Boy, Interrupted

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.

Unlike others who inherit great wealth, “Rob wasn’t ashamed of being filthy rich,” says a friend, though he loathed the artifice and dishonesty of the upper-crust social set in which he was reared. “One story that Rob loved to tell was about a friend who was driving a cab, ” says a college pal. “A socialite friend of his mom’s got in and asked to be driven to her apartment but said she needed to make another stop. The cabdriver waited for a half hour, and she came out and walked off without a look in his direction. Robbie just loved that, the hypocrisy of it. How this major socialite would screw the little guy without a second thought.”

Bingham started writing as a child, and published his first short story in The New Yorker when he was just 26. Much of his fiction focuses on the young disillusioned elite of his world, men and women who move detachedly through their Manhattan duplexes and Nantucket homes and Greek-island cruises. His favorite writer was the globe-trotting existentialist Robert Stone; he also admired Graham Greene, Denis Johnson, and of course, Hemingway, whom he referred to as “Papa.” Bingham’s best-known story, “The Other Family,” which was included in his collection, Pure Slaughter Value, centers on the funeral of a cousin who died of an overdose. “The story didn’t come to me in any insider-ish way – I just found it in a pile of ‘Dear Editor’ letters,” recalls Deb Garrison, at the time a 27-year-old assistant editor at The New Yorker. “I was proud to bring it to senior editors and say, ‘This is us – this is my generation speaking up with a really interesting voice.’ “

The Binghams have always been a liberal, philanthropic family, and Rob didn’t break from tradition. His generosity was legendary, and he helped many people over the years, often anonymously. He quietly bankrolled endeavors such as the Thread Waxing Space gallery, a photographic archive of Cambodian civil-war victims, the Southern lit-zine The Minus Times. He funded indie movies by promising young directors and collected work by painters just launching their careers. “Rob never asked to look at proposals or budgets or outlines,” says conceptual artist Alix Lambert, for whom Bingham funded a documentary about the tattooing practices of Russian prisoners. “One day, he decided to call in a limit order on a stock he had been holding. If the stock hit the order, he said he would sell it all and give the money to my film company. It did, and he did.”

Brash, fun-loving, and magnanimous, Bingham was often the life of the party, surrounded by friends, acolytes, and hangers-on who listened attentively as he regaled them with outrageous stories and smiled gratefully when he picked up the tab at Odeon dinners for ten. When friends needed money, he lent them large sums and didn’t embarrass them by asking for it back.

Yet as charming as he was, Bingham could also be a loaded gun, a cynic who sprayed bullets indiscriminately when impulse struck. He was thrown out of bars for acting up, had a tendency to comment loudly and crudely on a woman’s anatomy, and viciously ridiculed people who didn’t meet his standards. “The life Rob spent was perplexing but inspiring, because what he was wrestling with was the truth about society and himself,” the writer Thomas Beller observed at his memorial. “Love and fury could surface at any moment.”

Much of his fury, friends say, had to do with his family. Like the Kennedys, to whom they are often likened, the Binghams had suffered more than their share of tragedy, and Rob would joke nervously about carrying on the “family curse.” In 1964 his uncle John, a Harvard disciple of Timothy Leary’s, was electrocuted at the age of 36 while wiring a Kentucky barn. Two years later, his father, Worth, died in a freak accident when Rob was just 3 months old.

Worth was the Bingham family’s prodigal son, a good-looking football star with a pronounced party-boy streak who was kicked out of Exeter for drinking when he was 16. One summer morning, while vacationing with his family in Nantucket, he decided to drive to the beach to surf, placing his board horizontally across the backseat of his convertible. When one protruding end hit a parked car, the whole surfboard swung around and crushed his neck.

Following Worth’s death, his brother reluctantly took over the family business, an empire that included the Louisville Courier-Journal, the now-defunct Louisville Times, television and radio stations, and a printing house. In a messy, highly publicized battle over the family fortune, the remaining daughter of the family patriarch forced the sale of the newspaper empire in 1986.

Though she remained on the board of the Louisville-based company, Rob’s mother, Joan, took her young son and his sister and moved into an apartment in the attic of the Dakota after Worth’s death. A well-regarded photographer who is now executive editor of Grove Atlantic Press, Joan tried to stay close to her in-laws, and the entire brood spent summers in Patmos and gathered each Christmas in Louisville at the estate they called the Big House. Joan watched proudly as Mary Bingham, the family matriarch, held recitation contests for her grandchildren: Rob once won $350 for his rendition of “Once More Unto the Breach,” from Henry V.

