Douglas Caddy Posted May 28, 2007 Share Posted May 28, 2007 President Kennedy and His Gay Best Friend Spring 1933, two schoolmates began a lifelong friendship. LeMoyne Billings, a closeted gay teenager, was immediately attracted to the young Jack Kennedy. Though evidence suggests Lem made sexual advances that Kennedy spurned, their friendship flourished…. By Blase DiStefano Outsmart Magazine Houston, Texas May 2007 http://www.outsmartmagazine.com/this_issue...ryid=1177953009 [Poster’s note: be sure to click on the above link to see the pictures of JFK and Lem Billings together.] For those readers too young to remember the White House in the early '60s, here are a few facts: It was home to the youngest president ever. President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was 43 years old (a first ... and a last) and Catholic (also a first ... and a last). The first lady was Jacqueline Kennedy, and the couple had two children, Caroline and John Jr. The First Couple had many gay friends, though the early '60s was not a time when that was discussed. I spoke with David Pitts about his new book, Jack and Lem: John F. Kennedy and Lem Billings—The Untold Story of an Extraordinary Friendship (Carroll & Graf Publishers). Blase DiStefano: How did you find out about Lem Billings? David Pitts: I found out because of my own interest in the Kennedy presidency. I read all the JFK books, and I became aware of Lem Billings over the years in these books. Some writers suggested that he was gay, and Gore Vidal in his memoir Palimpsest even called Lem "chief faggot of Camelot"—he definitely picks up on Lem being gay. So it was kind of hinted at, but nobody really looked into it. What made you decide to go this route? It was kind of a circuitous route. When I left full-time journalism in 2003, I knew I wanted to do a JFK book because of my interest in the Kennedy presidency. I didn't want to do the same old story that everybody keeps on doing every time about the Cuban Missile Crisis and so on. So I thought to myself that Lem Billings—this kind of a shadowy figure that I'd read about over the years—was probably a close political confidant of the president and that there was a story here about his political influence behind the scenes. That's what I thought was going to be the story when I started this project. And it was only after I got into the interviews and started looking into the documents and the letters that I realized this was a personal friendship and not a political friendship. Was it common knowledge in the administration that Lem Billings was gay? It's not clear that anybody in the administration knew for sure. They certainly thought that because he was at the White House so often, he seemed misplaced there. Some other people who weren't in the administration but were friends of the president certainly picked up on it. I had an interview with Ben Bradlee [former executive editor of The Washington Post] for example, and he certainly sensed LeMoyne was gay. But it was a different time, and there was no real discussion about it, and Ben Bradlee told me he didn't bring it up with the president and the president didn't bring it up with him. So I would say it was generally sensed but not known. Is there any indication that Lem was in love with Jack? Yes. There are various indications of that. I think the best example is a quote that I used in the book. He's on the record as saying, "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." So there are various indications of his profound attachment to Kennedy. Is there any indication of Jack's response to his finding out that Lem was gay? There is a response early on in the friendship. LeMoyne attempted a sexual proposal to John Kennedy—this was at Choate. About how old were they at this time? This would be when Lem was 17 and Jack was 16. Although we don't have a record of what Lem wrote to Jack, we do have a record of Jack's response, and he essentially rebuffed the sexual advance but not the friendship. So how do you account for Kennedy, especially being Catholic, keeping the friendship going and not being homophobic? Very, very surprising, especially in the 1930s before the Kinsey reports, before everything. This was a question I asked various people who knew John Kennedy, including Gore Vidal and Ben Bradlee. They basically said he was a member of the upper class, that he was comfortable around gay people, even as president, and he wasn't a judgmental type of guy. This was the response they gave to me—that it was never a problem to him, not only with LeMoyne, but with other gay people he knew, such as Gore Vidal. What must it have been like for Lem being gay in the 1930s? Extremely difficult. Like almost every gay man at that time he felt compelled to live a secret life, not only because he was a friend of Jack Kennedy, but in order to have a successful career, which he did in advertising. He knew that was necessary, and, like all gay people, he paid a price for that, which became apparent later