At important points in their lives, Sallie Bingham and Bruce McBroom each made a life-changing decision to move to New Mexico. Their journeys were different, but their destination—Santa Fe—was the same. Now full-time residents, their paths may have never converged but for one thing: each recently joined The Circles, a Museum of New Mexico Foundation membership group whose support provides sustainable futures for our museums. These are their stories.
by Carmella Padilla
Sallie Bingham: A Creative Place to Land
In 1991, after 40 years as a critically-acclaimed author, Sallie Bingham was divorced with three grown sons and in search of “a nurturing place to start over.” Her groundbreaking work had amassed prizes and attracted publishers before she even earned a college degree. Still, she says, “Early success can be a mixed blessing.”
The daughter of a Louisville, Kentucky, newspaper owner and publisher whose family had made its fortune in communications, Bingham’s writing flourished under her father’s encouragement. Though her mother had worked in journalism, Bingham saw her only option in the field on the society page. Instead, by the 1950s at Boston’s Radcliffe College, she was honing a more feminist literary voice and perspective that is a hallmark of much of her work. Her story, “Winter Term,” a candid account of Radcliffe College girls having sex with Harvard University boys, won Harvard’s distinguished Dana Reed Prize, which had never been given to a woman, and a guest editorship at Mademoiselle, a position previously held by Sylvia Plath.
A three-book contract with Houghton Mifflin led to Bingham’s first novel in 1961. It also launched the New York literary life she had dreamed of, but whose social conventions she ultimately despised. “I didn’t get why I should go sit in that horrible dark hole of a restaurant called Elaine’s, or why I should go to George Plimpton’s cocktail parties,” she says. “It was a gentleman’s business, mostly white men publishing white men.”
Bingham’s success continued nonetheless as she published prolifically while juggling marriage and children. But with the social upheaval of the 1960s, Bingham felt New York closing in. She returned to Kentucky and began a new chapter of life as a thriving playwright. Her work captured the beauty and complexity of Southern society, with women’s issues an ongoing theme. She used her success to produce plays by women writers and directors and to create the Kentucky Foundation for Women, which has supported work by feminist women artists for 25 years.
In 1989 came Bingham’s Passion and Prejudice, a memoir she says was “written in blood,” and that Gloria Steinem heralded as “a major step toward feminist change and democracy.” The book revealed deep-seated secrets about the Bingham family and the fall of their news empire. Two years later, Bingham sought refuge in Santa Fe. It was, she says, “a creative place to land.”
Today at an eastside Santa Fe teahouse, Bingham speaks with a warm southern lilt as she describes how, despite the ever-changing world of publishing, New Mexico remains a stimulating, supportive place to write. Her extensive bibliography now includes four novels, five short story collections, three poetry collections, a memoir, and numerous plays. “I have a stubborn conviction about what I write,”she says. “Without small publishers, book groups, and a great community of readers, I wouldn’t manage.”
She cites her participation in the Museum Shops’ New Mexico Women Author’s Book Festival as a highlight of the past two years. She recently joined The Circles to engage in other museum-related activities. “I’m very proud of what the Museum Foundation does,” she says. “Our museums are remarkable, and the Circles events are always inspiring.”
Bingham’s next short story collection, Mending: New and Selected Stories, will be released by Sarabande Books in October. She will read from the book at the New Mexico Women Author’s Book Festival on October 9. Still in progress is The Blue Box, a nonfiction book based on a collection of family letters written between 1820 and 1931. In part, the book tells the story of Bingham’s gregarious maternal grandmother, who failed as a writer in the 1950s—just as Bingham was beginning her literary ascent.
“She once told me she would have been a successful writer, but she had seven children instead,” Bingham says. “She didn’t regret it, but she made her point clear. I think she would be proud.”
This article appeared in the Summer 2011 edition of El Palacio magazine, the member magazine of the Museum of New Mexico Foundation.