WASHINGTON, D.C. — John F. Kennedy’s best friend for three decades was a gay man, according to a new book published in May by Avalon. “Jack and Lem: John F. Kennedy and Lem Billings: The Untold Story of an Extraordinary Friendship,” documents the relationship between the two men from its beginnings at a New England prep school in 1933 until the gunfire in Dallas in 1963. The evidence presented indicates that Jack found out that Billings was gay early in the friendship. Despite his own heterosexuality, however, Jack didn’t reject Billings. On the contrary, the friendship grew and survived against the odds.
A young John F. Kennedy and his friend Lem Billings, sometime in the mid 1930s.
Though much has been published about Jack Kennedy over the years, little has been known about his enduring friendship with Billings until now. Author David Pitts tells the story with the aid of hundreds of letters and telegrams exchanged between the two men as well as previously unavailable documents that were placed in the John F. Kennedy Library in 2003 and accessed for the first time. Featuring interviews with Ben Bradlee, Gore Vidal, Ted Sorensen, friends, family, and many others who knew Kennedy and Billings, the story begins with their early years at school, follows their relationship through Princeton, Europe, World War II, Kennedy’s rapid political ascent, and his time at the White House. Over 50 photographs illustrate the book, most of which are of Kennedy and Billings at various stages of their lives and have never been seen before by the public.
Even though Billings was a personal friend and never held a position in the Kennedy administration, Kennedy valued Billings highly enough to discuss with him the great events of his presidency, including the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. While Kennedy was president, Billings even had his own room at the White House and was there most weekends. The book also details the effect of their friendship on the president’s marriage. Although Jackie Kennedy liked Billings, she was sometimes frustrated by his omnipresence. “He has been a houseguest every weekend of my married life,” she once told a White House usher.
The author paints a profile of a richly textured friendship set against the backdrop of some of the most remarkable events of the 20th century, a time of unparalleled idealism but also of rampant homophobia. The book concludes with a chapter on Billings’ life after Dallas when he admitted he had loved John Kennedy deeply.
“Jack made a big difference in my life,” he said. “Because of him, I was never lonely. He may have been the reason I never got married.” Crushed by the assassination, Billings became a much-diminished man in his final years.