Reflections on Dr. James Billington

November 29, 2018

On November 20, 2018, former Librarian of Congress Dr. James Billington passed away at a hospital in Washington, DC of complications from pneumonia. He was 89.

Born in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, in 1929, Dr. Billington (pictured above, right, with songwriter Hal David and emeritus Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin) was an established and esteemed scholar of Russian culture when, in 1987, he was appointed by President Ronald Reagan to become the 13th person to lead the Library of Congress. During his 28-year tenure as the nation’s head librarian (the fourth longest in the history of the position), Dr. Billington and the families of George and Ira Gershwin partnered on numerous occasions in ventures that highlighted the contributions of the Gershwin brothers to the telling of the American story.

In 1990, they created the Leonore Gershwin/Library of Congress Recording and Publishing Project, which was responsible for the restoration of five George and Ira Gershwin musicals—Girl Crazy, Strike Up the Band, Lady, Be Good!, Pardon My English, and Oh, Kay!—during that decade, all released on the Roxbury Recordings label. The Library of Congress was also instrumental in the subsequent recordings of the musicals Ziegfeld Follies of 1936 (Decca Broadway; Vernon Duke/Ira Gershwin), Tip-Toes and Tell Me More (New World Records; Gershwin/Gershwin and Gershwin/Gershwin/Buddy DeSylva), and the PS Classics releases of Sweet Little Devil (George Gershwin/DeSylva), Strike Up the Band (1930 version; Gershwin/Gershwin), and Life Begins at 8:40 (Harold Arlen/Ira Gershwin/E. Y. Harburg).

After Leonore Gershwin’s death in 1991, the Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Fund was established; it is now the single-largest donor to the Library’s Music Division. Seven years later, the George and Ira Gershwin Room opened during the centennial celebrations for the composer. This entrancing, multimedia look at the lives and careers of the Gershwins is located in the Library’s Thomas Jefferson Building.

Dr. Billington’s most recent Gershwin-related achievement was the 2007 creation of the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, which, since its inception, has been awarded to ten individuals, most recently Tony Bennett. The newest recipients, Emilio and Gloria Estefan, will be celebrated with a concert in their honor in March 2019, to be subsequently broadcast on PBS.

Perhaps Dr. Billington’s most lasting contribution to the financial future of the Library of Congress, however, was the establishment of the James Madison Council in 1990. This group of private sector donors has contributed over $200 million to the library since it was established, money that has helped to acquire items for the collections, to establish the John W. Kluge Center for scholars, to fund numerous concerts and exhibitions, and to promote the National Book Festival.

Dr. Billington’s devotion to the goals and the collections of the Library of Congress, and their place in the history of the United States, will remain fresh in the minds of all who knew him.

— Michael Owen