1935 – 2020
By Keith L. Runyon
Photos provided by The Courier Journal
Joan Bingham, widow of the scion of Louisville’s Bingham family communications empire and a major force for nearly 50 years in the book publishing world, died on October 31, 2020 in New York City, where she made her home. She was 85 years old. “The Bingham family was one of the great multigenerational newspaper ownership stories, and she was an important part of it,” recalled David Hawpe, former vice president and editor of The Courier Journal. Her direct role with the newspapers, and Louisville, came with her marriage in 1960 to Robert Worth Bingham III, eldest son of Barry Bingham Sr., and his wife, Mary.
Joan Williamson Stevens was born March 5, 1935, and she grew up in Sewickley, Pennsylvania, a conservative and wealthy suburb of Pittsburgh. A graduate of Miss Porter’s School and Connecticut College, she met Worth Bingham at the Chatham Bars Inn on Cape Cod, where both of their families summered. They renewed their friendship when he was a young reporter with The San Francisco Chronicle and she was a student at the California School of Fine Arts. After they wed, they settled in Washington during the Kennedy administration, where Worth Bingham was a prize-winning writer in the Washington bureau of The Courier Journal.
In 1962, they moved to Louisville, where Worth Bingham took an increasingly important role as an administrator, rising to the position of assistant to the publisher. Joan Bingham, meanwhile, gave birth to two children, Clara and Robert “Rob” Worth Bingham IV. Her work outside the home focused on arts (including working with the Speed Art Museum) and education. She was a co-founder of Louisville’s first Montessori School.
In the memories of those who were with them in the 1960s, they were a very popular couple with many friends. One of them was the late Courier Journal cartoonist Hugh Haynie, whose wife, Lois, recalled their rollicking times. So did Charles Whaley, then education editor of The Courier Journal, whose wife, Carol Sutton, would in time become the first female managing editor of a major American newspaper. “Carol and I enjoyed our times with Joan and Worth. They were always such fun at parties here,” Whaley recalled.
Anne Thompson Moore Ronald of Louisville, then married to Glenmore Distilleries President Frank Thompson III, recalled Joan Bingham as “a great gal. We both had the same fake sapphire rings from Ciro’s jewelry store in New York City and would tease each other that it takes a fake owner to know one. I still have mine.”
In July 1966, the course of Joan Bingham’s life was upended with the death of her husband, then 34, in an automobile accident on Nantucket, Massachusetts. A young widow with a baby and a toddler, she set a course in various forms of journalism. She moved with Clara and Robbie to New York City’s Upper West Side and jumped into the literary world.
After ventures in Washington and in Paris, she became the catalyst for the merger that created Grove Atlantic publishing house and for three decades was its executive editor. Over the years, according to Elizabeth Schmitz, editorial director at Grove and a friend for a quarter of a century, Bingham acquired and edited more than 100 titles in fiction, nonfiction and poetry. Grove Atlantic was known for its prestigious authors, among them Kiran Desai, Kay Ryan, David Von Drehle and Claire Keegan.
“She was the irrepressible host of hundreds of dinners for Grove’s authors, booksellers and international publishers,” Schmitz told The New York Times.
Bingham retained her ties to Louisville as a board member of the Bingham companies, which, after internal family strife, were sold to Gannett Co. in 1986.
Over the years, Bingham supported many charitable organizations, especially the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, where she was a member of the board.
She also created the Worth Bingham Prize in Investigative Journalism, a field for which she held an “inspirations commitment to investigative journalism, which Worth himself had done in The Courier Journal’s Washington bureau,” said Hawpe, who has served as judge for that award over the years.
Both of her children grew up to succeed in reporting and writing: Clara York Bingham is married to Joseph G. Finnerty III and is the author, most recently, of “Witness to the Revolution,” an oral history about the Vietnam era.
Robert Worth Bingham IV reported for The New Yorker and died in 1999 of an apparent drug overdose at age 33. His fame rose posthumously with the publication of “Lightning on the Sun” in 2000.
Joan Bingham’s three grandchildren, Jamie, Henry and Diana Michaelis, also survive.
The family requests that expressions of sympathy be made to the Robin Hood COVID19 response fund or by mail to Robin Hood, 826 Broadway, 9th Floor, New York, NY 10003.
Bingham will be buried next to her husband in Louisville’s Cave Hill Cemetery.
Keith L. Runyon is a retired editorial page editor of The Courier Journal.