in his life when he began drinking quite a bit. It apparently colored his entire life. And I guess it colored how he later talked about his life, like the quote you mentioned about how he could have gotten married. I hate to do what other authors always say, which is say read the book, but there is no substitute for reading the book and seeing what Lem himself said in the various letters and his 815-page oral history, which I used extensively for the book. You can see him struggling with trying to be candid about what he felt. He obviously wanted to be. He died in 1981, and certainly during the time when he was alive, he felt it was not possible for him to be that candid. At the time that Lem and Jack met, basically it was OK for men to be intimate, affectionate without sex. I was thinking specifically of the photo of men and women arm in arm, with Lem and Jack the only two males arm in arm. That to me says a whole lot about that era, because in today's society, certain people would look at that and flinch. That's one point I tried to make in the book in one of the chapters. Ironically, in some ways gay people had more license at that time than they do now. Homosexuality wasn't on the radar screen, the general population wasn't really aware of it, and so, in a sense, gay people could do certain things, such as the example that you gave, and it did not come under suspicion the way it clearly would today. Today it would be assumed they were gay. And about the quote, about Lem never getting married — do you think his love for Jack kept him from having a serious relationship with another man? It seems to have. A major source for the book was a man named Larry Quirk, who is an editor and writer in New York and has published a number of books himself. He knew Lem and had a sexual involvement with Lem, but he told me that even though Lem had various sexual involvements throughout his life, including with him, that there was only one person he really loved and that was Jack Kennedy. Do you think Kennedy's most important relationships were with men? I've thought about it a great deal after writing the book. Our language in society is really inadequate to express the range of involvements and emotions that people have in this regard. But if I were to summarize John Kennedy, I think what I found out in writing this book is that his sexual preferences were women, but his attachments were to men. So I don't know what that makes him—there's no word for that, right? [both laugh] He did have some pretty profound attachments to women, but he also seemed to want and need strong attachments to men that were not sexual. At that time I think it was easier to do that. Now it's more suspect: "If I have this type of relationship with a man, people are going to think I'm gay..." I think you're exactly right. I don't think it was uncommon at the time. This was before the women's movement when women were thought of as sex objects and they weren't allowed into certain clubs, particularly in Washington, or even in the National Press Club where women weren't allowed even as journalists. Women were considerably downgraded in importance in society at large, so it wouldn't be surprising, particularly in elite circles, if men's strongest attachments were to other men. Do you think Jack used Lem as a gofer? It seemed like Lem allowed it, so it wasn't one-sided. Doing the research for the book and talking to some people, I found conflicting evidence on that. Gore Vidal said he was the gofer. I think the phrase he used was, "Lem was the guy who carried the bags for Jack." And he called him "Jack's slave" at one point. But other people discounted that. Jack's sister, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, said that the friendship was very equal. And I did find evidence in the letters when they were both at college—Lem was at Princeton and Jack was at Harvard—I did find evidence when they got together in New York on weekends, it was as much Jack who was suggesting their getting together as it was Lem. So it wasn't always Lem asking for the time. The friendship seems to have been quite mutual. And in one of the interviews with Gore Vidal [Pitts had three interviews with him], he seems to concede that the friendship was a bit more than carrying the bags. Lem was very useful in Kennedy's political campaigns. Exactly. He wasn't very good [both laugh], but the important point that was made was that no matter how inexperienced Lem was politically, no matter how much he messed things up sometimes, Jack wanted him involved, which is another indication of the strength of the friendship, because the president didn't seem to care that he wasn't that efficient at times in the political sense. It does seem like the friendship was serious, because Kennedy could have dropped him easily, especially considering that Kennedy may have been concerned about people finding out that Lem was gay. That's one of the most amazing things. Of course, when it started in 1933 and Jack was