Rob was affected by Worth’s death, though he never knew his father. “Men tend to die early, freakish deaths in my family,” he wrote in an essay for the online magazine Word. “Being the only male with the last name of Bingham left in my generation, I have some seed-planting issues with which to wrestle. If I am found impotent or die before impregnating someone, there goes the family name.”

Joan Bingham was determined to have Robbie take over the newspaper empire, a relative told journalist Marie Brenner in House of Dreams, Brenner’s 1988 book on the Bingham family. And though he never got that opportunity, Bingham retained a lifelong interest in journalism. He interned at the Courier-Journal over summers in high school: “I learned how to write my first news story soon after my first ejaculation,” he told New York in 1997.

In the late eighties, he was hired as a city reporter at the New York Post, but, to his mother’s relief, he was fired after just three months, shortly after “Pistol Packing Baby,” his story on a gun-wielding child, made the front page. Bingham’s interest in more upscale literature began much earlier; at Groton, he rowed crew in the mornings and wrote short stories in study hall at night. A dormmate remembers him dramatically reading his stories aloud, to the dismay of classmates who wanted to be sleeping.

Brown University, with its Manhattan prep-schoolers and flashy Euros, at first proved disappointing to Bingham, and he often spent weekends at Trinity College, which most of his friends from Groton attended. One morning during his sophomore year at Brown, Bingham was in the Beef and Bun diner with classmates when a friend drew everyone’s attention to that day’s Times, which featured a story about the $440 million sale of his family’s newspaper empire to Gannett. “Rob just shrugged it off, like, ‘Oh, my family’s really fucked up,’ you know, in a don’t-be-jealous-of-me way,” says a friend. In private, however, he was upset at losing his chance to run the business. “It was very eerie,” Bingham told Brenner, after the sale. “I cried a little bit. It was like the end of the dream.”

Two years later, in his senior year, Bingham moved in with six new friends – including Tony Mamet (David’s brother) and Internet pioneer Nicholas Butterworth – sharing a crumbling Victorian house off campus. The house is remembered by classmates for its lavish parties in the basement, the door to which the landlord kept closing up – and which they kept prying open. Bingham shuttled between his attic bedroom and a den filled with mountains of pizza boxes, broken furniture, and a television that never went off, drinking Jim Beam straight from the bottle.

Nearly everyone he knew was moving to New York after graduation, so he did, too, into a Seaport apartment that he shared with four friends. After six months, somehow unable to find a job, he decided to go down South to cover the police beat in Nashville for the Tennessean, where he remained for a year. “It was a time of great intoxication, adherence to punk-rock principles (drunk, we’d watch Gone With the Wind with the stereo turned up),” he wrote of his experience there. “I slept with a Vanderbilt co-ed whom I actually called Trixie – and to her face. There was also a fellow reporter I fucked frequently in my car but for whom I cared very little.”

After these inconsequential affairs, Bingham took off once again, landing in Kentucky to work on the senatorial campaign of Dr. Harvey Sloane, a Democrat long supported by his family. As always, Bingham threw himself enthusiastically into the task, traveling with Sloane for months in a twin-engine prop plane, familiarizing himself with the sleepy cities and strip-mined mountains of the state he would have lived in had his father not passed away.

Over dinner at an Upper East Side bistro, he told friends that he’d looked into assassinating Cambodia’s repressive prime minister. “He was deadly serious,” says a friend. “He said it would cost about $30,000.”

Sloane’s campaign fizzled, though Bingham labored mightily to persuade his grandmother Mary to write the candidate a check. To plead his case, he knelt before her in the Big House, where she sat in a tea gown with Plutarch’s The Fall of the Roman Republic open on her lap. Unfortunately, her donating $75,000 later backfired when Bingham confided the details to a reporter over too many martinis. It turned out that the donation violated campaign-finance laws on soft money, and the matriarch was subjected to a five-year investigation by the Federal Election Commission and threatened with a lawsuit.

Embarrassed by the incident, Bingham fled Kentucky and came back to New York, where he entered Columbia’s Writing Program. During this time, he became involved with a coterie of young writers, including Thomas Beller and Daniel Pinchbeck, who would later become his partners in Open City. “He fell in love with that whole scene,” says a family member. “He wrote constantly. It was the first time he felt people could really respect him as a professional writer.”

That summer, he took a self-exploratory trek through Southeast Asia. A year later, he went back again and ended up in Phnom Penh. It was 1991, and the Cambodian capital had been opened for the first time in a peace agreement that brought $2 billion in aid to the region – and with it, U.N. aid workers and eager young reporters. “It was a journalistic ‘golden age’ for Cambodia, with foreign correspondents converging on a country the way ambitious sportsmen had flocked to the Alps nearly a century and a half earlier,” wrote journalist Barton Biggs.

