Goin’ Backstory

With two members of the Class of 1939 featured in PAW’s April 12 issue (Lem Billings and Henry Morgenthau III), we decided to take a closer look at the class, which included John F. Kennedy (for one semester), Fred Fox, Bud Wynne, Bob Dicke, Walter Lord, and the elusive Ephraim di Kahble. Also mentioned in this podcast: Morgenthau’s undergraduate days and the infamous Veterans of Future Wars.  

The Class of 1939 at Commencement
Nassau Herald

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Brett Tomlinson: I’m Brett Tomlinson, the digital editor of the Princeton Alumni Weekly. 

Gregg Lange ’70: And I am Gregg Lange of the Great Class of 1970 with his obligatory spring cold.

BT: And this is Goin’ Backstory, our Princeton history podcast.  Looking at the most recent issue of PAW, the April 12 issue of PAW, there are two prominent pieces, feature pieces on members of the Princeton Class of 1939. Lem Billings, a close friend and confidant of John F. Kennedy, is featured in the cover story, and then there’s a brief feature on Henry Morgenthau III, Class of ’39 as well, who at age 100 is a newly published poet.  And he reflects about some of the interactions in his life and his experience with poetry in a feature piece. And that got us thinking about the Class of ’39.  One of the fun things to do in our office is to look back at some of the reunion books for a given class and the Nassau Herald.  I pulled the ’39 books off the shelf this week.  You see the those great pictures of the seniors in their beer suits and their saddle bucks and their ties getting ready for Reunions. The class’s the first reunion theme was the Thirsty Firsty.  And then 25 years later when they came back as the featured class in the P-rade, it was just seven months after their onetime classmate John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. And Walter Lord, a class member famous for his book about the sinking of the Titanic, A Night To Remember, wrote the class history in the in the 25th reunion book, and he talked about J.F.K. in there and give a brief quote from that section.  He writes: “Like him or not, back him or not, we had shared so much of the same world together for 25 years and more. We grew up in the same knickers, saw the same Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movies, felt the same fears and uncertainty and excitement of war …” and he goes on.  

So this national event, this tragedy — the assassination of the president — was particularly meaningful for the folks who, briefly as it was, knew him and kind of shared that experience.  Gregg, you’ve written about the Class of ’39 before and it’s a very interesting class not just for the J.F.K. connection or Lem Billings or Henry Morgenthau. But so many members of the class stand out. Can you tell me a little bit about what you think of when you think of the Class of ’39 and the time that they were here at Princeton?

GL: Well we’ll certainly loop back to them, the folks you’ve just discussed quickly, but keeping in context that this is literally in the middle of the Depression, I mean these guys got to Princeton in the main in 1935.  They were freshmen when the Veterans of Future Wars was created at Princeton, yet another topic for another day, which effectively emphasized the great malaise of the students of the ’30s with the international situation and effectively stating with certainty that they expected to be in a war themselves as their parents had been in the teens.  So the idea that there was so much grim stuff surrounding this.  There were students withdrawing even this far into the Depression all the time whose families finally couldn’t support their attendance in college.  That so many interesting people came out of this, that so many interesting things were going on at the time, the Veterans of Future Wars being one of them.

One of my favorites is always the great Ephraim di Kahble, who was one of the first on campus imaginary classmates created in this case by a number of the members of 1939.  This was a totally imaginary classmate who starting in their sophomore year various attendance cards from the chapel services and various exam papers started to appear under the name of Ephraim di Kahble.  He even received grades for some courses in which the exams were the major component and as it turned out he was totally imaginary and had been created by a large number of people in the class who decided the more ubiquitous they could make him seem the more convincing it would be.  And to be doing that in the middle of all of this is really rather remarkable. A lot of very creative singular people in this class, Bob Dicke being right at the top.  Of all of them many people of the twentieth century who probably should have won a Nobel Prize, in his case for physics, he’s right up near the top of the list — the initial theorizer and discoverer in many senses of cosmic background radiation which really revolutionized our understanding of our place in the universe. My friend Bud Wynne, who came to mind instantly when I started reading about Lem Billings because he was another of the Choate mafia that came to Princeton in 1935 along with Lem and J.F.K.  And Bud,  after a global career as an Exxon executive came back to Princeton, settled there.  I think frankly Fred Fox talked him into it, and of course Fred is the other member of the Class of ’39 that will talk about here briefly. Fred dragged Bud Wynne, who always had an affinity for historical stuff anyway into becoming Fred’s very worthy successor. leading the forces of Princetoniana when the committee was created in the 1980s following Fred’s death.  The great Fred Fox of the Class of ’39, and of all of these people the person who will always be the great symbol of that class — and that I think was a common agreement among all the class members.  It was interesting seeing in Henry Morgenthau’s piece, in the new issue, reference back to coming to see Fred with his granddaughter in the 1970s. 

