On the last afternoon of his life, two days after Thanksgiving, Robert Worth Bingham IV played tennis at the Midtown Tennis Club in Chelsea. The 33-year-old writer was a fierce athlete on top of his game -- "feel the pain" was one of the expressions he liked to use when slamming an ace over the net with his Yonex. Gleefully besting his opponent, Bingham threw on his battered suede jacket and headed downtown on the subway. He got off at the Canal Street stop and climbed the four stories to his cavernous White Street loft, a messy floor-through with few furnishings save for a pool table, a rowing machine, ceiling-high oak bookshelves, hundreds of photographs, and a few huge abstract paintings that hung crookedly from scuffed white walls.
Not long ago, his apartment had been a round-the-clock beehive of activity. By day it served as the busy headquarters of the literary journal Open City. At night, it was a virtual clubhouse populated by former schoolmates from Groton, young Manhattan writers, assorted demi-celebrities, a reliable drug dealer, and a steady stream of pretty girls. Pavement's Stephen Malkmus crashed there whenever he was in town.
In recent months, however, things slowed down considerably. Last May, Bingham married his longtime girlfriend, Vanessa Chase, a Ph.D candidate at Columbia. At her urging, Bingham, who had used heroin intermittently for six years, pulled the plug on the party and struggled to stay clean. Without backgammon partners, drug dealers, and drinking partners to distract him, he had ferociously attacked his first novel, Lightning on the Sun, until, after several revisions, it was finally ready to be published next spring. Several movie producers were already circling around the manuscript, says his agent, Jennifer Rudolph Walsh. Brad Pitt had even expressed interest in playing the lead role.
But at 4 p.m. on that rainy Saturday, he was alone and bored. After celebrating Thanksgiving at his mother's Manhattan apartment, Bingham had declined to spend the rest of the weekend with the Chase family at their home in Princeton. He and Vanessa had argued and she decided to go alone.
Sitting down at his computer, Bingham checked stock quotes and e-mailed a few friends. "Hey whassup," he wrote one of them. "Oh, fuck it, I'll just call you." He settled into an armchair recently reupholstered by Vanessa, surrounded by scattered books and sheaves of papers; Bingham was notorious for saving a hard copy of every draft of his writing. He poured himself a succession of drinks as he ambled about the apartment: Diet Coke, tea, a tumbler of Maker's Mark. He smoked a few cigarettes. Then he positioned the galleys of his novel on his lap and read through them one more time, making small comments in the margins.
"The life Rob spent was perplexing but inspiring," says friend and colleague Tom Beller. "Because what he was struggling with was the truth about society and himself."
Bingham had finished Chapter Five when he departed for the Knitting Factory around 8 p.m. with his tennis partner Sam Brumbaugh to hear a solo performance by Evan Dando, the lead singer of the Lemonheads and an old friend. Dando was in a sour mood that evening, and played just five songs before storming off the stage. Disappointed, Bingham drank a few beers at the bar and took off suddenly, as was sometimes his habit, without saying good-bye to friends.
Eventually he ended up at the Baby Doll Lounge. The divey strip club downstairs from his apartment had become less fun since it was forced to put the girls in bikinis and curtain off a back room for the more exciting stuff, but the bouncer, Kevin, was still a friend, and two hostesses named Cindy and Sapphire, he wrote, "catered to my needs."
It grew late, and his onetime drug dealer was posted across the street. At some point, a friend reports, he purchased two bags of heroin, which he snorted at home. Some speculate that because he had been clean for so long, his body rebelled against a dose that he had once been easily able to handle. He passed out in his bathroom, facedown next to a sliding glass door. His young wife discovered his body when she returned from Princeton on Sunday night. By Monday afternoon, news of his death had spread throughout the city.
Dying young wasn't an altogether surprising end for a man who lived his life like a character out of a Fitzgerald novel, but as one guest commented after the packed memorial service last month, Rob had always managed to beat the odds before. By week's end, his life had been chronicled in over a dozen papers, including the New York Times, which devoted three stories to Bingham in eleven days.
All the attention was not surprising. In an increasingly antiseptic city, Rob Bingham was an oversize character whose life easily lent itself to mythologizing. He was, for one thing, fabulously wealthy, the scion of a legendary Louisville publishing family who amassed a fortune estimated at nearly half a billion dollars. Shabbily handsome, with dark hair flopping above brown eyes and a Brooks Brothers tie serving as a belt for his chinos, Bingham sometimes came off as a prototypical Gen-X slacker, but he managed to cram a great deal into his 33 years. At various times, he worked as a journalist in Cambodia and as a beat reporter in Nashville; he was an alt-rock devotee, a Web entrepreneur, and a benefactor to young artists and writers. His money allowed him to veer from vocation to vocation, abandoning people and projects as soon as he tired of them.