Wednesday, June 27

Jack and Lem Book Review

When the records and accounts of John F. Kennedy are read, a certain individual by the name of Lem Billings is mentioned and that is where it ends. Some biographies just describe him as JFK's childhood friend from Choate (high school) and ends at that. But he was actually there in the White House until Jack (how he is called throughout the book) died. It is rarely known or even publicly knowledged that Kirk LeMoyne Billings (Lem's full name) was gay. Well the word 'gay' is thrown around a lot, I find the word 'homosexual' too medical but in the end, he wasn't really out of the closet. This all comes from the book Jack and Lem by David Pitts. David Pitts was crazy about Jack and kept coming across Lem's name and did some more research and this book developed.

Saying Jack and Lem were best friends doesn't give their relationship justice, the author and I agree that they were life partners, not in a sexual manner but they were always there for each other. Lem was Jack's number #1 go-to guy and Jack was pretty much the love of Lem's life. They met in the 30's as teenagers in an all boy school. And as commonly known among gay men, straight boys will play around and would jack off in front of each other or have a masturbation circle. Now, the book details about a ritual if one boy wanted to engage with another boy, he would write a note on toilet paper because it is so easily disposable. Such a note from Lem to Jack existed and briefly mentioned by Jack in a letter to Lem, basically a off-the-collar rejection. No one knows what was written on the toilet paper but those two.

Lem was an attractive individual when he was young but Jack ripped on him about his looks and how women weren't interested in him. The author Pitts deduces that Jack did know Lem was gay and accepted and still want to be his friend. Lem frequently spent time at the Kennedy estates to the point that Teddy Kennedy realized he wasn't his older brother until he was three years old. Jack's parents considered Lem like a son and often wrote recommendation letters for him. After Jack's death, Lem became close to Jack's brother Robert, they weren't as close as he was with Jack but Robert's death did effect him. Lem still stayed close to the Kennedys. Lem had a squeaky voice and always made people laugh with his sardonic humor. With a high pressure family like the Kennedys where when an older son died, the next son felt it was his duty to fulfill the political dream (which was thrust upon not only on Robert but on Jack after Joseph died in 1944)--the Kennedys relaxed with Lem. Lem kept their mind off things. Especially for Jackie and Jack in the White House, they enjoyed having him around.

Lem had his own room in the White House. The guards and secret service knew who he was and he had no pass the whole time he was there. Some people thought he was secret service. After Jack and Robert died, Lem put it on himself to educate the young Kennedys about Jack and Robert, because the older Kennedys felt talking about them when they were alive was too sad. Lem even took Bobby Jr. under his wing for a while. The Wikipedia article is just a few sentences and it does mention Jackie didn't want Lem around at the kids in the end because he was an alcoholic. The book doesn't mention this but it does mention that Lem did get depend on alcohol because he was depressed and heartbroken. Jackie and Lem's relationship was love and hate, sometimes they didn't get along but they got along because of their love for Jack. It is also little known that Lem was the one to encourage Jackie to refurnish the White House.

The book gets a bit repetitive, redundant if you will but it is a sweet fascinating story. I admit I was expecting a little bit more about Lem's personal life but it happens that he was very discreet. Advocate Magazine, in which I learned about the book, believes Lem was sort of protected within the silence regarding gay people, because no one questioned the President if his best friend and constant companion was gay, they probably speculated but never mentioned it. The most sexual encounters that are mentioned are JFK's, his constant womanizing and various ladies. Curiously, Marilyn Monroe is not mentioned in the book. In the early days, Jack would send Lem to fetch his women and in some cases, break up with them for him. I never was really interested in Jack before this book and learned a lot about him. I had no idea how rebellious he was. Lem and Jack were considered rebellious in Choate as they were part of a group referred to as 'The Muckers." Maybe in a nerdy way, Jack's act of rebellion was to sneak into Germany when no American could.

The book does mentioned some men Lem was probably with, but no real details. There is one chapter that details about being gay in America, basic stuff I know about Stonewall; and how Lem did think about what impact it would be if he came out, being close to the Kennedys and all. He really wasn't a public figure, till today not many knew he was Jack's close friend. But back then, it might have made waves if people found out that the President's best friend was gay and had his own room in the White House. The chapter on gay life sort of makes up for the lack of mentioning of it in the middle of the book. The author is very open minded and handles the subjects of gender, sexual orientation and identity with dignity and respect. Lem died in 1981 of an heart attack at home and some believe his heart had been broken for a long time. Many personal friends said he was heart broken after Jack died, even more after Robert did. Lem's dying wish was for his casket to be carried and lowered in the plot by the Kennedy boys. When they arrived to the cemetery, they found the casket already in place. So to honor his memory, they took it out, took it around and then lowered in the plot. Jack and Lem's relationship wasn't scandalous or anything, but dependent. How Pitts eloquently puts it, theirs was a life partnership but not sexual. I think it shows how a great man Jack was, that his close friend was gay and he didn't matter to him.