So many fascinating pieces of this, so many unusual pieces — both Lem Billings, being gay in the in the ’30s; Henry Morgenthau, being one of 12 Jewish students who managed to make it into his class at Princeton against virulent anti-Semitism at the time.  And then as the son of the second cabinet officer in the country — his father was the secretary of the treasury —not being able to get a single bid in bicker in 1937.  All of these things mesh together and give you an extremely colorful picture of that era.  And the fact that, and I and I don’t know about Bob Dicke, it’s an interesting question, but all of the others that I just mentioned off the top of my head and obviously Ephraim di Kahble, who was imaginary so he knew everybody — all of them knew J.F.K., who was only on campus for a few months during his entire lifetime.

All of these wonderful pieces of the other ways that this ties back into Princetoniana.  I knew of Lem Billings briefly, prior to David Walter’s magnificent piece of writing by the way (I think it’s just a magnificent evocative feel or his life, for J.F.K.’s life, for a number of the things associated with it).  I knew of Lem Billings because he was on the famous Christmas card with J.F.K. that was sent out in the in December of 1935, when Kennedy was still a freshman.  What I never actually sat down and thought about was whether he was related to Josh Billings, who was six years older, so didn’t necessarily come to mind in the same breath, but Josh Billings who in 2000 was voted the Princeton Scholar Athlete of the Century, of the 20th century, a Rhodes scholar, president of the undergraduate council, famous physician subsequently, World War II veteran, class valedictorian, and captain of the football team in 1932 for Fritz Krisler — I  never connected the two. And when you think about them in the context of the ’30s and the context of Princeton, in the context of all of the forces at play, it just is absolutely fascinating. Your mind keeps going for hours. 

BT: And also just thinking about the changes that took place in the world that they encountered after graduation:  Walter Lord writes about them kind of being, you know, spectators to the war in Europe when they were seniors and then not long after that they were by and large they were participants.  They saw one of their own make his way to the White House.  It’s just a fascinating period in general, and this particular group as you mention had a great influence on Princeton and kind of preserving and showcasing Princeton history, in the examples of Bud Wynne and of course the amazing example of Fred Fox, whom I know you are much indebted to as a member of the Princetoniana Committee.

GL: And there’s also a very explicit point to be made which I which I try to almost every time discussion of Fred comes up. He was so beloved and such a magnificent human being that even the people who knew him and who were there while he was around often you know is talk of him in terms that are warm and fuzzy, that are really endearing that reflect the true caring and warmth that he brought to just about any situation he was in that required human interaction. But it’s important to note that he did not he did not go after history — and he just loved all of the stuff — he did not go after history as something to be held in a museum, put on display, and you know preserved in amber. He was the original proponent.  And if you read Bill Bowen’s, who we should also give a nod to in all of this, Bill Bowen’s eulogy for Fred from 1981, he emphasizes how dynamic a person Fred was and how dynamic his view of the world was.  His emphasis on history was to be able to give yourself some grounding so that when you had to go out and incessantly face the challenges of change, new ideas, surprises, the inevitable curveballs that the world throws you, that you have something to ground yourself on, not something to replicate.  He used the analogy of the river, where the bank stayed pretty much the same but the water is always new. And that’s sort of what you need to think about in regard to all of these people. Lem Billings was living a completely different kind of life in a completely different context by the time he died. So is Henry Morgenthau, God bless him, with his with his wonderful poetry and being able to come and see Fred Fox at Princeton and introduce his granddaughter as a potential student, which would have been obviously on thinkable in the ’30s.  Bud Wynne saw the place change in a huge number of ways while he was there and of course his family has gone on to be major participants of Princeton.  Josh Billings, Lem’s brother, became a Princeton trustee and a critical mover and shaker in many of the big changes of Princeton in the ’50s and ’60s. Bob Dicke literally changed people’s idea of what the universe even was.  And you have to have a level of creativity and reaching out far beyond yourself to even begin to think in those lines.

It goes on, it goes on, it goes on, and I think one sort of light hearted lesson to learn from it is the folks who are capable of creating Ephraim di Kahble and having him turn in exam papers and have an imaginary student get a B+ on an exam is pretty darn fine, and maybe they’ve got some other things to add to society as well. 

BT: I think that’s a wonderful way to think about the Class of ’39, and I think we’ve kind of reached the end of this episode, but I urge everyone to let us know if they have ideas for future shows, topics they’d like to hear us talk about or do some research on. You can always contact us by email at paw@princeton.edu.

GL: And it’s always comforting to remember that Goin’ Backstory is a production of the Princeton Alumni Weekly online. 

BT: Well said, and we’ll see you next month.