John Shaw Billings was only mildly enthusiastic when Editor Henry R. Luce told a group of Time Inc. executives over lunch one day in 1936 about his idea for a new kind of magazine devoted to pictures. Billings, then managing editor of TIME, was too busy running the nation's first weekly newsmagazine to give the new project much thought. But nine months later, Luce called him in to say that the experiment was a shambles and that he wanted Billings to take it over. There was one little problem: the first issue was scheduled to go to press in 17 days.
With the energy and decisiveness that stamped his 27-year career at Time Inc., Billings got that historic first issue of LIFE to the newsstands on time. The entire press run of 466,000 copies sold out within hours, and virtually overnight LIFE became what was then the most successful magazine in publishing history. When death, as it must to all men, came to John Billings last week at 77, that accomplishment was not forgotten.
Purple Prose. The man who made LIFE was a Southerner, born at Redcliffe, the Beech Island, S.C., plantation built by his great-grandfather, onetime South Carolina Governor and U.S. Senator James Henry ("Cotton Is King") Hammond. Billings dropped out of Harvard to drive an ammunition truck for the French army in World War I, then became a reporter for the Bridgeport, Conn., Telegram. He was fired, he recalled, for "writing too goddam much purple prose," and went to the old Brooklyn Eagle as Washington correspondent. Luce hired him in 1928 as TIME'S capital stringer to succeed a New York Herald Tribune reporter, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. A year later, Billings became national affairs editor and in 1933 managing editor.
Billings was a tall, quiet, intensely private man whose gentle manner masked a steel will. He served as managing editor of LIFE until 1944, when, with the magazine's circulation over 4 million, he became Luce's deputy as editorial director of the four Time Inc. publications then: TIME, LIFE, ARCHITECTURAL FORUM and FORTUNE. Illness forced his retirement in 1955, and he returned to Redcliffe. As LIFE'S first managing editor, Billings was more responsible than anyone else for inventing the genre of photojournalism. Recalled Edward K. Thompson, managing editor of LIFE from 1949 to 1961: "He lived his entire life by what landed on his desk. He interpreted the world as something he edited, whether text or pictures. He was an editor's editor."