Jack and Lem: John F. Kennedy and Lem Billings: The Untold Story of an Extraordinary Friendship Paperback – Mar 25 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
Freelance journalist Pitts thoroughly documents the long, intimate association of JFK and Kirk LeMoyne "Lem" Billings. The son of a Pittsburgh physician, Billings first met JFK in the early 1930s at Choate, where they systematically set about violating every campus rule possible. Although Lem was gay, their relationship was evidently always platonic and continued through WWII and after, as Billings pursued a career in advertising while also devoting much energy to advancing Kennedy's political career. Lem became an adored member of the extended Kennedy clan and loomed large in the lives of the children of the martyred Jack and Bobby. Billings also became a much-sought-after source, courted by dozens of Kennedy biographers until his death in 1981—a devotee to the end and somehow incomplete as an individual separate from Jack. Gore Vidal, no friend of Lem's, belittled him, saying, "He's the guy who carries the coat.... He's the guy who runs errands.... To Jack, Lem was a kind of idiot friend." But Pitt, in a well-done first book, insists JFK had "absolute trust in Lem" though their friendship remained an enigma to others. (May)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
Those familiar with the life of John Kennedy have probably wondered about his lifelong best friend, Lem Billings. The duo met at Choate, traveled together, and corresponded copiously over the years (Lem had his own room at the White House). For years there was speculation that Lem was homosexual, but facts were scarce, as Billings' personal papers at the Kennedy Library were restricteduntil Robert Kennedy Jr., Billings' executor, gave Pitts unprecedent access. Through interviews and some deductive reasoning based on the documents, Pitts reveals that Billings was not only gay but also in love with JFK, who did not reciprocate his friend's feelings. Still, it is remarkable that Kennedy would ignore the mores of the day and keep such a close association with a closeted gay man. Pitts explores the emotional reasons this should be so as he tells the story of the two friends. The account is sometimes repetitious, and Pitts (perhaps in deference to RFK Jr.) skirts the previously documented issue of Lem's relationship with the younger Kennedy generation, which purportedly included drug use. Still, this offers a fascinating look at an unexamined subject. Illustrated with rare photographs. Cooper, Ilene --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.See all Product Description
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Pitts chronicles that journey of friendship for nearly thirty years, through war, elections and a fateful assassination one sunny afternoon in Dallas. The two boys meet and become fast friends, and share a remarkable legacy of letters that are quoted throughout the beginning of the book. These letters at first are fun and amusing, the ramblings of adolescent teasing that formulated their friendship. You can see the connection between the two men, as one probably spends years yearning for JFK, and must settle for his close friendship. It must have been both heaven and hell for Lem, doomed to devote his life to Jack.
Soon, however, it becomes clear that there isn't much of story to tell between the two men. The aforementioned letters start to drag the book a bit, as it seems that irrelevant information is shared between the two writers. The author mentions that the letters stop as soon as Lem and Jack are reunited, and that is when the book becomes enjoyable again. Pitts description of Jack and Lem during the White House years is brief, but filled with a few funny stories, and the revelation that Lem had his own room at 1600 Penn Ave.
As soon as Jack dies in Dallas, Pitts claims that a bit of Lem dies too, and the story once again fizzles out a bit. As Lem struggles to find himself a place in the Kennedy clan, he mistakenly gets involved with some of the offspring on a booze and drugs juggernaut which really saddened me towards Lem, no matter how truthful it was. I guess I just preferred to see him engaging in pranks with Jack, or gossiping wih Jackie instead. Pitts chapter on the gay rights movement in general was ineresting, but seemed like an odd "add-in" to the book to make it longer. Perhaps that chapter would have better worked blended into the rest of the story, rather than as a stand alone.
Overall, Jack and Lem is an uneven book, but one that I think I will ultimately appreciate. The fact that JFK had a gay best friend, and the fact that he didn't give a hoot about it, is a resonating message that carries strongly today.
Yes, I'm a little cynical after reading this book. It is remarkable that from the 1930s on someone like JFK (Catholic, image-conscious, arguably a bit too interested in sleeping with every attractive woman he met) could sustain and value a friendship with a gay man. I didn't assume that JFK would have thrown over anyone who could potentially be a liability or who just wouldn't help him get what he wanted, but the depth of the friendship does present JFK in an interesting light.
It's not an exactly untold story. I've read one other book about the Kennedys and Lemoyne Billings was a major source and character in that book. He wasn't exactly outed in it but it didn't take much reading between the lines to understand that he was gay. Pitts does offer new details about the start of the friendship but his focus is on JFK all the way.
