The recent death of Ted Kennedy prompted me to pick up some of the Kennedy books I have lying around the house and I have just re-read a book about JFK that shook my world a couple of years ago. It illuminates a story about a beloved president that was never told prior to this book being published. It’s been hidden from history, or at least overlooked by every biography ever written about JFK.
John F. Kennedy is one of the most studied and written-about presidents of the 20th century. Aside from the remaining mysteries surrounding his assassination, there is little that is unknown about the life of the thirty-fifth president of the United States. Or so we thought.
In Jack and Lem, published by Avalon, writer David Pitts sets about uncovering the story of Jack Kennedy and his closest and dearest friend in the world for 30 years, Lem Billings — a gay man.
Jack and Lem met while at prep school in the 1930s and from that point on were inseparable until the day Jack Kennedy was killed. Pitts worked for two years to persuade Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. to grant him research access to documents that have been locked away for decades. Letters between the two friends, recorded phone calls, and even an 800+ page transcription of an oral history that Lem Billings gave after the death of the president. Pitts also combed through hundreds of photographs never seen by the public, many of which he was allowed to publish in the book, and interviewed anyone and everyone he could who knew Jack and Lem so he could tell, as accurately as possible, the story of a president and his gay best friend.
This well-told account paints a tender, moving portrait of what the author calls “an extraordinary friendship,” the details of which enchant and move the reader. Anecdotes about Lem having his own room in the White House, how Jackie Kennedy dealt with having a third person in her marriage and other bits of lost history aren’t taught in any school text books, but they are told in this book — for the first time.
I interviewed David Pitts about Jack and Lem when this book came out. It’s important to me that this story not be forgotten and now, as we say goodbye to to Ted Kennedy and Eunice Kennedy and regard the legacy of Camelot, this seems like a good time to share it again.
Kenneth Hill: How would you characterize the friendship between JFK and Lem Billings?
David Pitts: The way I would characterize it is that is was a very close, deep, friendship across sexual orientation lines.
KH: How did you first learn about it?
DP: I first learned about the friendship from reading JFK books. I am such a Kennedy fan that I read most of the new JFK books that came out over the years. Lem was mentioned in some, but there was always very little information about him — usually one or two pages — and I just became curious about, well, who exactly is this guy? And that’s how this book that I wrote came about.
KH: How did you find out who he was?
DP: The first thing I did was to look at all the books again to see what had been said about him, which, as I said, was very little. Then I then compiled a list of people to call, people to interview that I thought might know more. I also set about trying to track down documents in various institutions — most notably the John F. Kennedy Library and the Massachusetts Historical Society. And on the latter, I hit a big brick wall early on in the project, which is why it took so long. Most of the documents, including, very significantly, an 815-page oral history done by Lem were closed to writers and authors. Many of the quotes of Lem in the book are from that document. And it was closed at the Kennedy Library and required the permission of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. to access it, and he didn’t give it to me for a long, long time.
KH: How long?
DP: I would say about two years. Two years into the project before Bobby, I guess, got tired of me pestering him.
KH: Why do you think there was resistance?
DP: I don’t know. I’ve been asked that quite a few times — usually I’m asked why he in fact GAVE me the documents — but I really don’t know. I can’t answer that. He didn’t agree to an interview, I wanted an interview, as well, but he did give me the documents which in a sense were more valuable. But when he decided to give me the materials, he gave me everything without restriction, including the ability to copy them as well as quote from them.
KH: Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and Lem were close when Bobby was a young man, right?
DP: Yes, that’s how Bobby ended up with control to most of the materials. Lem knew Bobby from when he was very young, of course, Lem being an intimate of the Kennedys, and when Lem died in 1981 his belongings passed into the possession of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. Some of his things went into the possession of his neice, Sally Carpenter.
KH: Lem was a friend of the Kennedy family during the time that JFK was alive, and also after he was assassinated. Did you have any sense that this was a story that they didn’t necessarily want to have told?
DP: No, I can’t really say that. I mean, none of them agreed to an interview, although Eunice Kennedy Shriver who knew Lem very well came very close and then she became ill. So if I was to guess, and this is purely a guess, I think Bobby Kennedy and the other Kennedys knew this story was going to come out sooner or later. They probably checked me out — I’m sure they did — and were more willing to trust someone with a liberal political bent than some conservative writer who might try to use it in a sensational way. That would be my guess.
I did talk to a friend of Bobby Kennedy when I was trying to get these materials and when I was trying to talk to Bobby, by the name of Blake Fleetwood, who’s a blogger himself on the Huffington Post. He also knew Lem. He told me that the Kennedys have been burned so many times now in these conservative times by writers, they just are very very suspicious of writers, period. It’s not about this story in particular, it’s about any story. And so I think if you take him at his word, part of the reason must be just suspicion of journalists these days.
