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Henrietta Bingham grappled with issues—from sexuality to personal agency—as relevant to young women today as they were nearly a century ago

Character study

The southern belle who took London by storm 100 years ago

By Emily Bingham on May 26, 2015

Henrietta Bingham was 21 years old in 1922 when she met up with Mina Kirstein, 26, her freshman year English professor from Smith College, for a London sabbatical year that swept the pair—they had become lovers—into both Freudian analysis and the social orbit of the unconventional Bloomsbury Group.

Henrietta’s spirit and beauty captivated European aristocrats and artists alike, including the painter Dora Carrington, an androgynous and eye-catching figure, famous for her short-cropped hair.

It was a heady time for the American travelers as they intersected with Lytton Strachey and Leonard and Virginia Woolf, among other literary heavyweights. But back in the States, Henrietta’s father, “Judge” Robert Worth Bingham, the publisher of Louisville, Kentucky’s Courier-Journal who would later become United States Ambassador to Great Britain, was growing impatient: he resented his daughter’s absence and pressed for her return.

The writer and historian Emily Bingham has brought her great-aunt to vivid life in a new biography, Irrepressible: The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham. Henrietta holds up as a startlingly contemporary figure, grappling with issues—from sexuality to personal agency—as relevant to young women today as they were nearly 100 years ago, when a most unlikely southern belle took London by storm.

Judge Bingham impatiently folded ship schedules into his letters to London. But the last thing Henrietta wanted to do was book passage home. She and Mina were pursuing romance and adventure in the early months of 1923: Mina had declared to the pair’s shared psychoanalyst, Dr. Ernest Jones that she wanted to end her erotic relationship with Henrietta, and both women were on the make. They spent evenings together at the Savoy, where the hotel’s Orpheans and Havana Band played foxtrots like “You’re in Kentucky Sure as You’re Born,” and Harry Craddock, a refugee from Prohibition Manhattan, mixed lime rickeys and gin fizzes. Henrietta was making a splash. A French viscount and wartime flying ace had married the daughter of London department store magnate Gordon Selfridge, and the aviator’s intense interest in Henrietta prompted her father’s warning to “cut him off entirely” rather than “disturb [the man’s] domestic ménage.”

Still, Judge Bingham at some level relished the attention Henrietta received. During the same winter weeks, he heard of her “disturbing the peace of a crown prince,” the dashing blue-eyed Nicholas, heir to the Romanian throne. But even this should not keep her from home. Foreigners, the English excepted, were “rotten inside,” the judge told his daughter, and incapable of treating a woman honorably. In fact, Bingham added, “the best American is not one hundredth part good enough for you,” a sentiment he took to his deathbed.

The cover of "Irrepressible: The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham"/FSG Books
The cover of Emily Bingham’s “Irrepressible: The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham”/FSG Books

A basement bookshop and not a nightclub provided the entrée for Mina and Henrietta’s most thrilling social ties in London. Francis Birrell and David Garnett’s bookstore opened soon after the First World War in the Bloomsbury neighborhood near the British Museum and the University of London and became a favorite among the loose band of artists, writers, and intellectuals known as the Bloomsbury Group. Even the tables that held the stock were the work of the Omega Workshop, a prewar art collective that included Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, and Dora Carrington and produced original decorative items for everyday use.

When Mina walked in one day, Garnett was intrigued. He was something of a hustler, and drawn, like Jay Gatsby, by the “inexhaustible charm” and “jingle” of money. Mina and “her friend, Henrietta Bingham, a lovely girl,” were clearly “the daughters of very rich men,” he wrote. This commonality accentuated their differences, however. David appreciated Mina’s earnest intellect, but also took immediately to Henrietta, nicknaming her “Puppin,” a sweetheart with a striking “oval face of a Buddha” and a deep, “caressing voice of the South.” Henrietta had none of Mina’s bookishness, but her “strength of personality” lifted her to the center of even the most sophisticated company.

Garnett had stumbled on something exotic and delicious and potentially useful in these two American girls. He gained their confidence and learned of their love affair. Irreverent and ribald at times, Garnett was also tender, entertaining, and loyal and found pleasure in mediating the complicated lives of his friends. “Henrietta is a very great dear,” Garnett reminded Mina one day when things were not going smoothly between the two women. “You mustn’t hurt her, or undervalue her love, or yours for her.” Advice from David Garnett was of particular weight to Professor Kirstein in the winter of 1923: she was falling in love with him.

The fluidity of sexual connections in Bloomsbury informed Garnett’s unruffled appraisal of Mina and Henrietta. Their preoccupation with psychoanalysis, which he considered a highly suspect path to personal satisfaction, puzzled him, for he saw nothing “wrong or maladjusted with either” of them. David and Mina exchanged playful, increasingly intimate letters; when she was confined to bed with measles he sent a volume of Edward Lear verses, suggested playing darts, and instructed Henrietta to enliven the patient by practicing her saxophone. Then he wrote abruptly, “Did I tell you that my wife presented me with a most delightful boy about a week ago?” Mina had known nothing about David’s approaching parenthood—she had not even known he had a wife. “Our relationship, from his point of view, had certain limitations,” she later wrote. “He could not understand my Puritanism, as he called it. And wishing to appear sophisticated,” Mina could not admit how David’s behavior disturbed her.