at school, you can certainly argue that for the first 10 or 15 years, there was no political threat, but once he started on the road to the White House after World War II, this friendship posed a political threat, and if the Russians would have gotten hold of this information, it could have been problematic. Lem was considered part of the Kennedy family, wasn't he? He certainly was. All the evidence I've found was that every single member of the Kennedy family just adored him. It wasn't just Jack Kennedy. He became close to Robert Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Ethel Kennedy, and Eunice Kennedy Shriver. The only person who is a little circumspect in her affections was Jackie Kennedy, for maybe obvious reasons. After Jack married Jackie, what was the relationship like between Jack and Lem? From all accounts, it stayed the same. Jackie did like Lem, didn't she? All the evidence seems to indicate she liked him quite a lot. In actuality, she had more things in common with Lem than she did with Jack. Jack was a political animal, and her main interest was in the arts, which was Lem's main interest. So they had much in common. The other point that seemed to be very salient was the fact that in the early years of her marriage when she was having some difficulties with Jack Kennedy, Lem was a kind of humorous intermediary who helped break the tension. But he was always there, and on many occasions she wanted him there, but on other occasions she didn't. What about Lem's relationship with Caroline and John Jr.? With Caroline and John Jr., it seems to have been affectionate and close. After the assassination, Jackie was in New York for roughly five years before she married Aristotle Onassis in 1968. That's when both Caroline and John were quite young, so Jackie Kennedy was keen to have them spend time with Lem so they could learn all about the president in his younger days, pre-dating the time she knew him. I remember reading in the book that Lem had all this information that nobody else seemed to have. Most of the people around Jack Kennedy had met him after the war when his political career began, and Jackie hadn't met him until 1951. So almost nobody outside the family knew him from 1933. So that was important to her. And he saw much less of them when she moved outside of the United States after her marriage to Onassis. But when she returned in the mid-'70s and started working in New York, they were teenagers by then, and they would go over to his place by themselves. So they knew him quite well, Caroline probably a little bit more than John Jr. Didn't Lem basically have his own room in the White House? It was on the third floor. The chief White House usher at the time, J. B. West, confirmed that, and it was basically his room. And Lem himself talked about it in his oral history. How important was that oral history? That document was vital to this book. It's 815 pages. I was working on the book for three years, and for most of the time I couldn't get access to it, because although it's in the Kennedy Library, it's off limits to authors and journalists. The only person who can give you permission to get to it is Robert F. Kennedy Jr., and he finally gave me permission in the final months when I was preparing the book. Do you know why he finally gave in? I don't. I pestered him a lot, sending letters. That may have been part of the reason. He also probably checked me out as a journalist [Pitts has written various articles on John Kennedy] and realized I wasn't some kind of far-right writer. The Kennedys are getting kind of suspicious of journalists these days, because there have been a lot of trash books or political-attack books from the right about the Kennedys in recent years, so that may have been one reason for his caution, but I really don't know. Wasn't Lem such a regular visitor at the White House that security would let him pass without some kind of badge? Yes, they did. He never had a White House pass. He said all the guys knew him, and he just waltzed right on in there. He was also a frequent guest at the president's retreat outside Washington in Glen Ora, Virginia. Where was Lem when Kennedy was assassinated? He was in New York. He was on his lunch hour from his job at an advertising company called Lennen & Newell. Is there any information on how it affected him at the time? Not immediately. I wasn't able to talk to anybody who talked to him that day. I think the only person he did talk to was Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who was at the White House at the time. But his close friends, Frances McAdoo and John Seigenthaler, talked to him within the next few days after it happened, and they described him as you can imagine—devastated, just unable to process it all. But at the time he was very helpful to the family. He knew this was going to be a time of incredible anguish for the Kennedy family. He knew all of them from the early 1930s, when Jack used to take him to Palm Beach in Hyannis Port. He