KH: You said that this was the story of a friendship that crossed sexual orientation lines, which I think is really an interesting element of it, but talk a little bit about the depth of this friendship. The fact that it started when they were very young and, from what I read in the book, they were basically inseparable for the rest of their lives except when circumstances had them in distant cities.
DP: Yes, indeed. I think there were a number of elements to it. First of all, there were a series of bonding events early on. One was the fact that they both hated that school [Choate] in which they met. And were engaged in all kinds of pranks which almost got them expelled twice. That was obviously a bonding phenomenon. Secondly, they roomed together for part of the time at the school.
Thirdly, and I think this is really important, John Kennedy was so sick most of his life, far earlier than when most people think, including when he was at Choate, and Lem was the person at boarding school — his mother and father did not come to the school when he was ill; Lem was there. Lem was the person who was always there for him and took care of him. And then fourthly, there was the two month trip to Europe that they took, just before WWII in 1937, just the two Americans at that pivotal time, I think that was obviously a very strong bonding event.
And then over and above these issues, I would say this — and this is kind of a complicated thought because we really don’t have language to express these kinds of relationships — and that is, I’m firmly convinced after working on this book that John Kennedy’s sexual interests were in women. We don’t need much evidence of that, the evidence is all over the place. But his strongest emotional attachments were to men — and principally, to Lem. We don’t have a word for that, right? Somebody who prefers the opposite gender for sexuality, and the same gender for deep, emotional attachments.
KH: We don’t really have a word for that. I guess “man’s man” used to sort of mean that, but JFK took it so much further in a way because he loved being around men, he knew some men were attracted to him and even seemed to enjoy it. He liked the stimulation of those relationships, there was nothing sexual about it, but there was something about that male-male dynamic that fed him.
DP: I think that’s exactly right. There was one reviewer who wrote, “What’s the big deal here? This guy’s writing that JFK was comfortable with gay men, so big deal, we all knew that.” But of course it’s not the fact that he had a friend named Lem Billings who was gay. This was the closest person in all the world to him outside of his family for 30 years. He wasn’t just “a gay friend” on the side.
KH: One of the very surprising facts that comes out in this book is that Lem had his own room at the White House?
DP: Yes, that’s one of the revelations in the book that’s really surprising. And actually some of the people who were working in the White House very close to JFK didn’t know it. For example, Ted Sorensen whom I interviewed for the book, perhaps the closest aide to JFK, saw Lem around the White House all the time, but he told me he didn’t know that he’d had his own room there and was staying there so much of the time. But yeah, that’s another indication of the depth of the attachment.
One thing I was intent on doing when I wrote this book, because I thought it would be open to various forms of attack, is that I never went beyond what the documents said. The book is a lot of quotes from documents, or that interviewees said. This friendship might have contained a lot of things that I wasn’t able to find out because I didn’t want to enter the area of speculation.
KH: It seems without a doubt that Lem was in love with JFK. But it’s never stated explicitly because you don’t have any record of his ever saying that.
DP: No, I think the closest … I mean, these were more sedate times, especially where homosexuality is concerned. Even in the various documents, Lem is never overt in his statements. But there was one statement from one of the documents, and I have it in front of me here, that I think is just expresses his feelings. Here’s the quote: “Jack made a big difference in my life. Because of him, I was never lonely. He may have been the reason I never got married.”
This is somewhat of a difficult thought as well, but I think gay people had a way back then of telegraphing to future generations what their feelings were that they could not express candidly at the time. And anybody who reads some of these words today would have no doubt what Lem’s feelings were, but in the context of that time it was not obviously understood.
KH: There’s really very little discussion of Lem’s sexuality. He almost seems asexual in the book. I think there’s one incident where there’s some sort of rendezvous that was talked about, but there is an interesting passage where Jack and Lem do discuss something related to Lem’s sexuality. About a letter to Lem from Jack, this is what appears in the book:
“Jack makes a curious reference to Lem having been called a fairy, and Lem’s lack of resentment over the matter. ‘After you call someone a fairy,’ wrote Jack, ‘and discuss it for two solid hours, and argue about whether you did or did not go down on Worthington Johnson, you don’t write a letter saying that you think that fellow is a great guy, even if it’s true, which it was.'”
DP: Right. That is one example there. And you know, there might have been other examples in those letters, but we have to keep in mind that these letters went into Lem’s possession after JFK’s death, and I’m sure if there were any more candid letters — and he probably let that one slip through the cracks — that he probably would have destroyed them because he never was open about his sexuality all his life except with a few close friends.
KH: There is a real sadness about that, but I guess it’s just a sign of the times and also the fact that he wanted to protect Jack’s reputation and thought that was one of the things he had to do.
