In Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Lem Billings saw a combination of both Jack and Robert Kennedy. Billings, best friend to President Kennedy, strongly felt that RFK Jr. had presidential potential, even when Bobby Jr. was only a young man of 14.
So writes author David Pitts in Jack and Lem – The Untold Story of an Extraordinary Friendship. This new book explores the 30 year friendship between President John F. Kennedy and Kirk LeMoyne “Lem” Billings.
From the time they first met the Choate School for boys in 1933 until that fateful day in Dallas in 1963, Jack and Lem always remained best friends.
And yet so little is known about Lem Billings in the larger context of Jack Kennedy’s life. He is sometimes portrayed as a relatively minor figure in the various JFK biographies since he never served in any official capacity at the White House, was never an Ambassador, Senator, or elected representative. He wasn’t a movie star, sports hero, or anybody the paparazzi would particularly want to chase around. His only claim to fame was that he was Jack Kennedy’s oldest and dearest friend.
History has often overlooked him, but the fact is that Lem was the one person Jack confided his deepest secrets to, the man who knew JFK better than anyone in the world. That in itself should make him a fascinating subject for biographers, and I’ve often wondered why we didn’t yet have a book on the shelf about this man whose company Jack obviously never tired of.
There are probably two reasons: First, Lem Billings was gay. This was known to JFK from the time the boys were teens, and it is truly remarkable to read how open-minded and accepting of Billings’ sexual orientation Kennedy was in a very homophobic 1930s American society.
Again, this seems a subject ripe for further exploration by historians, but one only has to remember the social and political climate of 20, 40, 60 years ago to realize why Lem Billings had to stay hidden in the closet – and in the shadows of history. Only in the year 2007 can we finally have a book that is a frank and honest examination of the President’s close friendship with a man who was a homosexual.
THIS STORY COULD NOT HAVE BEEN TOLD WITHOUT RFK JR.
Another reason it has taken so long for such a book to be written is that an 815-page oral history Billings (who died in 1981) gave to the John F. Kennedy Library in 1966 has been restricted to researchers for four decades. It was only with the kind permission of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. that Jack and Lem author David Pitts was allowed to access and quote from this invaluable document.
RFK Jr. also allowed Pitts unrestricted access to the Lem Billings Collection, donated to the JFK library in 2003. Now we can finally gain an understanding of the deep bond between these two men through Lem’s diaries, letters, photographs and scrapbooks which document 30 years of love, laughter and tears.
“Together, they really had everything,” says Robert F. Kennedy Jr. in the book’s first chapter. “They loved each other and they got satisfaction out of the successes that each of them enjoyed.” For Billings, who had built his whole world around Jack Kennedy since they were both boys, the loss of his best friend was more devastating than most of us could ever imagine.
Billings was by all accounts never the same after that day in Dallas. And then just five years later, the assassination of Robert Kennedy drove Lem into a deepening state of depression, which he tried to combat by making himself a sort of surrogate father to the children Jack and Bobby had left behind.
“LEM AND I WERE ALWAYS FRIENDS” – RFK JR.
On the night of June 4, 1968, Ethel Kennedy had been by her husband’s side at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles when he was shot. At the time, the children were back in Virginia at Hickory Hill or scattered around New England at their various boarding schools. Lem did his best to help in the hours following the shooting, gathering Bobby and Ethel’s kids together for the sad, inevitable journey to California.
He felt he had to be especially strong for young Bobby Jr., who had always been his favorite. Lem tried to console Bobby, Joe and Kathleen on the flight to L.A. on a private plane provided by Lyndon Johnson, but their hopes were soon dashed when they arrived at the hospital and saw just how dire the situation truly was. Within a few short hours, Robert F. Kennedy was gone.
Lem started spending more time with the children, especially Bobby Jr. Determined to take him under his wing, the time he spent with young Bobby during those crucial months after his father’s assassination was likely as theraputic for Lem as it was for Bobby Jr.
In the late summer of 1968, Lem took Bobby on a trip of Africa, where the young Kennedy could revel in his lifelong love for animals. By all accounts, the two bonded on their African adventure. When they returned to the United States, young Bobby began spending a lot of time in Lem’s Upper East Side Apartment. Lem mentored Bobby, helped him with his problems in school, and reassured him by telling him that he and Jack had their troubles when they were young, too, and had once been viewed as rebels by their families and teachers.
“He helped Bobby a great deal during that terrible time and in the years after that,” said singer Andy Williams, a close family friend. “He was very good with Bobby.”
Young Bobby and the other kids loved being around him. He wasn’t as strict as their own family, and he regaled them with stories of Jack and Bobby only he could tell. “Lem was the most fun person I had ever met in my life,” said Bobby Jr. “Lem’s house was more like a fun house; it was a museum, a library, a classroom. Books lined the walls throughout. They were all histories, biographies, and art books.”
