In 1928 Billings succeeded Henry Cabot Lodge II as the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Time, a weekly news-magazine. Three years later he assumed the managing editorship of Life, a new weekly pictorial magazine. The eight years in that position were considered the most noteworthy of his journalistic career.
Journalist, editor. Billings was born on May 11, 1898, at Redcliffe Plantation in Beech Island, South Carolina, the eldest son of John Sedgewick Billings and Katherine Hammond. He was the great-grandson of James Henry Hammond, the eminent South Carolina politician of the antebellum era. Although a South Carolina native, Billings resided during much of his life in New York City. During his childhood, however, the family made many extended visits to Redcliffe.
After graduating in May, 1916 from St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hamp- shire, Billings enrolled at Harvard University. He left college in January 1917 to fight in World War I. Initially Billings drove both trucks and ambulances for the French military; however, following America’s entry into the fighting in April 1917, he transferred to the U.S. Army Air Corps. At his discharge in January 1919, he held the rank of second lieutenant.
On returning to the United States, Billings went back to Harvard. Although a good student, Billings grew bored with his academic routine. In January, 1920 he became involved with a gubernatorial campaign in Connecticut. That autumn he dropped out of Harvard one term short of graduation. In 1921 he became a political reporter for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Ten months later he was assigned to the paper’s Washington bureau. In September 1922, during a visit to Redcliffe, Billings met Frederica W. Wade, a Beech Island neighbor. They were married on April 19, 1924, at Beech Island Presbyterian Church.
In 1928 Billings succeeded Henry Cabot Lodge II as the Washington, D.C. correspondent for Time, a weekly newsmagazine. Billings relocated to New York City in January 1929 when he became national affairs editor of Time. During the next quarter-century, he rose steadily within the Time Inc. editorial hierarchy. In
November, 1933 he was promoted to managing editor of Time. Three years later he assumed the managing editorship of Life, a new weekly pictorial magazine. The eight years in that position were considered the most noteworthy of his journalistic career. When he retired in May 1954, Billings was the editorial director of all Time Inc. publications. Only Henry R. Luce, the editor in chief, possessed more editorial authority.
In March 1935 Billings’s aunt Julia Hammond Richards died, leaving Redcliffe Plantation without an occupant. As the most affluent Hammond descendant, Billings agreed to purchase the property; and during the next several decades, he spent a considerable personal fortune renovating the entire estate, especially the big house. On retiring, Billings returned permanently to Redcliffe, spending his last years there.
Following a long illness, Frederica Wade Billings died in 1963. Billings subsequently married Elise Lake Chase of Augusta, Georgia, on September 10, 1963. Be- cause his only child, Frederica Wade Billings, had died in childhood, he bequeathed Redcliffe Plantation in 1973 to the state of South Carolina. The property was to become a state park after his death. Throughout much of his life Billings had maintained an extensive daily diary; increasingly frail heath finally forced him to curtail that activity in June 1974. Fourteen months later, on August 25, 1975, Billings died in Augusta, survived by his second wife. He was interred in the Hammond family cemetery at Redcliffe.
Billings, John Shaw. Papers. South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia.
Bleser, Carol, ed. The Hammonds of Redcliffe. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.
Morris, Sylvia Jukes. Rage for Fame: The Ascent of Clare Boothe Luce. New York: Random House, 1997.
Swanberg, W. A. Luce and His Empire. New York: Scribner’s, 1972.
Williams, William Bates. “John Shaw Billings: The Man behind the Editor.” Master’s thesis, University of South Carolina, 1978.