Obituary: Robert Bingham

Adrian Dannatt
Wednesday 08 December 1999 01:02

ROBERT BINGHAM had an overtly enviable existence and, though his accidental death at 33 is self-evidently tragic, his own sophisticated, subversive view of the world might not have seen it so. That is to say, though he would equally happily have lived to 80, Bingham's sensibility was sufficiently bold, caustic and audacious that it could easily encompass early death as just yet another maudlin ploy.

The circumstances of his death - he was found on the bathroom floor of his TriBeCa loft after what was probably a drugs overdose - have provided cheap copy for the media and are easily misrepresented as either the tale of a rich junkie or of an American dynastic curse. The reality is more subtle and more rewarding.

If it must be admitted that Bingham was a lover of women, alcohol and drugs, it must be added that he was equally a lover of literature, music, political policy, modern first editions, hockey and economics both micro and macro. Much of this was in his blood, both the interests and the attraction to certain recreations.

He was from a well-known, extremely wealthy Southern family, who had created a newspaper empire in Louisville, Kentucky. His great-grandfather, Judge Robert Worth Bingham, had been ambassador to Britain from 1933 to 1937, his grandfather, Barry Bingham Snr, was reigning power of the clan. Robert Bingham Jnr's father, Worth, was accidentally killed in July 1966, at the age of 34, when "Robbie" was three months old.

There are three hefty books on the Bingham family, by Bingham's aunt, Sallie Bingham (Passion and Prejudice, 1989), by Marie Brenner (House of Dreams, 1988) and the Pulitzer prizewinning Patriarch (1991) by Alex S. Jones and Susan Tiffet. Consulting their indexes, you might think young Robbie hardly stood a fighting chance. Next to the original "Bingham, Robert" you find "as alcoholic" and when it comes to "Bingham, Worth", the name is followed by a suggestive litany - "death of, drinking of, drugs taken by, gambling by, girlfriends of".

Growing up in such a family had its own ritual atmosphere. One Christmas, aged seven, Bingham recited "Casey at Bat" to his family; his grandmother disapproved of the chosen text but at the next year's recitation contest he won $350 with "Once more unto the breach . . ." Later it became a tradition for him to recite from memory the entirety of Dylan Thomas's A Child's Christmas in Wales every Christmas Eve for his family.

Bingham was educated at Groton School and at Brown, an Ivy League university known for its ferociously high entry standards. He graduated in 1988 and followed this by an MFA in creative writing at Columbia University in 1994. But perhaps the central event in his youth was the decision of his grandfather to sell the family business. Bingham was in Hong Kong when his grandfather called at 5am local time. "It was very eerie. I cried a little bit. It was like the end of a dream." From Brown he sent a long, heartfelt letter to his grandfather asking him not to sell to friends, who might not pay the full price. The grandfather wrote back a three-page response and distributed copies of both to the family. In the end the media empire was sold to Gannett for $435m in 1986.

Bingham was thus worth a considerable sum, but much of this was also due to his own skill at playing a variety of financial markets. Although he was often riotously drunk or entertainingly blitzed on one of his cocktails of unusual chemicals, he was at the same time a diligent, smart investor who followed the markets closely and cannily.

Bingham was also generous with his money. Most notably he supported the New York literary and arts journal Open City. His title may have been "publisher" but he was just as involved in the selection of poems, rejection of art projects or consideration of potential covers. This interest in literary administration, even reading random unsolicited manuscripts after a long lunch at the Racquet Club on Park Avenue, was an example of the diligent, hard-working and perfectionist side of his persona. This was all the more evident in the long hours and hard labour he put into his own fiction, not least his forthcoming novel, which he re-wrote and refined through numerous drafts.