Bingham first camped out at the crumbling Renakse (Khmer for “justice”) Hotel on the Boulevard de Lenin, just opposite the Royal Palace, and began work on an article about the Khmer Rouge for The New Yorker. When he wasn’t working, he played tennis with friends at the International Athletic Club, on courts that he excitedly noted had been the site of beheadings of government officials during the Khmer regime. One day, while exploring the penthouse of the hotel, he stumbled into Biggs, who was working on an English-language paper called the Cambodia Daily. Bingham enthusiastically pitched in.

He would work intermittently at the Daily without pay for six years, enlisting friends from the States and befriending the Cambodian staff. “Robert is the reason I am a journalist,” says Ek Madra, a high-strung ex-Daily reporter whom “Mr. Rob” hired as his personal assistant on the condition that he take Valium.

When he wasn’t working, Bingham could usually be found drinking at a dingy bar named Heart of Darkness or at his regular table at the Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC), the nexus of expat social life. Drugs and sex were cheap and plentiful. He bought a two-bedroom loft overlooking the Mekong River, where he hung out with a crowd denigrated by other expats as slumming prep-schoolers.

During the Cambodian hostage crisis of 1994, Bingham and some other reporters were stopped at a roadblock. The soldiers, who usually demanded cigarettes in exchange for access, asked for money instead. Enraged, Bingham pulled out his new 9-mm. pistol. His terrified fellow journalists were not amused, and a formal letter of complaint was lodged against him by the president of the FCC.

Humiliated, Bingham left Cambodia soon afterward and didn’t return for a year. He still maintained his interest in the country, however. Over one dinner at an Upper East Side French bistro, he told friends that he’d looked into assassinating the repressive prime minister Hun Sen. “He was deadly serious,” says a friend. “He said he thought it would cost about $30,000.”

Bingham’s experiences in Cambodia would form the material of his first novel, which he started writing in 1997. Lightning on the Sun, which borrows heavily from incidents in his own life, is the story of a preppy heroin user in Phnom Penh who decides to move some dope bought from a loan-sharking massage-parlor owner to New York with the aid of his lovely Harvard-educated wife. “It’s like Stone, Greene, even Joseph Conrad, for God’s sake, and I don’t throw around those comparisons lightly,” says his editor at Doubleday, Jerry Howard. “This fellow was a real writer, not a spoiled kid.”

Though he continued to travel to Cambodia each year until the end of his life, Bingham began to devote more time to literary pursuits in the U.S. In 1992, he teamed up with Beller and Pinchbeck and became the publisher of Open City, a journal that would give a voice to new writers while unearthing worthy ones from the past. Bingham proved an adept editor, rustling for hours through submissions, searching for new talent.

“The magazine was intended as a small antidote to the commercial, profit-making attitude that pervades New York today,” says Pinchbeck. “We were moving toward a perfect Bloomsbury-like situation, with the idea that our books might not make a short-term profit but they would perhaps make a long-term one as people built their careers.”

At a time when literature seemed increasingly irrelevant, Open City was a romantic throwback to another era when writers were as badass and potent as Internet moguls are today. But despite its noble intentions, Open City would become as famous for its parties as for its short stories by young writers like Mary Gaitskill, David Foster Wallace, and Martha McPhee. (In fact, the most press it received was for a poem titled “I Am a Pizza” written by Monica Lewinsky when she was 11 and published last year.)

Open City’s popular parties attracted personalities from Chloe Sevigny to Matthew Modine to Katie Roiphe to spaces like downtown theaters or alternative art consortiums. Often, Bingham would host the events in his loft. “We wanted to create environments where people would just feel, ‘Wow, this is the New York that I dreamed about when I was a kid, where anything is possible,’ ” says Pinchbeck.

Bingham’s loft also became a hangout for all sorts of antics. “A year or two ago, at the dawn of e-commerce, Rob tried to buy a frozen duck online,” recalls James Linville, co-editor of The Paris Review. “But he ended up with about a dozen frozen ducks. This being Rob, he called up all his friends and made it an occasion for a feast of ducks.”

