Lem Billings: John F. Kennedy's Best Friend

By Felice Prager
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Depending upon whose version you read, Lem Billings was either John F. Kennedy's best friend, JFK's gay best friend, Jackie Kennedy's interior decorator, a permanent houseguest at the Kennedy compound and the White House during the JFK administration, the inventor of Fizzies, and either a positive or negative influence on the Kennedy children after John and Bobby's assassinations. Regardless of the version, he was an interesting man with an interesting connection to our 35th President. Yet, among the volumes written about Kennedy, very little information is available about his friendship with Lem Billings.

In the recently released book, Jack and Lem: The Untold Story of an Extraordinary Friendship written by David Pitts and released in May of 2007, some additional information was touched upon based upon 140 letters between Lem Billings and Jack Kennedy. This unusual Presidential biography does not attempt to retell JFK's war efforts, foreign policy, political history, or another conspiracy surrounding his assassination. Instead, it tells the story of Jack Kennedy's childhood, his poor and often life-threatening health, his promiscuity, and mostly, his lifelong relationship with his best friend, Lem Billings.

Kirk LeMoyne "Lem" Billings was born on April 16, 1916, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to Federic Tremaine Billings, a prominent physician and Romaine LeMoyne, a direct descendant of John LeMoyne and Dr. Francis LeMoyne. John LeMoyne was a French physician, and Dr. Francis LeMoyne was an abolitionist who established the African-American LeMoyne Owen College. The family can be traced back to the arrival of the Mayflower. Lem's father died in 1933. This placed strains on the Billings family's finances.

Lem and Jack Kennedy first met at Choate in 1933 when Lem was 17 and Jack was 16. Choate School for Boys (it was not co-ed at the time Jack and Lem attended) is an exclusive New England preparatory boarding school for students in grades 9-12. It is located in Wallingford, Connecticut, fifteen miles north of New Haven. (Other famous alumni of Choate include Adlai Stevenson, Michael Douglas, Paul Giamatti, Buck Henry, Alan J. Lerner, Ivanka Trump, Ali MacGraw, Edward Albee, Chester Bowles, Glenn Close, Jamie Lee Curtis, Bruce Dern, John Dos Passos, and Joseph Kennedy.) According to most accounts, Jack and Lem became fast friends, drawn to each other by their mutual distaste for Choate and its headmaster and a contagious sense of humor.

According to David Pitts, Lem Billings was like another Kennedy child in the home with so many offspring. He was close to the Kennedy children and spent most holidays with the Kennedy family. Pitts quotes Ted Kennedy, "I was three years old before it dawned on me that Lem wasn't one more older brother. So often did Lem come home with Jack that he kept more clothes in the closet than Jack did." Pitts also makes it a point to highlight Jack Kennedy's heterosexuality and promiscuity while simultaneously accounting for Lem Billings' failed attempts at heterosexual relationships.

Homosexuality was taboo at that time, a subject ignored rather than discussed, and Pitts indicates in his book that Jack Kennedy knew of Billings' sexuality but it was his personality that inspired the lasting friendship.

Jack and Lem both attended Princeton University until Kennedy withdrew for medical reasons. Lem and Jack traveled through Europe prior to World War II. They even adopted a dachshund together which they named Dunker, though they had to give him up because of Jack's allergies. When Pearl Harbor was attacked, Jack and Lem both tried to enlist, but were both declined, Jack because of health reasons and Lem because of his extremely poor eyesight. In 1942, Lem joined the Ambulance Corps, an organization that had no problems with his eyesight. He saw action in North Africa. He later received a commission in the U.S. Naval Reserve and served in the South Pacific. He was eventually discharged in 1946. From 1946 to 1948, Lem attended Harvard Business School.

Over the years, Lem held several jobs including selling Coca-Cola dispensers to drugstores, working at a General Shoe store, becoming the vice president of the Emerson Drug Company, and as an advertising executive at the Manhattan advertising firm, Lennen & Newell. He is responsible for inventing the 1950s candy/drink, Fizzies, for the Emerson Drug Company; this came from an idea he had to add a fruit flavor to disguise the sodium citrate taste of Bromo-Seltzer, one of Emerson's successful products.

Lem worked for Jack in the West Virginia and Wisconsin primaries and helped gather delegates at the Democratic convention in Los Angeles when he was running for President. During the Kennedy Administration, Lem Billings had his own room in the White House. It is said that he also advised Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in her redecoration of the White House.

When JFK was assassinated in Dallas, Lem was in New York City. When Bobby Kennedy, whom Lem was also close to, died, it is said that Lem became exceedingly depressed. Rumor states that Billings began to drink heavily after this. Billings maintained close ties to the Kennedys and their children through his life. The older Kennedys made it clear that the younger Kennedys (Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., David Kennedy, and Christopher Lawford, to be specific) should stop keeping company with Billings. They felt that he drank and used recreational drugs too much. Regardless, Lem was like a father to Bobby Jr. after his father's assassination.

Lem Billings died in his sleep following a heart attack on May 28, 1981. Lem's dying wish was for the young Kennedy men to carry his coffin, but when the Kennedy men arrived at the cemetery, the casket was already in place, ready to be lowered. The young Kennedys retrieved the coffin from its position and carried it around the gravesite before returning it to the burial plot.

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