DP: Yes, that’s pretty much what the people who knew him told me, that that was more important to him than anything else. And although he lived about 10 years after Stonewall, it was still the early days after gay liberation.
KH: You wrote that there was a tension and also an appreciation that existed between Jackie Kennedy and Lem. At one point Jackie is quoted as saying, “Lem Billings has been a house guest every weekend I’ve been married.” What was that relationship about? It seems like there was acceptance and also resentment.
DP: Right, I think it was both. All the people I interviewed about the relationship between Jackie and Lem — which I think is an interesting relationship in and of itself — agreed really on the nature of that relationship. There was no disagreement among any of the people who knew them both. And that is, she liked him. She had more in common with him than she did with JFK in many ways. She was interested in the arts like he was, she had the same kind of sensibility. She also appreciated the role he played in her marriage during all the rough spots in the early days, essentially.
And the evidence that she liked him, the proof of it really, is that after the assassination when she could easily have cut him loose, she didn’t. When the British invited her to England for the memorial for JFK at Runnymede, she asked Lem to go with her. She frequently visited him in Manhattan when she lived there in the 60s, and she also went to his funeral. So the evidence that she essentially liked him is there.
On the other hand, there is also evidence that she was frustrated at times that he was always there, he was there too often, and the quote you just gave from the White House usher, J.B. West, is evidence of that as well. So it’s a mixed relationship. Probably when you think about it, it’s a marriage of three people, so that attitude is understandable.
KH: It was the ‘Me, You and DuPree’ of Camelot! Also interesting is that in instances where Jackie was unavailable to go to a dinner or on a foreign trip, Jack took Lem along — almost like his partner.
DP: I worked with a good friend of mine on this, Mona Esquetini who is much better at research than I am, and sometimes we would come across things and we’d think, wow, this is amazing. For example, when JFK went to the Eisenhower inauguration in 1953. I read in the documentation that JFK took Jackie, his wife, and that’s understandable, but he also took Lem. So he’s taking two people to the Eisenhower inauguration.
Another example that blew our minds is when Lem was writing in his oral history about the fact that he went to Glen Ora, [JFK’s] summer retreat in Virginia, almost every weekend when they were in town, and he’s writing things like, “Jack went to bed at 10:00 o’clock, and Jackie shortly thereafter, and I could hear the television going…” I mean, wow, this guy is like part of the marriage.
KH: It seemed that from the way history was presented in the book that on these trips, these dinners, etc, that he just took Lem along without any explanation. Like, he didn’t feel any need to say who this person was exactly, it was just, this person is with me.
DP: Right. One of the things I learned, actually I didn’t have to learn it since I’m old enough to remember those times, is how much was left unspoken. When I talked to Ben Bradlee for example at the Washington Post, who knew both men, and the first thing he said to me when I went in to interview him, before I asked him anything, was “I suppose you know was gay. It was kind of a secret within Camelot.” So I jumped right in on that and said did you ever talk to JFK about it, and how dangerous this was for him politically, and he said, “Oh no, everybody knew but that’s not the kind of thing you talked about in those days.” It just went unspoken.
KH: I sensed, too, that Lem was sad about having been sort of forgotten by history. One passage that struck me addresses this:
In all the books about Jack Kennedy, Lem said in an interview a few years before he died, “I’m referred to as a roommate from Choate, and then dropped. I don’t particularly want to be in books, but I resent being treated as a childhood friend who could then be dropped. You never see me in the last pages, and yet I was at his house every single weekend he was president. Jack was the closest person to me in the world for 30 years.”
DP: Yes, I think you’re correct in saying that. It’s true what he’s saying there in his oral history. When you look at the various JFK books, he is usually in the earlier chapters, the friend from Choate who was involved with JFK in all these pranks, and then he’s kind of dropped, like he disappeared. The reality is of course far different as we’ve just been discussing.
I also feel he played an important role in Jack’s presidency that has been totally ignored which I’m rarely asked about either, and that is the political role that he played, even though he wasn’t profoundly interested in politics. He did learn about the Cuban Missile Crisis and other events long before other people, and listened to JFK vent — there are examples of this in the book. And so the role he played in soothing the temperament and giving advice when asked with the guy whose finger is on the button at the height of the Cold War, that’s also very important stuff that has been ignored.
KH: As you say, he wasn’t very interested in politics, but your word that he “soothed” Jack’s temperament seemed to be a running theme through the book. That, because of their deep friendship and the humor and history that they shared, Lem almost seemed like a salve, he was able to relax JFK in a way nobody else could.
