She sits with confident self-possession and a hint of bravado on the cover of my niece Emily’s just-out biography of my aunt, her great-aunt: Henrietta Bingham (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). The biography is titled, appropriately, Irrepressible.
We children, her niece and nephews, called her “Miss Henrietta”—never aunt anything—when she visited the Big House where we were growing up; she was large by then, coarse-featured from decades of drinking, wearing the cheap polyester dresses our father sent her when her inherited money, which must have seemed inexhaustible, gave out; her loud whiskey voice and her red cheeks seemed to bely the notion that she was somehow a victim, or an invalid, or an invalidated drunk—all possible titles, given the family’s disapproval, although she did spend a lot of time in the guestroom’s four poster bed and once burned her leg severely with a heat pad when she had passed out.
“Poor Miss Henrietta,” Lizzie Baker, who had known her since her childhood, would mourn, shaking her head. “She’s just wore out.”
Nobody else viewed her with any sympathy; she was an embarrassment, a parasite, although my father, her younger brother, always adored her and kept an exclusive intense intimacy alive that shut everyone else out—especially my mother.
I’ve only read a few pages of Emily’s biography, which rests on a mountain of research, but one sentence, buried in a paragraph, has great meaning for me:
“Just before his first payment was due from the executors”—first installment from a five million dollar codicil Mary Lily, my grandfather’s second wife, had written a few days before her death—“Bingham was told that a second autopsy report showed an overdose of Salvarsan had killed Mary Lily.” Salvarsan was a potentially deadly treatment used decades ago to treat syphilis.
The subsequent murder trial reached no conclusion about who had administered the dose; my grandfather absented himself, taking his daughter Henrietta back to school, and other witnesses disappeared, as well as evidence. But because of the codicil, written so shortly before she died, it seemed likely that the model of rectitude, Judge Robert Bingham, had had a hand in her demise.
One of Shakespeare’s history plays has the king complain, “Can no one free me of this knave?” or words to that effect. Rich and powerful men always find someone to carry our their wishes.
The besmirching of my grandfather’s reputation and the fifty years of silence that followed it impacted me since childhood: I knew that the family past contained a secret, but I knew better than to ask.
And so, when I came to write my memoir, Passion and Prejudice, published by Alfred A. Knoph twenty-five years ago, I created a scene in which my grandfather contemplated freeing his tiresome, addicted wife from her earthly existence—for her own good. I had no proof, but I had my intuition: wherever there is silence, there is a secret.
This cost me my relationship with my mother; she never spoke to me during the final decade of her life, and I was disinherited to the extent legally possible. Mother announced this to me before I had begun to write Passion and Prejudice, telling me, with rage, that if I mentioned Mary Lily (and this was the first time I heard anyone in the family mention her) she would never speak to me again. She was a woman of her word, and I believed her.
After crying and praying and trying to imagine the consequences, I realized that if I gave in to the family habit of secrecy and dissimulation, I might never be able to write again.
Mother is long dead, and so the revelation of the second autopsy, in Emily’s book, has meaning only for me.
But it has a great deal of meaning for me, reminding me, forcibly, to rely on my intuition, not matter what the cost.