For one tragic couple – and so many more – marriage equality came too late

July 13, 2015
HHJ, Nancy Walker, HWB at Long Crendon

Helen Hull Jacobs (L), Nancy Walker, Henrietta Bingham (R) at Long Crendon, Undated.

When the U.S. Supreme Court delivered its landmark decision affirming marriage equality last month, tens of millions of Americans tweeted #LoveWins or rainbowed their Facebook profile pictures to celebrate this major step forward for civil rights.

I couldn’t help thinking of my great-aunt, Henrietta Bingham, whose tragic life in the early 20th century would have turned out so differently now.

You would have thought that Bingham, born into a wealthy family in 1901, had no need to be concerned about public approval. Her father owned two successful Kentucky newspapers and served as U.S. ambassador to Britain under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Her life of privilege was cushioned and protected. But even this could not insulate her when she fell in love with another woman.

helen airborne by hwb

Helen Hull Jacobs in undated photo taken by Henrietta Bingham.

Bingham met tennis champion Helen Hull Jacobs in London at a U.S. embassy reception in 1934. The alluring Bingham, 33, was busy helping her father host the embassy receptions, including huge Fourth of July garden parties with American jazz bands. She had spent her 20s in tune with the Jazz Age, bowling over steamy actresses like Tallulah Bankhead and aesthete Bloomsbury artists like Dora Carrington.

Jacobs, 25, was the No. 1 ranked woman tennis player in the world. She had pioneered wearing shorts on the tennis court, when calf-length skirts with white stockings were de rigeur. Traditionalists howled in protest, but Jacobs said it helped to be able to lunge for the ball without tripping on her hems. A Daily Mail cartoonist wrote that Jacobs “looked better in shorts than any man we could think of.”

Bingham clearly thought so. Within months of their meeting, Jacobs was accepted as part of the family, with a “room of her own” in the embassy — though one surmises she didn’t always sleep there. Jacobs helped to ground her lover, whose life lacked focus. The champion player took to calling Ambassador Robert Worth Bingham “H.E.”, for His Excellency, or, more prosaically, “Pa.”

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Henrietta Bingham at Quainton, February 1929.

Meanwhile, Aleen Bingham, Henrietta’s stepmother, enjoyed the opportunities to meet big movie stars including Gary Cooper — Hollywood was mad for tennis. Jacobs was mad to learn to fox hunt. So Henrietta Bingham, who had spent much of her Kentucky childhood on horseback, began teaching her.

These “close friends,” as the press discreetly referred to them, spent as much time as possible in prime Oxfordshire hunt country, at a rented Tudor farmhouse that they decorated to the nines. There, they rode horseback daily, had epic dinner parties (with guests like Man Ray) and planted sweet peas. It was, as Helen Jacobs wrote in her diary, “a joyous and satisfying life.”

When Jacobs at last triumphed at Wimbledon in 1936 – she had been runner-up three times — she credited her riding. And her teacher.

Bingham was in love. She also longed to return to her home in Kentucky. Transferring their ménage seemed a logical step. Her father bought a former country club and golf course called Harmony Landing, 15 miles outside Louisville, for her personal use. There, she planned to breed thoroughbreds to sell and also race a few. She and Jacobs could share the stately brick mansion, which dated from 1812 and was surrounded by rolling acres.

Bingham introduced her partner to local society, where Jacobs’ celebrity at first overwhelmed the community’s shock of the open lesbian relationship. There were charity tennis matches and mint-julep parties, but even family members could make the couple feel self-conscious and uncomfortable. Heavy drinking and conservative company could make for awkward social encounters.

Though my great-aunt didn’t care what people said, it was a major scandal when one night, at a downtown club, the elevator doors opened on the pair as they were kissing, arms entwined around one another’s waists.

But this wasn’t London or the Roaring ’20s. Tolerance for such things was evaporating. When Bingham’s father died, at 66, in 1937, his protection died with him. Whispers soon circulated about the Louisville police having banished Bingham to another county because of her “perversion.” Her stepmother withdrew support, further isolating her. Jacobs’ extended stays at Harmony Landing became unsustainable. One summer, for the sake of appearances, she had to rent her own farm a few miles away.

In a 1941 letter — the only one Bingham ever kept from a female partner — Jacobs tried to be encouraging:

Such wonderful days are ahead of us, beloved…. Horses from Harmony Landing would be world famous, flowers and Labradors from [me] likewise, and we will grow mellow together. We will throw historic, brilliant parties, and pool our brains to think up all sorts of fun, and I will be your farm manager when you need one, and put you to sleep when you need that, too. We can be happy and proud together, darling…. I am beside you, behind you, and on top of you (if you want!). You can do and say nothing to stop the constant flow of deep and growing love that goes out to you from my heart every time I look at you.

But Jacobs was finally forced to concede that this was fantasy. Her lover’s bravado was crumbling, and Bingham was drinking heavily.

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Henreitta Bingham in 1933.

When World War Two broke out, Bingham needed to stay on the farm, where she raised hemp and organized victory gardens for the war effort. But she also half-joked about having to slaughter her beautiful and expensive broodmares, for there was no market for yearlings. Jacobs, in contrast, became a commander in Navy Intelligence.

Bingham, isolated from her gay community, fell prey to “an odd feeling of banishment.” Suffering anxiety and depression, when alcohol was no longer enough, she turned to powerful sedatives her doctors prescribed. Even her closest family members pressed hard for her to undergo a prefrontal lobotomy. But Bingham successfully fought off the idea.

Jacobs moved on. She found another partner, and settled down with her on Long Island. Ultimately, she entered the International Tennis Hall of Fame

Bingham, desperate to escape the ruins of her dreams for happiness in Kentucky, moved to Manhattan after the war. For many years, she and a former actress, Dorothie Bigelow, occupied adjoining Upper East Side apartments. But the breakdowns and hospitalizations continued.

Revellers take part in a Gay Pride parade in San Jose

A Gay Pride parade in San Jose, California, June 28, 2015. REUTERS/Juan Carlos Ulate

Bingham died in 1968, one year before the Stonewall Riots that launched the gay rights movement and began turning the great homophobic ship toward tolerance.

Yet as late as the 1980s, when a journalist asked Jacobs about Bingham, the tennis legend concealed their relationship. Today, almost 75 years after Jacobs’ loving letter, such restrictive codes have finally lifted.

Last month, the U.S. ambassador to the Court of St. James and his Kentucky-born wife threw a private party to celebrate Pride Week. For Henrietta Bingham — and so many others — this was the stuff of dreams.

The day after Chief Justice Anthony Kennedy’s historic opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges, the ambassador, with friends and staff, rode a double-decker bus in London’s LGBT parade, tossing favors to the crowd.

If only my great-aunt and her beloved Helen could have been there.

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The polio vaccine was late for a lot of people and that was really sad.

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