Royal ties that bind: Brown-Forman’s Barzun-Bingham connection shined bright in the Brexit shocker

By Jim Hopkins
Boulevard Publisher

The spirits giant Brown-Forman depends on the U.K. for 10% of its annual sales, and the rest of Europe for another 21% — making Britain’s surprise vote to quit the E.U. especially meaningful last month. Brexit also recalled Brown-Forman’s familial ties to the Kingdom through the techie U.S. ambassador Matthew Barzun.

“Well, it’s been a big day,” he Tweeted the day after the June 23 referendum, “and as @POTUS says, our unmatched & unbreakable #SpecialRelationship will endure.”

Barzun, 45, a part-year Louisville resident, is a former technology entrepreneur from the Internet’s early days, becoming only the fourth employee of CNET Networks in 1993. He worked there until 2004 in roles including chief strategy officer and executive vice president, according to his State Department biography.

Barzun has been married to Brown-Forman heiress Brooke Brown Barzun since 1999. Her father was the late Brown-Forman CEO Owsley Brown II, and her mother is Owsley’s widow, the philanthropist Christy Brown.

A fifth-generation Brown

The company is one of Louisville’s most storied businesses. It was founded by Brooke’s great-great grandfather George Garvin Brown in 1870. The distiller employs 1,300 workers in the city and another 3,300 worldwide, where the company distributes Jack Daniel’s, Finlandia vodka and other marquee brands in about 160 countries. Tomorrow, shareholders will hold their annual meeting at the Dixie Highway headquarters; three board members up for re-election also are fifth-generation members of the family controlling the nearly 150-year-old distiller.

The Barzuns’ rarefied social and political connections were on full display in November 2013, when the couple rode in a gilded, horse-drawn carriage to Buckingham Palace to present his credentials to Queen Elizabeth II; photo, top, and in this video:

The Barzuns also entertained the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall during a reception last year at the ambassador’s official Winfield House residence in London, shortly before the royals visited Louisville at Christy Brown’s invitation:

Barzuns and Prince of Wales
Prince Charles, the Duchess of Cornwall, and Matthew and Brooke Barzun.

President Obama handed Barzun the ambassadorship after he served as national finance chairman in the 2012 re-election campaign, and led online fundraising during the 2008 campaign. Barzun was previously Obama’s U.S. ambassador to Sweden.

Ambassadorships are often given to a president’s most generous supporters. Barzun raised at least $1.2 million for Obama’s re-election. His predecessor, retired Citigroup executive Louis Susman, raised more than $500,000 for the president.

Before Barzun: Bingham

The British post — officially, the U.S. Ambassadorship to the Court of St. James — is one of the most coveted; Paris is another one. And it has long Louisville ties: Robert Worth Bingham, who bought control of The Courier-Journal in 1918, held the job from 1933-37 during the Roosevelt Administration. (He was succeeded by Joseph Kennedy, the wealthy and politically savvy father of the 35th president.)

In 1933, Bingham arrived in England to meet King George V with his third wife, Aleen Lithgow Muldoon Hilliard Bingham, and his daughter Henrietta Worth Bingham.

Robert Worth Bingham
Aleen Bingham, Robert Bingham and his daughter Henrietta Bingham.

The photo is included in his great-great-granddaughter Emily Bingham‘s new book about Henrietta.

The Boulevard 400™
Jennifer Lawrence
No. 1.

The Barzuns are new entrants to our growing compendium of Louisville movers, shakers, and money-makers — all ranked according to the number of times their names appear here in boldface type. Louisville native and Oscar-winner Jennifer Lawrence leads the “400” by a mile. Here’s the Mrs. Astor connection. Peruse the full list here.

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