Southern Book Reviews [classic article]

The Binghams of Louisville
– David Leon Chandler (Crown Publishers, 1987) (255 ppgs).

My mom bought this book for me in a West Virginia thrift store. I have always been fascinated with stories of society’s “upper crust,” which the Binghams certainly are.

As an attorney, I was intrigued by the premise. The Binghams, who once owned The Louisville Courier-Journal, The Louisville Post and founded WHAS radio and tv, were media heavyweights in their day. Robert Worth Bingham was a Southern version of Rupert Murdoch in his influence during the dawn of broadcasting. He was named Ambassador to the Court of St. James by President Roosevelt. When Bingham took ill, Joseph Kennedy became his replacement.

Chandler, a Pulitzer Prize winner, encountered much family and local resistance when researching the facts. Indeed, the original publisher halted production of the books. How I hate cover-ups! I had to read on.

The main hook of the family saga is the mysterious death of Mary Lily Kenan Flagler Bingham. She was from a fine North Carolina family and married Henry Flagler, one of the founders of Standard Oil and a big developer of the State of Florida. After he died and left her an estate worth hundreds of millions of dollars, she married her former college sweetheart, Robert Worth Bingham. Shortly thereafter, her life seemed to go to Hell in a hand basket and she died.


Chandler painstakingly researches all the players and events, presenting it all in a who-done-it format. His conclusion is obvious, but he dances around it – probably for legal reasons. Some of the research is tedious – if I got bored reading trial transcripts, you probably would too – but the story itself is a terrific read.

 I liked learning about the homes, the cars, the jewelry and trips. There are some photographs, and I enjoyed those, too. I would have liked more of that and fewer legal transcripts, for a little livelier storytelling. Still, if you want to read about one of the South’s most powerful families, you can’t beat it.

The Robert E. Lee Family Cooking and Housekeeping Book – Anne Carter Zimmer (University of North Carolina Press, 1997) (279 ppgs.).

I bought this book at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, of which I am proudly a “Friend”. Let me just say right now, this is one of my favorite books of all time!

The Lees and their in-laws, the Washingtons, are hands-down the most important family in Southern history. The author is the great-granddaughter of Gen. Robert E. Lee. She is also a descendant of that wealthy Virginian, “King” Carter. She lives in Virginia horse country and is in her 70’s.

This book is perfect for men, women, youngsters, the elderly – I don’t care who you are. There’s something in it for everyone. Part history book, part gossip sheet, part recipe book, it makes for a quick read. There are also lots of pictures of the whole darn shootin’ match, as my grandfather would have said. The author even includes baby pictures of herself in Southern belle dress up – just imagine how cute!

Zimmer probably got some flack from some of “the cousins”: she doesn’t shy away from the eccentricities of her family. She takes you back in time and makes the people come alive – not as heroes and gods, but as real folks. Zimmer writes about such real topics as depression, finances and dieting. Let’s just say that General Lee’s daughters seem to have been a handful. The author is a descendant of his son, Robert, Jr.
Zimmer was given a family notebook of recipes that handwriting experts have tracked to Mary Custis Lee, several well-heeled neighbors and relatives. She made it a project, along with a group of volunteers, to convert the recipes to modern measurements and to try them. She includes both versions in the book. I learned that vanilla was not prevalent during the Civil War, so cakes used flavorings such as rose, lemon and nutmeg.

I loved the book so much, I wrote to Mrs. Zimmer. She sent me a beautiful monogrammed card, thanking me! I keep it right on my dresser, with the handkerchiefs and perfumes.


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