By Claire Bond Potter
President John F. Kennedy was famous for his vivid, and some might say almost compulsive, heterosexuality. But straight men can have a gay side, and JFK’s life was filled with prominent gay men. At least one of them, Kirk LeMoyne “Lem” Billings, was one of Jack’s body men and lived part-time in the White House. Billings was so much a part of the extended Kennedy clan that he was regularly included in family gatherings, and Attorney General Robert “Bobby” Kennedy named his son Michael LeMoyne Kennedy.
This queer perspective is not readily visible in President Kennedy’s official history. Pictures of JFK’s family, widely distributed before and after his death, show him as a conventional, heterosexual family man. One famous shot shows the toddler John, Jr., who would also die tragically young, playing peek-a-boo under the desk. Another photo shows older daughter Caroline, now the American Ambassador to Japan, on her pony. In a third, the President is walking on the beach with Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, later Onassis, grieving the death of their premature son Patrick. A Catholic couple, the Kennedys hoped for more children: Jack had been one of nine, while Bobby and Ethel Kennedy had eleven.
Lem Billings may have been present for, but just outside the frame, of these pictures. Born in 1916, he was the son of a Pittsburgh doctor. A crew jock, he met Jack at Choate, a boys’ boarding school, in Wallingford, Connecticut (it is now co-ed). The two became friends, then roommates. We might even call it a romantic friendship. Between 1933 and 1935, “The bond between Jack and Lem grew so tight,” journalist David Pitts wrote in Jack and Lem (2008), “that they really had no need for friendships with other boys.”
Lem never really left Jack’s orbit after boarding school. The pair matriculated at Princeton together in the fall of 1935, although Jack had to withdraw for health reasons (probably early signs of Addison’s disease). Kennedy later graduated from Harvard, but the pair wrote letters back and forth, spent weekends together in New York and traveled to Germany, in the summer of 1937.
Were they sexually intimate as well? Billings once admitted that he made a pass at Jack early on; he claimed he was rebuffed, and according to Pitts, it was then that the pair really became close and decided to share a room. However, an earlier book by Hollywood writer Lawrence Quirk alleges that Billings was not rebuffed. Jack and Lem, as a reviewer for The New York Daily News put it in 1996, “engaged in the kind of sexual experimentation not unknown at all-boys boarding schools.”
Pitts was either unable to verify this, or unwilling to publish it, having been given special access to the Billings papers by Robert Kennedy, Jr. However he quotes Billings as having admitted that he may have been in love with Kennedy his whole life. Although JFK embarked on his vigorously heterosexual adventures as a very young man and Billings remained focused on an erotic life with men, they remained intimate in part by managing Jack’s sex life, his career, and his family, together. In addition to his bisexual brother in law, actor Peter Lawford, and Lem Billings, Gore Vidal, a relative of Jackie’s by marriage, was a frequent visitor to their home. Vidal was unabashedly out of the closet, and the author of a best-selling gay World War II novel, at a time when most queer books were ruled obscene and evidence of homosexual acts could bring a prison term.