a lawyer and politician who would eventually be a circuit court judge, married Mary Lily Flagler, widow of Henry M. Flagler, a multimillionaire and former partner of John D. Rockefeller in the Standard Oil Company.

Less than a year after marrying Bingham, Mary Lily was dead. The circumstances of her death - the theories range from the unavoidable result of morphine addiction to willful neglect to murder - and Bingham's possible role in her demise have haunted the family history ever since.

Mary Lily left more than this mystery behind; she also left her husband $5 million - out of a $100 million estate - in a handwritten codicil, even though he had earlier agreed not to share in her estate. Brenner explores several possibilities, including one that Mary Lily was forced to write the codicil to obtain morphine. In any case, Bingham used $1 million of the $5 million to buy the Courier-Journal.

But while Robert Bingham gave the Courier-Journal prominence, his son Barry added distinction. In many ways, it became the voice of the newly emerging South. When the New York Times or a national magazine wanted a Southern opinion, it often called the C-J, as it was known.

There was only one thing Barry loved more than the Courier-Journal: his wife, Mary. Since they were married in 1931, Barry and Mary Bingham have been almost inseparable.

That closeness, in fact, may have been a factor in the troubles that followed. The Binghams had five children, two of whom died in freak accidents. Often, the children felt they were kept out of the tight circle their parents had made for themselves.

As Barry Sr. got older and removed himself from the day-to-day operation of the company, his lone surviving son, Barry Jr., took over. But as he was to find out at crucial times, his father would still make important decisions when he wanted to, and his sisters, Sallie and Eleanor, were never satisfied with his stewardship.

And more and more often, there was less direct communication in the family; time and again, people would complain to Barry Sr. about how Barry Jr. was running the company and Barry Jr. would never be told about it, either by the person who complained or by his father.

Later, as dissension over the company increased and the dispute became public, the news media became the means of communication among the members of this media family. One Bingham would give an interview to the Washington Post, the New York Times, or some other publication and another Bingham would learn what was going on.

The demise of the company and splintering of the family came in part over Sallie's insistence on being bought out of the business. When no figure could be agreed upon, Barry Sr. saw no alternative but to sell everything. The $1 million invested by Judge Bingham in 1918 had grown to a company that sold for more than $420 million in 1986.

But as Brenner makes clear, a willingness to talk and pull together as a family, not as individuals or as spouses, could have prevented it all. Communicating through outsiders or the media is no way to run a company - or a family.

Thomas Watterson is on the Monitor staff.

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