Bingham spent much time travelling, and formed a particular attachment to Cambodia, where he worked for two years on the English-language Cambodia Daily and was involved in the country's politics at many levels, even lingering with Prince Sihanouk in Parisian exile. Bingham continued to visit Cambodia on a regular basis, blessed as he was with the ability and temperament to travel as he wished, whisking someone he'd just met, say, from Chicago to Europe, or following his favourite band, Pavement, on tour. Bingham was passionate about Pavement, and spent much time with the band, including attending their most recent recording sessions in London, where he featured in several press interviews as a mysterious Southern gentleman with hip-flask.

Pavement played at Bingham's wedding in Princeton this May. His bride was Vanessa Chase, a Harvard graduate art historian. Chase provided all the support and domestic stability Bingham lacked, as well as an intellectual and moral core for an otherwise somewhat haphazard life style. He visited Venice frequently with Chase, where he bought and maintained a boat just for the sake of it, and was looking forward to seeing in the Millennium with his new wife on the beaches of Cambodia.

Bingham had his own unique style of social action and anecdotes are abundant, often located in go-go bars, strip joints or country club marquees. He made the papers often, boldly hectoring Caspar Weinberger at the celebrity restaurant Nobu or almost landing his grandmother in gaol in 1990. Bingham was working on the US Senate campaign of Louisville's mayor when he revealed, during a Martini-drinking marathon, that his grandmother had made a secret contribution to the Democratic National Committee. In the end no action was taken, but it made a perfect Bingham anecdote, involving his own family's dynastic mystique, shady money and journalistic subterfuge, not to mention Martinis.

Somehow Bingham always maintained a redeeming charm. Even at his most murderously cruel, if not physically violent, one still sensed a child- like innocence below it all. He wrote in a story, "That malicious bastard I can be flowered in my heart", yet also wrote, "But we are none of us the great murderers of our mind, just simple fools stumbling toward what is expected of us."

Appropriately for someone who was so clearly, albeit entirely unselfconsciously, a fictional character, it is Bingham's fiction that stands as most fitting memorial to his manifold talents. His short stories were published in The New Yorker, the first when he was 26, and then as a collection, Pure Slaughter Value, in 1997. With titles like "This Is How a Woman Gets Hit" and "Marriage is Murder", they are hilarious precisely because so genuinely shocking in their raw honesty and brutal realism.

Though compared to John Cheever's, Bingham's characters are considerably more upper-class and considerably wilder, resembling some freak breeding of Hunter S. Thompson and Louis Auchincloss. However, the comparison to Cheever stands with respect to the quality of the prose, for Bingham wrote with that magical excellence which sometimes finds one running a finger under the words in disbelief at how the author brought it off. There is also a noticeable subtext of early death -

A lot of his friends were doing it. They were dying or getting married. A few were doing neither, but the margin was narrowing. Max did not want to die, but he viewed marriage as a kind of death. He was twenty-nine. . .

One character pops his girlfriend's birth-control pills when he can't find any valium, then assuages his hangover by renting a porno film and ordering out Indian food, falling asleep to his favourite war film, The Guns of Navarone.

Pure Slaughter Value is more revelatory than any autobiography and phrases can be found that suggest Bingham's long love of the edge: "He still wanted to alter his life, see what would happen to it if he tried to throw it away" or "that thrilling corner of his heart that still wanted to destroy himself, to make himself an early grave". Yet these ideas are also universal, for who has not felt, "He wished not for death but to be absent from his life"?

Pure Slaughter Value will without doubt slowly establish itself as a minor classic of American literature. And by all accounts Bingham's first novel, Lightning on the Sun, to be published next year, is even more impressive. A Graham Greene-style "entertainment" set in Cambodia, it should establish Bingham as a major writer, one whose career may have gained as much in media mythology as it has lost in potential production. As his agent Jennifer Rudolph Walsh remarked, "We thought we were at the beginning of something so palpable and tremendous. And how did we know we were at the end as well?"

Robert Worth Bingham, writer, publisher, journalist and philanthropist: born Louisville, Kentucky 14 March 1966; married 1999 Vanessa Chase; died New York 28 November 1999.

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