Monday, January 02, 2006

Flagler's Fortunes, Part II


In 1901, North Carolina songbird Mary Lily Kenan became the third wife of Standard Oil/Florida real estate millionaire Henry M. Flagler -- she was 34, and he was 71. In 1913, after Flagler died following a fall at their palatial estate, Mary Lily Kenan Flagler became the wealthiest woman in the U.S., with an estimated fortune of almost $100 million.

Three years later, Kenan married an old college sweetheart, lawyer Robert Worth Bingham -- who happened to be deep in debt. Although he had signed a prenuptial agreement giving up all claims to Mrs. Flagler's fortune, she was very generous with her new husband, giving him a trunk filled with $1 million and paying off his debts.

Shortly after their marriage, however, Bingham began to spend considerable time away from home, coinciding with his engagement of a physician to treat Mary Lily for heart trouble with injections of cocaine and morphine. After Mary Lily was found dead in her bathtub at age 50, scarcely a year after her marriage to Bingham, Bingham showed up with a signed codicil to her will giving him $5 million.

The Kenans contested the codicil and accused Bingham of murder, going so far as to exhume Mary Lily's body for an autopsy; and although the scandal raged through the tabloids and the courts for some time, both Bingham and the Kenans were able to enjoy splendid shares of Henry Flagler's fortune, estimated in total in the hands of their heirs at $500 million by 1995.

For his own part, Bingham seems not to have suffered much from the scandal. With Mary Lily's inheritance, he purchased the Louisville Courier-Journal (1918) and became a leading Kentucky kingmaker. After supporting Franklin Roosevelt in the 1932 presidential campaign, Bingham was rewarded by being nominated to serve as U.S. ambassador to Great Britain. The only opposition to his nomination came from partisans in his own backyard, as Kentucky congressman Andrew May demonstrated in a speech against Bingham on the floor of the House:
"When that distinguished police court lawyer takes his seat on one side of the table, a seat once occupied by the immortal Ben Franklin, and when Lloyd George and Ramsay MacDonald take their seats on the other side of the table, we will have just about as much chance in that crowd as a wax cat would have in a battle with an asbestos dog in the bottomless pits of hell."

Bingham ultimately served as ambassador until his death in 1937.

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