John Fitzgerald Kennedy:
“I just received the following wire from my generous Daddy: ‘Dear Jack, Don’t buy a single vote more than is necessary. I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay for a landslide’.“
He was the 35th President of the United States of America. He was President until 1963 when he was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Unlike our current president, John F. Kennedy had a sly wit and a good sense of humor.
He was born in a suburb of Massachusetts to one of America’s wealthiest families. His parents were crooked businessman-turned-politician, Joseph Kennedy, and the very fertile philanthropist and socialite Rose; the son and daughter of Irish immigrants.
JFK made history when he became the youngest person to be sworn in as President of the United States at just 43-years-old. Kennedy is considered to have been one of the most charismatic presidents ever; he was a truly gifted speaker and writer. His speeches have endured and are still quoted by many politicians, writers, historians, journalists and civilians today.
Kennedy had just a few secrets during his lifetime: lifelong health problems, drug use, a lot of assignations with women, plus his longtime best friend, Kirk LeMoyne “Lem” Billings (1916 – 1981), was queer.
It would have been risky for JFK to have a gay man as his closest friend. Ben Bradlee, executive editor of the Washington Post and a Kennedy friend, said Kennedy thought he could take care of any political damage that might occur, including a possible “outing” of Billings, but, of course, Kennedy thought he could handle anything.
Billings and Kennedy met as teenagers at Choate, an exclusive Connecticut prep school. Neither of them took school very seriously; Kennedy coasted on his considerable charm and Billings got by academically without much effort and little ambition.
As a teenager, Kennedy suffered from stomach and back problems. While at Choate in 1934, Kennedy became seriously sick with a blood condition that nearly killed him. Rose Kennedy, JFK’s mother, never visited him while he was at Choate. It was Billings who took care of JFK. Billings later wrote:
“We used to joke about the fact that if I ever write a biography, I would call it ‘John F. Kennedy, A Medical History’. At one time or another, he really did have almost every medical problem, take any illness Jack Kennedy had it.“
This intimacy, when both teenage boys were away from parents, was a major factor in their lifelong loyalty to each other. Yet, there was a problem. Billings fell in love with Kennedy. In their senior year, they were roommates and Billings attraction to JFK was too strong to ignore. Billings wanted to tell Kennedy, but he didn’t know how.
In David Pitts’s book Jack and Lem: The Untold Story Of An Extraordinary Friendship (2012), Pitts writes:
“There was an unspoken tradition at Choate, boys who wanted sexual activity with other boys exchanged notes written on toilet paper. Toilet paper was used because it could be swallowed or easily discarded to eliminate any paper trail.“
Billings sent a toilet paper note. While Kennedy was recovering in a hospital in Rochester, he sent Billings a letter that included, almost as an aside, the line:
“Please don’t write to me on toilet paper anymore. I am not that kind of boy.“
As far as anyone knows, the matter was never discussed again. Kennedy and Billings remained the closest of friends. Billings repeated his senior year so that he and Kennedy could graduate from Choate together in 1935. After graduation, the boys took a summer trip to Europe together.
When Kennedy married pretty Jacqueline Lee Bouvier in 1956, Billings was an usher. After they were married, Billings was never far away. It sometimes frustrated Jackie that she had to share her husband with Billings. When a butler commented on the fact that Billings kept his belongings in one of the third-floor guest rooms, the First Lady replied:
He’s been my house guest since I was married.
When the First Lady was away, Billings organized White House dinner parties for the President and when the President traveled he kept Jackie Kennedy company. Some people saw him so much they thought he was the Secret Service. Billings, who never had a White House pass, wrote:
Jack and Jackie were so nice about this that I didn’t even have to tell them whether I was coming or going.
His presence was a big help to Kennedy, who almost never discussed politics with Billings. Instead, they laughed and gossiped. The very model of the modern homosexual, Billings served Kennedy as an artistic adviser. When Jackie declined to go on foreign trips, Billings stood in for her, as he did on the trip to Berlin when JFK made his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech.
Gore Vidal, a longtime Kennedy friend, was banned from the White House after a tiff with Billings. Vidal thought Billings played an important role as an aide to Kennedy. Vidal:
He needed Lem Billings to get around better than a trained nurse that would have made his political career impossible. Jacqueline thought Billings was kind of a nothing….but Jack needed him and she was practical.
Billings went to great lengths to hide his sexual encounters to protect Kennedy. He had many lovers, but there is no evidence of a long-term relationship. Billings:
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.
Following the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, Billings became close with Robert Kennedy Jr., with whom Billings became a fellow drug user.
Kennedy’s bisexual brother-in-law, actor Peter Lawford, and Vidal, a relative of Jackie’s, were frequent visitors and playmates. Vidal, published a bestselling gay-themed World War II novel, The City And The Pillar (1947) at a time when queer books were ruled obscene and evidence of gay sex acts could mean prison time.
In 1958, Vidal brought playwright Tennessee Williams to the Kennedy home in Palm Beach. Williams admired Kennedy’s good-looks and body and said to Vidal: “Get that ass!” In the great gay writer Christopher Bram‘s book of essays Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America (2012), he writes that Vidal told Williams: “You shouldn’t cruise our next president!“, then repeated the remark to Kennedy. Kennedy answered: “Now that’s very exciting!“
The Kennedy presidency came after the Lavender Scare of the 1950s and before Stonewall and the start of the modern Gay Rights movement. But by the time he became President, a revolution had been launched: the birth control pill, developed in the 1950s, became widely available in the 1960s and in 1964, LIFE magazine did a story with photos about gay bars in San Francisco. So, JFK’s friendships with gay men had a social and cultural context and were a preview of the sexual freedom that would soon be championed in the counterculture and change the country for decades. In the early 1960s, Kennedy got to enjoy the kind of sex life that gay men had in the 1970s.
Kennedy also shared women with male friends and relatives, a homoerotic thing seen in fraternities where guys enjoy an intimacy by having sex with the same woman. It seems that Marilyn Monroe had affairs with JFK and RFK brokered by Lawford who hosted orgies in Los Angeles that the President attended.
He sat with the President’s family at the Kennedy inauguration and walked not far behind his widow at the Kennedy funeral. Billings was so much a part of the extended Kennedy, RFK named his son Michael LeMoyne Kennedy.
On May 30, 1981, Billings died in his sleep in his Manhattan apartment. His dying wish was for the young Kennedy men to carry his casket to its final resting place. When they arrived at the cemetery, it was already in place to be lowered. The young Kennedys took the casket and carried it around the grave site before returning it to the burial plot. Vidal suggested that Billings was the saddest of all the Kennedy widows.
RFK Jr. gave his eulogy:
“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 to remind everyone of that today. I am sure the good Lord knows that heaven is Jesus and Lem and Jack and Bobby loving one another.“
Fun tidbit, Billings was the inventor of the 1950s fad drink “Fizzies”.