I got to know Lem Billings ’39 (cover story, April 12) in my Princeton days through my wife’s cousin Francis McAdoo ’38, a close friend of Lem’s and JFK’s at Princeton. When Lem learned that I was getting my Ph.D. in art history, he launched into an animated account of his senior thesis on Tintoretto. When I found and read it in Marquand Library, I was nonplussed. I had expected Lem’s unbridled enthusiasm but not the solid scholarship, the elegant, passionate prose, and the depth of art historical insights. It might have been written by a young Bernard Berenson.
Lem had marshaled all his critical powers to establish Tintoretto’s primacy among Venetian painters (move aside, Titian!). Most poignant was his intimate identification with the old Tintoretto, through whose paintings Lem conjured up the inner thoughts, aspirations, and spiritual resonance of the artist approaching death.
Like Merlin, Lem lived his life backwards. As he himself grew old and frail in health, Lem grew ever younger in spirit and outrageous in behavior, playing Falstaff to a succession of Prince Hals with the surname Kennedy. Yet as a youth he had revealed an uncanny insight into the soul of an aging master. For Lem, both youth and age were fused in a man of extremes who reveled in contradictions — a man too complex to be fully understood. But for me, a hint of an explanation came through his early self-revealing portrait of Tintoretto, who was a master of chiaroscuro — of shadows and light.