Biographer traces untold tale of Camelot’s queer knight
“Jack and Lem: John F. Kennedy and Lem Billings: The Untold Story of an Extraordinary Friendship,” by David Pitts. (Carroll & Graf, May 2007), $26.95.
When those bullets fired across Dealey Plaza on Nov. 22, 1963, it changed so many lives. And so many books have already been written, could there possibly be room for one more?
It’s obvious that biographer David Pitts respects and finds the Kennedy legacy fascinating. And in 2003, when Pitts decided to write another volume about JFK, he knew he had to unearth something new. A name he kept stumbling across was Lem Billings, who was identified as John Kennedy’s longtime best friend. With “Jack and Lem,” Pitts has indeed turned over a new stone.
Billings and Kennedy met in 1933 while working on the yearbook staff at Choate School For Boys in Wallingford, Conn. Billings was 16 and Kennedy was 15. The inseparable twosome had a Mutt-and-Jeff quality: Lem was taller, kind of geeky and Protestant, and Lem’s father had just died when Lem met Jack; Jack was handsome, charismatic and from a super-rich huge Irish-Catholic family. And while Jack was a notorious tightwad, he was always generous when it came to Lem.
Pitts had some great source material to work with. From 1933 to 1946, Billings and JFK exchanged letters, with Jack often antagonizing Lem in the correspondence. Sometimes Jack bitched Lem out one letter saying, “Of all the cheap shit I have ever gotten, this is about the cheapest.”
And in between those lines is young teenage passion: Lem lusted after Jack, and Jack knew it.
Since the word “gay” was hardly used in the 1930s, Lem tried to drop a hint. Back in the day, boys who wanted to hook up with other boys would exchange notes written on toilet paper (so the evidence would be easy to digest). And while convalescing at a hospital in Rochester, Jack wrote to Lem in a letter dated, June, 27, 1934, “Please don’t write to me on toilet paper anymore. I’m not that kind of boy.”
Lem took the hint and wisely backed off.
While the friendship may have had a lopsided quality, it was still a solid friendship and one that endured. Lem eventually entered the most intimate circle of the Kennedy family. As Kennedy’s political career took off, Billings had a sacred position in the circle a position of trust. Billings never had an official role in the Kennedy administration, but Jack gave him his own room at the White House.
“Jack and Lem” reminded me of another book about the Kennedy mystique: “The Men We Became: My Friendship with John F. Kennedy, Jr.” by Robert Littell. The heartfelt book will never win Littell a literary award, but it does contain an inherent quality about friendships among the Kennedy men by the way, Littell isn’t gay. Littell met Kennedy when they were both freshmen at Brown University. Their 20-year friendship was about loyalty and not letting fame or success wreck their bond.
In “Jack and Lem,” Pitt traces their friendship through the years and also does a commendable job chronicling the rise of homosexual culture through the decades. Lem was of a generation that would just miss identifying with the Stonewall Riots: Instead of having a gay epiphany, Lem became a confirmed bachelor, likely to remain so.
Pitt interviewed Gore Vidal. Vidal thinks the Billings-Kennedy bond solidified because Lem helped raise Jack’s spirits when he was a sick boy. And when JFK was an adult, Lem was better than a trained nurse when it came to attending Jack.
Pitt wonderfully details an incident that’s been revisited over the years. In 1961, JFK had placed Vidal’s name on the Council on the Arts. At the first White House party, Lem “attacked” Gore, asking why he didn’t attend any of the council’s meetings. Gore said he never joined the council that Jack entered Gore’s name as a favor. And when it comes to the arts, Gore said he didn’t believe in government interference.
Gore then entered the Blue Room where he found Jackie Kennedy sitting in a chair. Gore had knelt down to talk with Jackie, and when he got up, he put his hand on Jackie’s shoulder. That’s when Bobby Kennedy stepped in and yanked Gore’s arm away from Jackie. Gore told Bobby never to do that again, which Bobby responded, “What do you mean, buddy boy? You’re nobody.”
Then both men started dropping F-bombs, and before any punches were thrown, Bobby forcibly removed Gore. It was Gore’s last visit to the Kennedy White House.
Why did the drama go down in such a fashion? According to Pitt and a recollection attributed to George Plimpton, Bobby Kennedy was upset with Gore’s arrogance toward Lem Billings. Billings was like a member of the family.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, April 27, 2007.