This month, on May 29, JFK would have celebrated his 101st birthday. To commemorate the life of one of the most iconic US presidents, let’s revisit his life through the lens of his friendship with Kirk LeMoyne “Lem” Billings, a gay man who ended up having his own room at the White House. Lem met John F. Kennedy at Choate, a prep school in Connecticut, when Lem was 16 and JFK was 15. The two became best friends almost instantly and became inseparable: writing letters to each other when they were away from prep school, traveling to Europe together, becoming roommates their senior year. Lem even took care of JFK through several illnesses during this time.
JFK’s strongest emotional attachments were to men — and principally, to Lem.
So it’s not surprising that JFK (or Jack, as he was know by family and close friends) considered Lem a part of the family. His father, Joseph Kennedy Sr., thought of Lem as another son. As adults, Lem even became a part-time resident of the White House. He would accompany Jack on foreign trips whenever Jackie Kennedy wasn’t up for it. In fact, Lem was with JFK when he delivered his now-famous “Ich Bin ein Berliner” speech in West Berlin.
After prep school, Lem went to Princeton and Harvard Business School. He was an advertising executive in New York City before going on to work for JFK’s successful presidential campaign. His friendship with John F. Kennedy lasted 30 years, up until the tragic assassination in 1963. As a testament to their lasting love, JFK was buried with a friendship namesake: a whale scrimshaw which was a gift from Lem.
According to David Pitts, author of Jack and Lem: The Untold Story of an Extraordinary Friendship, JFK found out about Lem’s sexual orientation early on, but that didn’t deter him from remaining friends.
During prep school, Lem began harboring feelings for Jack. It was a tradition at Choate for boys who wanted to hook up with other boys to confess their feelings by writing them on toilet paper (easily discarded to avoid a paper trail). When Lem confessed how he felt, JFK responded matter-of-fact: “Please don’t write to me on toilet paper anymore. I am not that kind of boy.”
Pitts wrote the book using letters and documents granted to him by Robert Kennedy. In an interview with Kenneth Hill, he elaborates about the intense – although non-sexual – relationship between the two men:
“I’m firmly convinced after working on this book that John Kennedy’s sexual interests were in women. We don’t need much evidence of that, the evidence is all over the place,” Pitts said. “But his strongest emotional attachments were to men — and principally, to Lem. We don’t have a word for that, right? Somebody who prefers the opposite gender for sexuality, and the same gender for deep, emotional attachments.”
There’s no question that Lem felt the same way. In one of the documents Pitts obtained, Lem wrote: “Jack made a big difference in my life. Because of him, I was never lonely. He may have been the reason I never got married.”