When I went through my grandmother's basement after she died, I found some jewelry, a mink stole, and a bunch of pictures. When historian Emily Bingham went through her great aunt Henrietta's attic, she found underwear, the tennis clothes of an old lover, and hundreds of love notes.
Emily Bingham's family didn't like to talk about Henrietta, who was the black sheep of the family. But Emily, fascinated with her glamorous great aunt, couldn't resist diving into her life story. In fact, she turned it into a book called Irrepressible: The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham, which uncloaks this fascinating party girl's wild life "Born in 1901, she came of age amid tragedy and enormous wealth, and spent much of her twenties and thirties ripping through the Jazz Age like a character in an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel," Emily Bingham writes of Henrietta. Whoa.
That's a pretty bold claim. If you're going to compare someone to a Fitzgerald heroine, you better be able to back it up. But if anyone can be called a real-life Fitzgerald character, Henrietta Bingham definitely can. Born in 1901, Henrietta witnessed the death of her mother at a young age and watched her family's wealth skyrocket after her father's second marriage to a millionaire who quickly died under suspicious circumstances. She lived a life of decadence and excess, going to wild parties throughout the U.S. and England, surrounding herself with artists and intellectuals, and taking on lovers of both genders. She flouted social convention and reveled in scandal. Yeah, that sounds pretty Fitzgerald to me.
Irrepressible: The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham by Emily Bingham, $9.28, Amazon
Secretly, even though we know it's probably a bad idea, we all kind of want to be a Fitzgerald heroine. Sure, their lifestyle isn't exactly stable and healthy, but it does usually seem pretty damn glamorous. A lot of people see Daisy Buchanan as their jazz-age idol, but Daisy is so boring! She never really seems to do anything but look pretty and show up to parties. A real jazz-age goddess, like Henrietta, is way more wild and complex than that. So if you're looking to really embrace your inner Fitzgerald heroine, take Henrietta's advice instead.
Have Some Crazy Daddy Issues
There's nothing wrong with being a daddy's girl, but sometimes that can be taken a little too far. Henrietta had a tumultuous relationship with her father throughout her life, with the young Henrietta taking over as the main woman in Robert Bingham's world after the untimely death of her mother. Robert was guilty of relying a bit too heavily on his wild daughter, doing everything he could to convince her to stay in Kentucky with him.
On her end, Henrietta was bitterly jealous of any other woman who entered Robert's life. (There were rumors of an incestuous relationship, but this probably wasn't true.) Many of her friends blamed some of Henrietta's psychological problems on her relationship with her father.
Learn How To Be the Life of the Party
A lot of people go to parties. Some people are good at parties. And a very few chosen people ARE the party — that was Henrietta. Everyone but the most sour of American-hating foreigners fell under the spell of this lovely Southerner, and she found herself invited to parties and getaways to all kinds of artistic people in England. Most of whom were completely in love with her, of course. Henrietta was often found mixing up drinks or playing her saxophone at parties (she was a huge fan and supporter of jazz). Just imagine a gorgeous, freewheeling American abroad grabbing her sax and bringing down the house. THAT is a true party girl.
Reject Gender Norms and Just Do You
Throughout her life, Henrietta played with ideas of gender, refusing to conform to stereotypical notions of how a woman should act or dress. Henrietta preferred to ride horses and go on fox hunts, sometimes clad in dresses and other times donning men's clothing. Even when her father forbid her from wearing masculine clothing while at home, she defiantly returned to her preferred unfeminine style while abroad. And all the while she was absolutely slaying both abroad and in Europe, with me and women basically throwing themselves at her feet. So basically, don't let anyone tell you that you have to act or look like a "lady" to snag a romantic prospect.
Speaking of Which, Embrace a Fluid Sexuality
Apparently there was absolutely no one in existence who could resist Henrietta's charm and beauty. Men, women — it really didn't matter. Everyone wanted her, and she wanted everyone right back. She dated actresses, tennis stars, college professors, and artists, among others. And those were just her more serious relationships! That doesn't even count any of her many flings and affairs.
Although Henrietta didn't appear to keep any love letters from her female partners (probably worried about social and legal complications), we know from her saved letters from men and some references to her in the works of her female lovers that everyone she became involved with fell madly, deeply in love with her.
Dabble In Many Careers
Considering that she was fabulously wealthy for much of her life, one would think that Henrietta would be content to live out her life going to fantastic parties and wearing expensive clothing. But she wasn't just some vapid socialite. During her life, Henrietta wrote for magazines, opened a book store, bred horses, and even volunteered with the America Women's Voluntary Services during WWII, among other things. That's way more impressive than coining a catch phrase and starring in a reality show, like some heiresses we could name.
Come To a Tragic End
OK, so this one's not so fun, but if we learned anything from The Great Gatsby it's that there weren't always a ton of happy endings in the Jazz Age. As Henrietta got older, her drinking became more and more out of control. Alcohol became a coping mechanism for her, and her friends and family began to notice that the famous party girl was rarely sober. Though she could still be charming, but a mixture of financial problems and alcohol dependency caused Henrietta to slowly disengage from the social world she once loved. She eventually died from an internal hemorrhage and was buried without the company of her once-many friends and lovers. A very sad, very Gatsby-esque end to a rich life.
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