Sallie Bingham: Ten Years Later

Next week, author, blogger, teacher, traveler, feminist, activist, and philanthropist Sallie Bingham will be teaching a two-day workshop on memoir writing at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning in Lexington, Kentucky. The fact that Sallie is 87 years old now is simply a plus. Think of all the wisdom and experience she has to share with her students!

(Photo credit: Sallie Bingham)

Ten years ago, when I began my WOW blogposts, Sallie was one of my first interviewees. (See .) She was a member of an ongoing Creative Nonfiction Workshop I led in Taos, New Mexico, when I lived there; and she faithfully drove up from her home in Santa Fe – over the winding mountainous roads, through rain, sleet, and blinding snowfall – to attend the sessions, share her work, and enjoy the camaraderie of fellow writers.

It’s not that Sallie needed to learn how to write. Her first book, a novel, was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1961. Since then she’s published six more books of fiction and five of nonfiction, including the well known family memoir, PASSION AND PREJUDICE (Knopf, 1989). 

In the ten years I’ve known her, Sallie has published three nonfiction books: THE BLUE BOX (2014), a family history centered around three women from three generations, spanning the Civil War through the Jazz Age; THE SILVER SWAN: In Search of Doris Duke (2020), the first serious literary biography of the greatest woman philanthropist of the 20th century; and LITTLE BROTHER (2022), the tragic story of Sallie’s youngest brother Jonathan and his all-too-brief life. This June, Sallie’s first historical novel, TAKEN BY THE SHAWNEE, will come out.

Clearly, Sallie has never let age – or anything else – stand in her way. 

When I interviewed her in July 2014 for one of my early WOW blogposts, Sallie and I talked a bit about her philanthropic efforts. A daughter of privilege, from the Bingham family of Louisville, Kentucky, Sallie has given generously, especially to causes that help women writers and artists.

 Among other endeavors, Sallie is the founder of the Kentucky Foundation for Women, which promotes feminist art and social justice by awarding grants to deserving women artists and activists, as well as the Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture at Duke University.

In recent back-and-forth e-mail correspondence, Sallie and I have discussed a number of issues, including current events (“We’re all discouraged, and with good reason,” she reassured me), and I asked her how she keeps going at this age and stage. Her response was matter-of-fact and practical:

“I keep going by pruning back commitments—except to my dog—being outside every day, eating the best way I can, and sleeping seven hours a night.”

And as for her thoughts on being an older woman in today’s culture, she seemed optimistic:

“As a member of that enormous community of ‘women of a certain age,’ which the U.S. culture is trying hard to ignore and marginalize,” she said, “I wonder, are we, perhaps, finally, too powerful? Mostly freed of family obligations, in hearty good health, full of determination—we may be the ones who help to resolve the unending crisis of war after war that defines our culture. It is this support that helps me to continue to write every day and publish a book every three years.”

Sallie’s newest book, TAKEN BY THE SHAWNEE, available for pre-order now, is based on the 18th century experience of one of Sallie’s “foremothers,” Margaret Ersksine. “My heroine Margaret not only survived her four years of captivity by the Shawnee in the Ohio Country,” Sallie told me, “she also learned lessons that enriched her old age.”

I’ve ordered the book, and I can’t wait to read it!

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