Which was quite frustrating for me. Sure, JFK was a congressman, a senator and then president and that's interesting stuff but could Pitts have spared more than a single paragraph about Billings' job? He had one. He was in advertising for decades but he might as well spent the entire time delivering newspapers for all the attention Pitts gives his job. Nor do we get a sense of Billings' romantic life. Was he in a relationship at any time? Or was he required to be the house eunuch to keep his room at the White House?
Worst, when JFK is assassinated we don't get the story from Lem's perspective we get it pretty much as any American alive at the time would have found out, from television reports. His best friend is murdered and Pitts gives us nothing to understand what it meant to Lem. We just read that the next few years were tough for him. Maybe he lost himself in his work and Pitts didn't want to bore us with the details.
Suddenly it's 1970 and don'tcha know, things have changed for gay men. Will wonders never cease! A whole chapter on how things have changed. Except Lem wasn't exactly throwing the first rock at Stone Wall so ... what did it mean for him? Did he come out to his colleagues at work? Did he move in with the love of his life? Did he wear louder ties? You won't find out here.
Nor will you find out the details of Lem's descent into drug and alcohol addiction. Was Lem already an alcoholic before he started spending significant amounts of time with the younger generation of Kennedys? Did he lead tragic David Kennedy astray in a misguided attempt to recreate his lost friendship with JFK? Did they lead him astray? Was it more complicated than that? Pitts just mentions the "problem" in one line and that's it.
In short, you won't find out much about Lem Billings. This is not a joint biography and that's a shame, in my opinion. There was a real opportunity here to contrast the lives of these two different yet similar men but Pitts gives Billings short shrift every time. If you want to learn a bit more about Lem Billings, read The Kennedys by Peter Collier. It's the book that inspired me to read this one. It's not exactly a sympathetic portrait of Billings but it's far more indepth.
Due to my age, I don't have first hand remembrances of Jack Kennedy - his life or presidency. I was a good student so I do have a learned historical perspective. Also, I am politically aware and involved so Teddy is a presence and Jackie was too.
While I was familiar with many of the events of Jack's life through other reading, David Pitts made these seem new (I guess seeing them through different eyes - Lem's) and helped keep my interest. I thought Lem was presented as a compelling character. His devotion to Jack was very moving and important to reveal. I don't think the friendship could have continued for 30 years if Jack hadn't had a similar regard for Lem. I think the theory was proved that Jack had great character in keeping Lem as a friend. And Lem had every right to make that claim too.
I know there have been questions about a biography of a behind the scenes individual. Since we cannot all be the great one, the one on whom the spotlight shines, I find it helpful to know who is (was) in the background. David Pitts performed a valuable service researching this book - the letters between Jack and Lem reflect on Jack as much as Lem.
Obviously, not every fact or event can be included in any one work. While there seems to be a long-standing rapport between Lem and Rose Kennedy, the limited references to her (absent during Jack's illness while he was a Choate and not attending Kathleen's (Kick's) funeral) make me wonder whether Lem liked her.
There appears to be an error on page 116. The photo credit is 1945, but the pages that precede the photo indicate that Lem went to the South Pacific in 1944 and while the war ended in 1945, it wouldn't be until 1946 that Lem was able to return home. He could not have been in Palm Beach in 1945.
There are a few instances of David Pitts using his authorship to editorialize. These appear in parenthesis. As a resident of D.C., I agree with one of these (the District of Columbia is without full representation). Another is a reference to Tony Blair, (as the current prime minister). These parenthetical statements are temporal so if we - when we - get representation and a different person holds elected office they will date the book. Instead of editorializing, it would have been reasonable to stick to the facts only.
Jack and Lem included some very touching recollections of these two men's lives, separate and together, and made me think about and better understand life in another time. I found "The Sea Change (1933 vs 1973)," the penultimate chapter, very interesting. I have sometimes wondered how much earlier I would needed to have been born to not feel comfortable today as a gay man. Most of my adult life I have been out to my family, co-workers, and neighbors. I'm also not confusing comfort with safety. I'm not naïve. Far too frequently there are press reports of hate and violence against not just gay people (the nooses of late are appalling). But not from the people I am fortunate to be surrounded in my world. I owe much to people in the generations before my own who "fought" for acceptance that I now enjoy. Again, my age limits my first-hand knowledge of events of 1969 and before. I'm grateful for the placement of this concise chapter that provides context to Lem's life and times.
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