Recalling Lem ten years after his death, Bobby added, “Whenever I felt lonely, or sad, or left out, I would call Lem and laugh.”
“The stories he told and the examples he set gave us all a link to our dead fathers and to the generation before us,” says Robert F. Kennedy Jr. While older members of the Kennedy family often found the subject too sad to discuss, Lem felt that the older generation had an obligation to pass on the legacy to the younger Kennedys. For the Kennedy boys, Lem was filling a void their parents either couldn’t or wouldn’t fill, according to the author.
There was never any doubt amongst the children that Bobby Jr. was number one in Lem’s heart. David Kennedy and Christopher Lawford sometimes resented all the attention showered upon Bobby, and both spent many years trying to compete for Lem’s affection. Despite this, none of them seem to harbor any such negative feelings towards Billings or RFK Jr. today.
“BOBBY JR. HAS IT IN HIM TO BE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES”
“He did an incredible amount for young Bobby,” recalls Sigrid Gassner-Roberts, Lem’s live-in caretaker and friend from 1969 to 1974. Interviewed for this book, she was particularly outspoken about his concern for Bobby Jr.’s welfare, especially in the year after his father’s death. “He (Lem) would say Bobby has it in him to be president of the United States. He wanted to groom him for the presidency.”
Lem transferred a lot of his feelings for President Kennedy to young Bobby, Sigrid said. He saw so much of Jack in him. She remembered on one occasion, “Bobby ran away from college and joined a commune. Lem searched all night for him…Eventually, he came back at ten the next morning and said, `He’s now back in school.’ He was totally, totally devoted to that kid.”
Young Bobby Jr. turned to drugs and alcohol for a time to ease the pain of losing his father. While Lem tried to help the troubled teen, he too had fallen victim to the lure of intoxicants in the aftermath of the string of tragedies that seemed without end. Sigrid remembered that Lem would sometimes make deals with Bobby. “I’ll stop drinking if you’ll stop smoking pot,” and kept to them for as long as he could before his resolve would wilt again.
Since Lem was a good thirty years older than the Kennedy kids, he has been blamed by some for their involvement with drugs. But the truth is, as Chris Lawford confirmed in his recent book, the kids were doing drugs before they ever did them with Lem and almost certainly would have continued doing so whether Lem was there or not. It was the `60s, after all, and in actual fact it was the kids who turned Lem on to drugs, not the other way around.In this respect, Chris and Bobby were no different from millions of other young Americans during this period who regarded drug use as a rite of passage.
LEM KNEW BOBBY WAS THE NEXT BEARER OF KENNEDY GREATNESS
By 1975, young Bobby had grown into an impressively intelligent, handsome young man and was now clearly the leader of the Kennedy/Billings inner circle. Lem once again found himself playing the role of Bobby’s number-one supporter, just as he always had with Jack. Bobby “got a lot of magnetism from Lem’s fixation,” said Chris Lawford. “Lem had decided that Bobby was the next bearer of Kennedy greatness – and none of us were about to argue. These facts gave him gravitas. Lem’s attachment and anointing of Bobby defined him as the second coming.”
One might be tempted to think that all this fawning and adoration may well have resulted in overinflating Bobby’s ego or given him a sense of entitlement and arrogance. But those who knew Bobby Jr. then say that Lem’s influence over him actually made him more down-to-earth and humble, in spite of all the pressures put upon him to carry the Kennedy torch.
RFK Jr. summed it up years later by saying that Lem “taught me to love and appreciate people and things and how to be grateful for every day of my life.”
In the last few years of his life, Lem Billings did not talk as much about Jack Kennedy as he used to. At that point, says Sigrid Gassner-Roberts, “he was more concerned with Bobby and whether or not Bobby was doing all right, whether he was making the right decisions, who he was dating, where he was going with his life.”
Lem began spending more time alone in his Manhattan townhouse, which had once been such a lively beehive of activity and was still an informal JFK museum of sorts. He still had his memorabilia and his memories of those years, but nothing could fill the void that had been left by Jack’s absence. Each day was a day without him. In so many ways, his attachment to Jack’s brother Robert Kennedy, and then to young Bobby, was a way of reliving his life with Jack, because he saw so much of Jack in them.
“There was a lot of love in him that he bestowed on many people,” Sigrid said of Lem Billings, “but the one person he loved most was torn away from him by an assassin’s bullet. He transferred this love on to Bobby.”
“He was overjoyed with, and totally devoted to, young Bobby, whom he expected to carry on the torch of the Kennedys,” Sigrid wrote in a letter to the author David Pitts.
At Lem’s funeral in 1981, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. said of Lem: “He felt pain for every one of us – pain that no one else could have the courage to feel…I don’t know how we’ll carry on without him. In many ways Lem was a father to me and he was the best friend I will ever have.”
Copyright 2007 by RFKin2008.com. All Rights Reserved.