DP: A friend of mine who read the book said, after reading that part of it, that Lem was the wife in the sense of playing that traditional role of the wife at that time of listening, soothing and all of the rest — because Jackie needed soothing herself. JFK’s time with her was mostly spent in reassuring her, so it was really Lem that he leaned on. Certainly in what he wanted to say politically. Now of course he could talk with political aides, but with Lem he knew he could say anything he wanted to say, and it would not be leaked, not end up in the press, and it was an important safety valve for him.
KH: Back on the issue of having been forgotten, one of the things that really struck me when I read this was that following the assassination of JFK, Lem reminded me so much of the gay lover of someone who has died where the relationship with the deceased is never publicly acknowledged. Certainly the Kennedys knew that Lem was part of the family and that he was suffering, but did you get a sense in your research that Lem himself felt cheated out of the public not knowing that he, JFK’s best friend, the First Friend, also became, in a sense, a widow that day?
DP: I’m not really sure. It’s an interesting point, and I never really asked that question and it didn’t come out in the questions. My guess would be, however, that in the context of those times, he had known from the beginning that the true extent of his affection for JFK, the true extent of this friendship, could never be public knowledge. And I think he has long adjusted to that.
Now, it may be that toward the end of his life when he was drinking more that he became a little bit more uncomfortable with the secrecy. A key interviewee in the book is Larry Quirk, the Photoplay editor who knew him for 40 years, and he said at one point Lem was thinking of writing a book in the mid-70s. Certainly that indicated he was thinking about putting the story out there, but then he retreated from it.
KH: Two things really, really touched me about this story. The first — I’ll let you tell the story of what JFK is buried with.
DP: Oh, yes. The whale scrimshaw. When I first discovered that I didn’t even know what it was, actually. Part of a whale’s tooth, I guess. And this was something that JFK had just collected over the years. And one particular collection item among the whale scrimshaw was on his desk in the Oval Office. That was a gift from Lem, and that was buried with JFK.
KH: I think that’s so profound.
KH: The other is what Jamie Wyeth talks about in discussing the painting he painted of JFK after his assassination. In the book you write:
“Jamie Wyeth … recalls immersing himself in everything he could get his hands on about JFK before beginning to paint. But it was Lem, he says, who ‘gave me an uncommon insight,’ stemming from the fact that he had been so close to the president. ‘Lem helped me see a JFK that no amount of books, films, tapes and recordings could reveal,’ he noted. Lem spent not hours but days with him, talking about the JFK the public never knew, Wyeth added. ‘If someday you see my completed portrait of John F. Kennedy, look a little closer, for under the surface of the paint is a portrait of Lem Billings.'”
DP: Yes, those were great words from Jamie Wyeth, weren’t they. Yeah, some of the writers and artists who contacted Lem after the assassination learned … for example, JFK married Jackie in 1953 at the age of 36. By that time, he had known Lem for 20 years. So it had been Jack and Lem for 20 years at the time he had got married. Even she knew that Lem knew a lot about Jack that preceded her marriage by 20 years. That’s one reason why she wanted him to talk to the kids a lot, about the younger Jack that she never knew. She was 12 years younger than JFK as well.
KH: Well, it’s a fascinating story. I think this is a wonderful gift that you’ve given to the world, and certainly to gay readers who are constantly uncovering things that have been hidden from history that tell us so much about ourselves. Is there anything else you want to mention about the book?
DP: I guess the only thing I would mention that has been kind of surprising to me is that there have been so many books that have been written about JFK — thousands, according to the Library of Congress — and many of them are repeating the same stories about Marilyn Monroe or the Cuban Missile Crisis, but this is a new story about JFK, unknown for most Americans, and yet mainstream media has almost totally ignored it. There hasn’t been one review of this book in any mainstream newspaper, including the Washington Post, and Ben Bradlee, the most famous editor of the Post, is a key source for this book. That’s a mystery to me. I think this is a story that would interest most Americans, as well as gay Americans, and the mainstream audience doesn’t know about it. That’s been frustrating.
KH: Why do you think they’ve ignored the book?
DP: I don’t know. I’m really, really mystified because having been in the news business myself, most of what reporters are interested in above all else is news, something that’s new. If I came across a new story about a much-remembered president, I would grab it. But so far, aside from a couple of stories, one was in the New Haven Register which is near the school where they went, that’s about it.
KH: That’s interesting — and mysterious.
DP: It is. I know somebody who knows a producer at CNN and I sent over a copy of the book to them, but so far I don’t know that they’ve done anything. This is a bit of a feeling like Lem must have had that I’m having now … Well, maybe they’ll discover this book in about 10 years, but right now …
KH: That kind of blows me away. Since I read the book, I can’t stop sharing the story. Everyone with whom I’ve spoken is quite amazed by it. I hope a lot of people get to read it.
DP: I hope so, too.
Photos: All photos courtesy of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library
and Museum, Columbia Point, Boston, Massachusetts