One novelist remembers stumbling into a bedroom to get her coat and finding Evan Dando strumming a guitar, surrounded by a claque of giggling editorial assistants. Open City parties were packed and hazy with cigarette and pot smoke; at one event, guests took turns doing lines of coke off of the cover of The Paris Review. Yet, even among this hard-living crowd, Bingham became noted for excessive drinking and drug use, and friends who had tendencies in that direction admit that they avoided his apartment when they were trying to stay on the wagon. People close to Bingham’s family insist they had no idea about his drug use. Early on, however, they became concerned about his drinking and took pains to get him sober. In 1993, they prevailed on him to go to a rehab in Minnesota. Though he found the twelve-steps a bit earnest for his liking, he sporadically attended AA meetings for the rest of his life.

Vanessa Chase, the woman he would marry, was different from many of Bingham’s girlfriends – a fresh-faced blonde who grew up in New Jersey, the daughter of a Rutgers professor. “She was very much the most-popular-girl-in-school, but she’s completely open and friendly,” says a friend. At Harvard, where she graduated with an art-history degree in 1991, she was a good student and, like Bingham, tremendously social: A resident of the conservative Eliot House, Chase was as much a fixture at cocktail parties as at lectures on medieval Italian church painters.

Chase first met Bingham at a Super Bowl party in 1993. As their relationship progressed, friends say she fell into a pattern of shielding and protecting him, deflecting attempts by his friends and family to take a harder line on his excesses.

After dating for five years, Chase complained that she had been a bridesmaid six times and seven meant “spinsterhood.” After one wedding, Bingham went into a tirade about how marriage was for idiots and he’d never be played for a fool. “She sat down on Greene Street next to garbage bags and cried her eyes out,” recalled Bingham in an essay. “I cannot fight Vanessa’s tears.”

They married in front of a historic Princeton mansion on a clear day last May. It was a relatively small wedding, considering the number of friends each had, but at least a dozen people were in the wedding party. The bridesmaids wore shimmery dresses the color of the sky. Guests included a man from Southeast Asia whom Bingham introduced as “my Russian friend from Saigon who deals arms.” Following a reception in a large tent, the party moved to an empty barn on the edge of the property, where Pavement performed, Tom Beller played the drums, and Bingham, overwhelmed but joyful, sang a drunken, playful rendition of “You’re So Vain.”

Around midnight, he and Vanessa took a helicopter to the airport, where they’d fly first to Italy for their honeymoon, eventually ending up in Cambodia. “I was so sad when Rob flew off,” says Nancy Begley, a photographer, the editor of Washington Life magazine, and heiress to the Reynolds Wrap fortune. “I think we all felt, ‘If you’re not here, then what’s the point?’ “

For a while after the marriage, Bingham slowed his drug and alcohol intake. He no longer fell down stairs or threw up in public. “Rob could be an ugly, violent drunk,” says one acquaintance. “The real tragedy is that his friends, even those who weren’t users, thought it was kind of great that he was so fucked-up, so close to the fire of life, so raw, so real.”

Cheered by his marriage and the imminent publication of his book, Bingham made a Herculean effort to stay clean. A friend close to the family says that Joan Bingham talked about the improvements her son had made. “He seemed to be drinking a lot less,” she said. “He had gone back to see his shrink, he seemed much happier and more productive. Things were finally looking up for him. But I guess he had to try and touch the flame one more time.”

On the Wednesday after he died, Bingham was buried in Louisville, next to his father. His memorial at the Cavalry Episcopal Church on Park Avenue South took place on an unseasonably warm afternoon three days later. The crowd of nearly 700, which included Caroline Kennedy, Sid Blumenthal, and Charlie Rose, was a cross-section of the disparate worlds that Robert Bingham had straddled in the course of his short, fast life. For three hours, guests sat solemnly as nine speakers took the podium. His older sister Clara addressed the congregation in a loud, clear voice. “Rob craved the edge,” she said. “He was haunted by his father’s death and his own struggle with addiction.” She took a pause, then added, “I am sorry I couldn’t save you, Robbie! Life without you is two-dimensional. The lights in New York have dimmed.”

By the time mourners left the service, the sun had moved to brighten the front steps of the church. Benzes with Connecticut plates and tour buses hired by the family whisked guests up to a reception at the New York Racquet Club, where everyone ascended a winding marble staircase to the second-floor sitting room, all dark-green paneling and oak furniture. A fire roared in the library, where coffee was served amid bookshelves organized by categories like “beagling,” but this room remained nearly empty.

Instead, the hundreds of guests gathered in a room with three full bars, chatting with old colleagues and friends from prep school, laughing at memories of Rob, drinking scotch, chain-smoking cigarettes, and trying to make sense of his sudden death. “He was a master tactician, a master gambler,” said his friend Hunter Kennedy. “I never thought he’d get beaten by the odds.”

It was, as one friend noted later, a very good party. Rob wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

Boy, Interrupted