Braided Lives: A 20th Century Pursuit of Happiness
by June Bingham

Straus Historical Society, 2008. ISBN 0980125022.
Reviewed by Jennifer Melville
Posted on 09/30/2008

Nonfiction: Memoir

At the end of her life, June Bingham felt certain of one thing: "What I know is that love, in all its forms, matters, and that a timely death does not." In her final book, Braided Lives: A 20th Century Pursuit of Happiness, June chronicles the excitement, relationships, and experiences of her 88 years on earth. She married her soul mate, raised a family, had a successful career, and learned from and lived with some of the most influential figures of the twentieth century.

One of the main themes of this book was love and marriage. June married Jack Bingham in 1939 and remained madly in love with him until his death 47 years later. She chronicled their deeply intertwined lives in local New York politics, diplomatic voyages around the globe, and Jack's time in Congress from 1965-1983. It was inspiring to see how Jack and June kept their friendship and marriage alive for so many years and how deeply she loved and respected her husband while maintaining her individuality and career.

It was interesting to read about the people June met: writers, diplomats, political figures, and presidents. My favorite story was when she went to Somalia with Jack and met General Siad Barre. June was tired from her trip and had decided to stay at the hotel while Jack went about his diplomatic business. The General had heard that June accompanied Jack everywhere, so the first thing he said when Jack showed up alone was "But where is Madame?" Jack phoned June and said she was expected to be fully dressed and at the hotel entrance in five minutes. She was driven to the meeting right away!

I was amazed by the amount of anti-Semitism June faced in her lifetime. June wasn't a practicing Jew, yet people judged her and her family. Her husband was dropped from the New York Social Register because of her Jewish heritage. Jack's step-mother Suzanne refused to acknowledge June's existence at dinner parties because she was Jewish. The area country club even refused to give a room to a Jewish woman despite the fact that her husband was a Christian. Such outright prejudice seems outrageous to my generation.

I was so touched by June and her experiences that I cried when Jack, the love-of-her-life, died. The way she described his last words were heartbreaking. June was an amazing role model. She served so many roles in her life: daughter, mother, congressman's wife, ambassador's wife, and author. June published articles and wrote books at a time when women didn't generally have careers. Reading her story inspired me to believe I can accomplish great things and hope that when my last days on earth arrive I have had half-as fulfilling a life as that of June Bingham.

June Bingham was a Jewish-American author, playwright, op-ed writer, and a descendent of one of New York's most prominent backing families, the Lehmans. Her first husband, Jack Bingham, was an influential, nine-term Democratic congressman and she traveled all over the world with him. She wrote biographies of Reinhold Niebuhr and U Thant and coauthored books on health with two different psychiatrists. She completed her memoir, Braided Lives, in the last days of her life. You can read her obituary here.

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