When Henrietta and Mina managed to extend their time in England through the summer of 1923, David offered to help them find a country retreat. He thought right away of Tidmarsh Mill in Berkshire, home to Lytton Strachey, Dora Carrington, and her husband, Ralph Partridge. (Emma Thompson played the title role in Christopher Hampton’s 1995 biopic, Carrington.) The success of Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, which he followed in 1921 with Queen Victoria, made travel possible, and he was treating his unusual household of three to a North African adventure. So much the better, Garnett reasoned, if the Americans rented the place in their absence.

One early March day, Henrietta steered a shining blue Sunbeam motorcar to the red-roofed house straddling the River Pang. When the brace of “exquisite American girls” arrived, Carrington (she loathed her first name and insisted that her friends not use it) was in her studio. Touring the two women around the house, Carrington thought Mina “lovely,” “tall with an olive skin, dark shining eyes like jet beads, and a perfect slim figure, short black curling hair.” Henrietta was “my style, pink with a round face, dressed in mannish clothes, with a good natural smile.” As they moved down the corridor, Mina surveyed the book-lined study Carrington had decorated for Strachey. While Mina did the talking, Henrietta remained cool, catching Carrington’s gaze and holding it. Henrietta left Carrington oddly shaken, and the artist watched the car pull away with regret. Nearing her thirtieth birthday, Carrington imagined that these “lovely creatures” took “about as much interest in me as if I’d been the housekeeper.”

Whereas Carrington greeted her third decade with dismay, David Garnett was ready to celebrate his. The novella, Lady into Fox, had gone into a fourth printing, and he began to feel he might make a living by his pen. He and his wife, Ray, planned a birthday gathering in the tall-windowed, double-height London studio that Duncan Grant shared with Vanessa Bell, where the American James McNeill Whistler had painted decades earlier. They bought wine, rented glasses, and set out bowls of olives. Henrietta mounted the studio’s iron staircase carrying a homemade southern-style 1-2-3-4 layer cake with caramel icing—she had packed cookbooks in her steamer trunks and, having also brought spirits and a case of mixers, she worked the bar, offering flavorful concoctions that Prohibition’s bootleg liquor had made so necessary in America.

Henrietta was slipping into her Roaring Twenties element, but the scene provoked Mina’s just-beneath-the-surface anxieties. This was Garnett’s world, and among the guests were writers and artists whom she longed to know. Even Virginia Woolf, “whose recently published Jacob’s Room [she] hadn’t really understood very well,” might come. The light fare and the heavy alcoholic offerings made for a boisterous blend that was not exactly Mina’s style, whereas Henrietta glowed like the sun. When the phonograph ran down that night in Grant and Bell’s studio, Henrietta picked up a mandolin. The guests formed a circle as she began to sing. One of the songs was

“Water Boy.” Paul Robeson and Odetta later made Waterboy recordings full of yearning and protest, but in 1923 Henrietta, young and white, was singing about a water carrier on a chain gang. Her performance, in all its rich contradictions, was perfect, as Henrietta channeled rebellion and blackness, sorrow and sex, pursuing and being pursued.

Water boy

Where are you hiding?

If you don’t come right here,

Gonna tell your pa on you.

In the eyes of most Bloomsbury figures, Americans were “generally amusing, enthusiastic and tireless” but “a little went a long way” and few won admittance to the circle. But the “Bloomsberries” (as they are sometimes called) could not get enough of Henrietta. This despite the fact that she was neither bookish nor highly educated, and merely by saying, “Hello, my name is Henrietta,” broadcast her roots in a region benighted by slavery, the outrages of lynch law, and an ascendant Ku Klux Klan.

With Bloomsbury as her audience, Henrietta won cachet by presenting the anomaly of a certified Southern “belle” singing and playing in “negro” style. Henrietta’s unlikely identification with black prisoners reverberated with her own barely fettered desires. Dora Carrington described the scene: “I only know her name is Henrietta. She has the face of a Giotto Madonna. She sang exquisite songs … [and] made such wonderful cocktails that I became completely drunk and almost made love to her in public. To my great joy Garnett told me the other day she continually asks after me and wants me to go and see her.”

Carrington had impressed Henrietta, and David Garnett—whom everyone thought was sleeping with both Americans—took puckish delight in acting as a go-between.

Carrington said “the discovery of a person, of an affection,” was, next to her work, “the greatest thing I care about.” To a friend of her husband’s the artist wrote, teasingly, of the smashing girl from Kentucky: “Ralph cut my hair too short last week. When it has grown longer and my beauty [has been] restored, I shall visit the lovely Henrietta and revive our drunken passion.”

Excerpted from IRREPRESSIBLE: THE JAZZ LIFE OF HENRIETTA BINGHAM by Emily Bingham, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2015 by Emily Bingham. All rights reserved.