Memories of JFK From His Gay Best Friend
In photos and excerpts from David Pitts's book Jack & Lem, we remember President John F. Kennedy through the lens of his lifelong friendship with Lem Billings. A historian wrote that after Kennedy’s assassination 50 years ago Billings was “probably the saddest of the Kennedy 'widows.’” Here is a look at their friendship.
Jack and Lem, Winter Term, Choate, 1934
“Lem was sixteen, and Jack was fifteen, when they met while working on the school yearbook at Choate School for Boys, the prestigious New England preparatory school located in Wallingford, Conn. ... From all accounts it was instant friendship. They were bound together by a love of fun and practical jokes, resentment of Choate, and envy of their higher-achieving elder siblings — Joe, Jack's brother, and Josh, Lem's brother." (Page 4)
Lem and Jack, Hyannis Port, 1935
“When Jack wasn't trying to get Lem to sing on family occasions, he was cajoling him into playing sports — usually touch football, a game Lem came to loathe. Lem felt that the physical regimen at the Kennedy vacation homes was even more exacting than that at Choate. They were especially fanatical about football. Jacqueline Bouvier would have the same problem, using every possible excuse to avoid the game, after she and Jack were married in 1953." (Page 35)
Jack and Lem in a Palm Beach photo booth just before their European tour, 1937
“Jack and Lem's summer in Europe began on July 1, 1937. Joe generously paid for half the cost of Lem's ticket on the way over, saying Lem could pay at least part of it back when he graduated from Princeton. 'I borrowed the other half from an inheritance I was about to receive from my grandmother after I graduated from college,' remembered Lem. Both boys kept diaries on the trip, although Lem's was more of a scrapbook. It contained scores of photographs of himself and Jack in Europe, as well as a handwritten narrative. It would go on to become one of his most prized possessions.” (Page 53)
Jack, Lem, and Dunker, the dog they bought on their European tour in 1937
“Jack and Lem failed to make any friends in Germany, unlike in the other countries they visited, except one — Dunker, a lovable Dachshund that they ran into on their way to Nuremberg. ... Both Jack and Lem were crazy about dogs and soon fell totally in love with little Dunker. They always remembered him as the nicest German they ever met.” (Page 64)
Harry Dixon, Kathleen "Kick" Kennedy, John Coleman, Charlotte McDonnell, Jack and Lem, Palm Beach, Christmas 1940
“After his sojourn in Hollywood, Jack returned to the East Coast in time for the Christmas vacation period, during which he liked to spend time with his family and Lem. It would be the last Christmas in which the United States would be at peace for more than four years. For Jack and Lem, the carefree period of their lives — their school and college years — were now behind them. Like millions of other young Americans, they faced an uncertain future. In less than a year, the country would be at war.” (Page 80)
Lem examines a damaged ambulance door following the Messerschmitt attack, Sirte, Libya, 1943.
“Jack was anxious to reach Lem and to find out how he was doing. 'Haven't heard a word from you,' Jack wrote. 'What the hell have you been doing? I was pleased to note that things picked up after your arrival,' referring to Montgomery's battle with Rommel at El Alamein. He sent one letter to Lem's mother addressed to the American Field Service PO Box in New York. 'Dear Mrs. Billings. I'm enclosing a letter to Lem, which I wish you would forward, as I haven't any idea where he is. Have you heard from him?' Eventually, the two friends made contact, however, and began exchanging letters just as they had when both were at home.” (Page 95)
Jack and Lem on leave, Palm Beach, 1944
“It's not clear whether Lem wanted to join the navy and see combat because Jack had, or because he wanted it for himself. Lem's sister, Lucretia, who knew Jack as well, said, 'I think he had to do something because Jack was doing so much.' Either way, it was a courageous move in view of the casualties the navy was suffering in the Pacific at the time. 'It was very hard for him, but he wanted to do it and he stuck with it,' Lucretia added. When Jack reached home, the two friends greeted each other like there was no tomorrow.” (Page 100)
Jack, Lem, and Caroline enjoying the water, Hyannis Port, 1963.
“'Of course, there was always Cape Cod in Massachusetts when the president wanted to be near the water,' Lem remarked. On some weekends, Jack and Lem would go up there. 'I would take the shuttle down to Washington, go to the White House and we would be picked up by helicopter there — flown to Andrews (Air Force Base) and taken by Air Force One to Otis on the Cape. From there we would helicopter right to his father's front lawn. Of course, he had always loved the Cape and was completely happy there.'” (Page 213)
“Jack made a big difference in my life. Because of him, I was never lonely. He might have been the reason I never got married. I mean, I could have had a wife, and family, but what the hell — do you think I would have had a better life having been Jack Kennedy's best friend, having been with him during so many moments of his presidency, having had my own room at the White House, having had the best friend anybody ever had, or having been married and settled down and living somewhere.” (Page 24)
Lem and Bobby, Waterville Valley, N.H., circa 1967
“'When Bobby joined the political fray, no one was happier than Lem. For many other Americans as well, Bobby became the last best hope for resurrecting Camelot, for a return to the kind of liberal idealism that Jack had epitomized. Bobby's decision to pick up Jack's torch was important to Lem as well. But above all, Bobby was very important to Lem personally. Although Jack and Bobby were of different temperaments — Jack, detached and cerebral, Bobby, intense and emotional — Lem saw so much of Jack in Bobby. He wanted to be with him, to be a part of whatever he wanted to do to continue Jack's legacy.” (Page 276)
Jack and Lem, from Lem's scrapbook, circa 1935
“In his eulogy, Bobby Kennedy Jr. said of Lem: 'He felt pain for every one of us — pain that no one else could have the courage to feel ... I don't know how we will carry on without him. In many ways, Lem was like a father to me and he was the best friend I will ever have.' Eunice Kennedy Shriver said, 'I'm sure he's already organizing everything in heaven so it will be completely ready for us — with just the right Early American furniture, the right curtains, the right rugs, the right paintings, and everything ready for a big, big party. Yesterday was Jack's birthday. Jack's best friend was Lem and he would want me to remind everyone of that today." (Page 307)
Listen to a short phone conversation between the two of them:
DAVID PITTS is a longtime journalist whose work has appeared in The Washington Post and other leading newspapers. His book Jack and Lem: John F. Kennedy and Lem Billings: The Untold Story of an Extraordinary Friendship, from which the text of this slideshow is excerpted, was one of The Advocate's five best books of 2007. To order a copy, click here.