Aside from a snoozer of a cover, which features a bland studio portrait of philanthropist William Bingham 2nd, (1879-1955), looking like his contemporary, Calvin Coolidge, and seemingly designed to sell as few books as possible, Stanley Russell Howe’s new biography of the man is lively and thoroughly documented. Furthermore, it offers entry into a little-known time in the history of Bethel, Oxford County and Maine from the turn of the 19th century to post-World War II.

By following the life of the eccentric Bingham and the often equally unusual people in his orbit, including locals and some from away, a curious picture emerges, some of it expected and some revealed in fresh ways.

Historian Howe is the former director of Bethel Historical Society, a veteran author and grandson of one of Bingham’s staffers. As Howe notes:

“The closest I ever came to seeing him was undoubtedly the exciting time (in 1955) when my grandmother took me up in his personal elevator (the first one I had ever ridden) to the second floor. When we arrived on the upper floor, I recall asking which room was Mr. Bingham’s, and my grandmother simply pointed to his door down the hall from the elevator entrance.”

During his lifetime, Bingham was an enigma to almost everyone. Born into a privileged Cleveland, Ohio, family, young William had a sheltered and troubled childhood. Howe digs deeply into the family background, and as a working historian myself, I must say this is one of the most impressively researched and revealing biographies to emerge in years. Bingham’s driven businessman father came to see his son as little more than a dilettante and valetudinarian, and once, after a hard day’s work, smashed his son’s violin in a moment of rage. Music was one of Bingham’s few early passions.

Finding himself and his place in the world was a struggle that finally started to take form in the Bethel Clinic, run by the colorful Dr. John George Gehring and his wife, Marian True Gehring. This unorthodox treatment center took on well-known patients and, by the early 20th century, was known as the “resting place for Harvard University,” given the number of professors registered as clients.

Bingham would become a key element of the Gehring circle, taking on advisors, including Marian’s son by her first marriage, George B. Farnsworth (1880-1947), and, later, Dr. Arthur L. Walters.

The book delineates how the increasingly isolated philanthropist, often in consultation with the strong-minded Farnsworth, helped shape and revitalize Gould Academy, the Bethel Inn, Bethel Water Company, Bates College and even funded Edmund S. Muskie’s legal education at Cornell. (Muskie would become governor of Maine, a U.S. senator from Maine and U.S. secretary of state.) Dr. Samuel Proger’s obituary of Bingham was correct: “His actions were based on a compelling desire to be helpful.”

Howe’s examination of letters and archives reveals Bingham to be a basically good and honorable donor, a shy man who liked people, mostly from a distance, but had few deep, abiding friendships. His generosity made Bethel a special place. But Howe is too good a historian to overlook or dismiss the prejudice, anti-Jewish and anti-labor sentiments and class differences of the day that emerge in the letters, mostly from associates. Farnsworth, in particular, exposes himself, writing in 1941, “The Communistic situation here in Maine is beyond belief.” Using Bingham funds, Farnsworth hired three “spotters” to investigate. A year later, investigations went beyond communists: “Any German or Italian person is under suspicion.”

But usually, Bingham spent his money the way he wished: on schools, public works or hospitals in Oxford County, Ohio or Massachusetts. When a public school burned in Hodgdon, way up on the Canadian border, Bingham sent money despite Farnsworth’s attempt to veto. It was Bingham’s money and his decision.

William David Barry is a local historian who has authored/co-authored seven books, including “Maine: The Wilder Side of New England” and “Deering: A Social and Architectural History,” He is currently writing a history of the Maine Historical Society. He lives in Portland with his wife, Debra, and their cat, Nadine.

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