felt incredibly responsible and loyal to them. He held himself together through the funeral period and then just fell apart. I found it very interesting that a gift from Lem was buried with Kennedy. Were there other things buried with him? I don't know the answer to that, although I understand that Jackie Kennedy was going to have the ring he'd given her buried with him, and somebody persuaded her she should keep it. So that's the only other gift I know about. But the gift from Lem that was buried with him was a set of whale's-tooth scrimshaw. This is apparently something that Kennedy had been interested in collecting over the years, and Lem had given him some, and it had been on the desk of the president in the White House. I find that fascinating. It brings it back again to how close they were. Did Lem ever recover from the assassination? Not in total. Grief is a strange thing. Some days he'd be the same old Lem joking, and other days he would think about what had happened. It was something that he apparently was never able to come to terms with. The best way he seemed to be able to deal with it was to talk about JFK to the younger Kennedys, to journalists, really to anybody who would listen. 1. Didn't he remain a part of the Kennedy family? He became very close to Senator Robert Kennedy. But that wasn't just the post-1963 phenomenon either. He'd known Bobby since the early 1930s, and it was natural that they would become close since he'd seen so much of Jack Kennedy in Bobby, and he had it happen all over again in 1968 when Bobby was killed. Did he help in Bobby's campaign? He was very involved in his campaign first when he ran for senator of New York in 1964 and then in the presidential campaign in 1968. And he was professionally involved. His company, Lennen & Newell, was involved in doing many of the political commercials that aired at the time. He was closely involved in Robert Kennedy's political efforts as well. Wasn't Lem's boss not only a Republican but also charmed by President Kennedy? A guy by the name of Adolph Toigo--yes, he was a Republican, as indeed was Lem until 1960. This is really one of the funny things because Lem's family was a Republican family, and Lem himself was a registered Republican--he switched his registration in 1960--and so were some of the other people we were just talking about. I guess it's part of John Kennedy's charisma. He met with some of Lem's friends, including Lem's boss, because he wanted Lem to help on the campaign, which was the initial reason, but then he also persuaded the boss to change his political allegiance. It's incredible his effect on people. The Kennedys embracing the friendship between Lem and Jack says a whole lot about the family. Yes, it does. There have been various rumors flying over the years, in some of the right-wing periodicals especially, that Lem, being a gay man, tried to seduce some of the younger Kennedys. I did look into that, but I was able to find no evidence of that, and certainly none of the younger Kennedys, including Bobby Kennedy, has said that was the case. How did Lem die? He died of a heart attack in 1981 at the age of 65. Although when I looked into it a little bit more, he did have a heart condition for some time, and to what degree his drinking contributed to that, I'm not really sure. But the technical cause of death was a heart attack. Not long before that, didn't he still see the younger kids? Right. After Senator Robert Kennedy's assassination in June of 1968, he then became close to Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the person who gave me permission to look at the documents. This seems to have been the instigation of Ethel Kennedy, who had 11 children. Again, Lem knew Bobby from when he was a little kid, and she asked various people to help out with the boys. Some other guys helped out with the other boys, and she asked Lem to help out with Bobby. So they became really close. Bobby Kennedy Jr. was only 14 when his father was assassinated. So Lem took Bobby under his wing, and they often went on vacations together, and Bobby was often at his New York townhome. Did the fact that you are gay prove a help or a hindrance in writing the book? I don't really feel that it either helped or hindered me in writing the book. I took a journalistic approach in writing this. I only included information in the book that I could verify either through documentary evidence or with interviewees in a position to know. I think President Kennedy--if he were alive today--would be horrified at the resurgence of conservatism and the attack on civil liberties in the United States. Just a few weeks ago even, General Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called homosexual acts immoral--and survived in his job, despite the bigotry. But 47 years ago, we had a president whose best friend was gay and who seemed quite comfortable with it. Link to comment Share on other sites More sharing options...
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