Essays on my latest book, The Blue Box, a family history centered around three women from three generations spanning the Civil War through the Jazz Age.
This cliché has governed perceptions for far too long—especially on Broadway!—and led to the disconcerting experience of middle-aged, or even old, women complaining about their mothers, who have been in the ground for decades.
I beg to differ, using my mother, Mary Caperton Bingham, as my argument.
Her college materials and her letters to the man who would become my father, during a prolonged, and for her painful, four year courtship, form the basis of the last third of my next book, coming out in August from Sarabande Books, The Blue Box: Three Lives in Letters. Check out the early reviews.
She was, as they used to say and probably do say somewhere, “Too smart for her own good,” the fourth in a family of seven children, six of them girls who would become her rivals and her mentors and eventually some of her closest friends (but this only toward the end of their lives, when two were already dead).
Too smart, etc., meant that she was not satisfied with the genteel, restricted education offered at Miss Jenny’s, a superior finishing school in Richmond, Virginia.
Having drawn all she could from that source, desperate to go to college, for which she would have to have a scholarship (none of the women in her family had ever dreamed of college), she “dropped out” in the most literal sense, leaving not only school but her mother’s crowded household to go as a sort of nonpaying border to an exceptionally gifted playwright and producer from New York, whose influence would be supreme.
This was Mary’s first action of finely-tuned rebellion, rebellion that had a goal in mind; her mother, who was distracted by financial and family problems, seemed hardly to notice.The tutoring, formal and informal, that Mary received when she was eighteen and nineteen led to her acceptance at Radcliffe College, on scholarship; this was a special stipend for girls who came from outposts further than sixty miles from Boston where the college was situated.
So of course she was probably one of the few southern girls in the class of 1928, which would not have deterred her; she felt no allegiance to the south, which at this point in her life represented only limited opportunities.
She loved Greek, Latin and theatre in that order, and started off with high marks and the commendations of her professors; some of their notes on her essays read like love letters—notes no contemporary professor would dare to write.
But then, like so many others, she fell in love. That in itself might not have stopped this small, blond dynamo who was always marching forward into her life.
But he, the man who would become my father, was temperamentally unavailable, too handsome, too rich and too free to imagine marriage, and she had to disguise what was really a four-year pursuit with endless patience and endless waiting—and of course her course work suffered, so that she graduated with a less elevated degree than he did.
And gave up the opportunity to become a classics scholar and a university professor—at a time when there was barely a handful of women in the halls of academe—in order to leave the American University in Athens, to which she had received a noted fellowship, the first of only two women…
Left that to wait another year, working at a publisher in Boston, while her flyaway beau (as she would have called him; she made it clear to a granddaughter that there was no sexual misbehavior) came and went from Kentucky, with carloads of bootleg whiskey and the admirable ability to amuse and upset everyone he encountered.
Finally she broke free and ran off to Paris, totally amazing him, and this, plus the accidental death of his closest male friend, caused an avowal that she could take as a proposal.
But it wasn’t, really, and she was on tenterhooks as she sailed back to New York to meet him at their favorite bar on Fifty-Second Street.
There he did propose, helped along by two bottles of champagne; he had, in fact, already decided to do it, writing his father several days before that although “The Judge,” as he was called, had never heard of Mary Caperton, Barry was going to marry her.
The secret was out; he had preserved it all those years to preserve his freedom.
They were married for the rest of his life, happily or not, who is to say? We five children saw a perfect façade, which did not crack until my father was on his deathbed, kept alive against his wishes and seething with rage.
At the end, he was her prize exhibit, in silk pajamas, propped up in bed, finally silenced by a coma.
Would Mary with her great intellect and fiery personality have spent a happier life in a university?
The life that fell in her lap when she married my father provided chances to speak out, to influence Democratic politics, and to become, after his death, a philanthropist. That life gave her a good deal more power.
All this I discovered when I read her papers in the Blue Box. Until then, I had known almost nothing of her history, but she remains for me a difficult and challenging example of what a woman of character who makes good choices can become.
And, as she used to say, I should learn to avoid “kicking against the pricks,” which I have not succeeded in doing.